How Can We Make Sense of Jesus’ Instruction to Hate Our Family?

Daily Reflection / Produced by The High Calling
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“If you want to be my disciple, you must hate everyone else by comparison—your father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even your own life. Otherwise, you cannot be my disciple.”

Luke 14:26

I begin with a couple of confessions. First, I was tempted to avoid this verse altogether. As you know, in these reflections I don’t treat every single verse. So I could have easily skipped Luke 14:26. But, to have done so would have been to dismiss the tugging of the Spirit in my heart.

Second, I find myself wishing that Jesus didn’t say what he did in Luke 14:26. Verses like this are so unsettling. Plus, they’re the sort of thing that opponents of Christian faith trot out to make Jesus look both contradictory and cruel. The one who told us to love our neighbors and even our enemies now wants us to hate our closest relatives. What sense does this make?

In tomorrow’s reflection, I’ll try to answer this question. Today, I want to say a word about how we make sense of Jesus’ teaching. If we’re going to be fair in our reading of Jesus, not to mention if we’re going to discover what God wants to say to us, then we have to be wise interpreters.

This means, among other things, that we recognize when Jesus is speaking hyperbolically. Hyperbole is what we informally call exaggeration. It’s a way of communicating that uses bold overstatement and embellishment. Hyperbole, which was common among teachers in Jesus’ culture, is not meant to be taken literally. If I were to say to you that I’m so hungry I could eat a horse, I would be distressed if you actually slaughtered a horse and prepared it for my dinner. What I meant, in a matter of speaking, was that I was feeling very, very hungry. Similarly, in the case of Jesus, given everything else he said and did, we can be sure that he was speaking hyperbolically when he said that to be his disciple we have to hate our families and even our own lives.

Yet, there is a danger in identifying hyperbole in the teaching of Jesus. It’s the danger of dismissing both his point and his urgency. If we think to ourselves, “Oh, well, Jesus didn’t really mean that,” then we run the risk of utterly missing what he wants us to hear. Here we come to, not a question of interpretation, but rather of the state of our hearts. When we encounter a biblical text that is unsettling to us, are we open to hear what God is really saying? Are we willing to have our comfortable life disturbed by the Word of God? Will we let the hyperbole of Jesus shake us up so that we might be more truly and fully his disciples?

QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: Let me encourage you to consider the last three questions: Are you open? Are you willing? Will you let the hyperbole of Jesus shake you up?

PRAYER: Dear Lord, as you know, I tend to be more of an engineer than a poet. I must confess that part of me wishes you had spoken more like a systematic theologian than a pot-stirring prophet. Sometimes I find your hyperbole to be upsetting.

Of course, that’s part of the point, isn’t it? You want not only to instruct me, but also to stir me up, to create within me a crisis of understanding. You want to break through my defenses and self-serving assumptions. Help me, dear Lord, to be a wise interpreter of your sayings. May I learn to read attentively. May my heart be open to you and your Word, ready to receive even that which unsettles me.

All praise be to you, God of truth, God of poetry. Amen.