Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’
Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions. (Luke 14:25-33 – NRSV)
Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem. Luke has told us of how “he set his face towards Jerusalem” (9:51). The journey will continue until Luke 19:27. In those ten chapters there are a number of hard sayings (eg “leave the dead to bury their dead”(9:60) and “he who is not with me is against me”(11:23)), warnings of judgment (eg “Alas for you Chorazin! Alas for you Bethsaida!” (10:13) and “Watch and be on your guard against avarice of any kind” (12:15)) and a growing eschatological theme (eg “See that you are dressed for action and have your lamps lit!” (12:35) and “try your best to enter by the narrow door” (13:23)).
It is as well to remember that the message of the Kingdom is not really getting through to either the masses or the disciples. The message of a suffering Messiah whose victory will be the cross, is not within the wildest imaginings of any of his hearers. In an effort to break through to them, it is not surprising that Jesus is at times very blunt and even severe.
And we should not forget that in those ten chapters, amidst all the warnings and talk of judgement and the end times, there are two of the greatest, heart-warming stories of all time – the Good Samaritan (10:29-37) and the Prodigal Son (15:11-32).
Most of today’s text is unique to Luke, though we do find some similarities with Matthew.
Joseph Fitzmyer writes of our text: “Jesus’ words to the crowds that accompany him form in this part of Luke’s travel account a connected discourse, which they did not form originally, and set forth three conditions of discipleship, uncompromising demands made of those who would follow him: the willingness to leave family ties, the willingness to face radical self-denial, and the willingness to give up one’s material possessions. In addition, he casts these conditions of discipleship in a demand for serious consideration and no-nonsense, prior deliberation about the costs of such following. The engagement is not to be undertaken lightly.
“The first condition (v. 26) calls for a willingness to put parents, family, relatives, even one’s own life, in subordination to discipleship. In preserving the vb. “hate” from “Q,” Luke presents Jesus’ first condition much more radically than does Matthew; there Jesus speaks of loving him more than parents or children (Matt 10:37). Indeed, the Lucan form has heightened the demand by the addition, “yes, even his own life.” In effect, it asks the Christian disciple how much he/she esteems this Jesus to whom allegiance is being given. “Only the person who is capable of a radical and painful decision, to set all natural, human relations behind the connection with Jesus (cf. 9:59–62; 8:19–21; 11:27–28) and to give up life itself in martyrdom, can really become a disciple of Jesus” (J. Schmid, Evangelium nach Lukas, 247–248).
“The second condition (v. 27) calls for the disciple to carry his/her cross and walk behind Jesus; to carry one’s cross has already been explained in 9:23 as an image of self-denial (see COMMENT on 9:23–27). The Lucan Jesus here makes it one of the three conditions. In its own way it clarifies Luke’s addition to the first condition, the hating of one’s “own life,” for it may even lead to a destiny similar to that which Jesus will face.
The third condition (v. 33) calls for a radical renunciation of all one’s material possessions. It needs no explanation, but one should recall the Lucan theme into which it fits (see pp. 247–251).” .” (Joseph A Fitzmyer, S. J., The Gospel according to Luke X–XXIV: introduction, translation, and notes (Vol. 28A), Yale University Press, 2008,1062.)
“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother ….”: The Greek verb is miseō and it does mean “hate” – this is not a mistranslation. Matthew has a similar text: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me ….” (Matthew 1:37-38). Matthew actually uses the verb to love – phileō – and couches his statement in terms of priorities. One commentator writes: “Matthew’s form has toned down the force of the original (Lucan) saying in the interests of a comparison between the claims of family and of Jesus; Luke retains the hyperbolical form, which is an authentic part of Jesus’ teaching.” (I H Marshall, The Gospel of Luke: a commentary on the Greek text, Paternoster Press, 1978, 592.) And Fitzmyer notes: “R. Bultmann (HST 160) regards the Lucan formulation (“does not hate”) as more original than the Matthean (“loves … more than me”); “for the former could hardly have developed from the latter.” (Fitzmyer, op cit, 1060)
We are reminded of the earlier text of Luke: “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” (12:51-53). And the later text: “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not get back very much more in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.” (Luke 18:29-30)
We cannot interpret such texts – especially the “hatred” text and the “division” text – in a way that contradicts the essential message of Jesus. So what are we to say?
A possible and realistic interpretation is that the crowds are building a false picture of Jesus as the one who is going up to Jerusalem to drive out the Romans. He is at pains to tell them that this is not so, and that true discipleship is something completely different from being part of some kind of political/military triumph. He uses very harsh language to get through to them. In which case the “hatred” asked by Jesus is really the willingness to prefer discipleship to family loyalty – a very dramatic choice for his audience. One commentator writes: “Jesus confronts them directly with the real demands of ‘accompanying’ him on his journey. They must renounce everything (be it family or their own lives) in order to be his disciples. Jesus is not literally demanding ‘hatred’ of family and self. The Semitic mind, and the African as well, can only entertain two extremes: truth and falsehood, love and hate, light and darkness The present passage likewise reflects no middle ground between the extremes of loving or hating one’s family and oneself. Discipleship demands deliberate and total commitment.” (Samuel Oyin Abogunrin, “Luke” in William R Farmer, editor, The International Bible Commentary, The Liturgical Press, 1998, 1369.)
For which of you, intending to build a tower ……: Two parables follow that emphasize the need for wholehearted and thoughtful commitment. Half-hearted or thoughtless commitment is going to get you into all sorts of strife.
“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple …” Any reasonable person, surely, is quite rightly repelled by the thought of hating anyone, let alone their parents. Can we imagine Jesus hating his mother and father? On the face of it, the statement flies in the face of everything Jesus stands for. See for example the commandment to love in Luke 10:25-28. How are we to understand this?
In the first place, we must note the principle of interpretation of any substantial text, that one word or phrase or sentence cannot be interpreted in a way that contradicts the whole text. We cannot interpret Jesus’ words here to mean the opposite of love.
In the second place, we must note the principle that every text has a context. The context here is a growing and totally unrealistic expectation that Jesus will restore the Davidic kingdom. This movement culminates in the ‘triumphal’ entry into Jerusalem – see Luke 19:28-38. We who know of the resurrection see in this moment the ‘suffering servant’ Messiah of Isaiah, not the Davidic king. Jesus’ audience is thinking otherwise and they are very excited about it. He must cut through this enthusiasm and extravagant expectation. Ordinary language is not enough. He must be very blunt, even severe, in communicating the truth.
In the third place we need to make a distinction. Love is a choice not a feeling. The opposite of love is a counter-choice called ‘hate’. But there feelings – or clusters of feelings – we can also call ‘love’ and ‘hate’. Is Jesus calling for that counter-choice or is he recognizing the common human phenomenon of spontaneous feelings?
Deep and sometimes intense feelings tie us to our parents and families. The journey towards becoming who we are can provoke similarly intense counter-feelings. We need to break free! Anxiety and fear can prevent us facing these counter-feelings that may be called ‘hate’. Thus we may never grow up.
Flannery O’Connor’s remarks about writing are relevant: “St Cyril of Jerusalem, in instructing catechumens, wrote: ‘The dragon sits by the side of the road, watching those who pass. Beware, lest he devour you. We go to the Father of Souls, but it is necessary to pass by the dragon.’ No matter what form the dragon may take, it is of this mysterious passage past him, or into his jaws, that stories of any depth will be concerned to tell, and this being the case, it requires considerable courage at any time, in any country, not to turn away from the storyteller.” (Flannery O’Connor, “The fiction Writer and His Country,” in Mystery and Manners, Occasional Prose selected and edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1993/1969, 35.)