If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sister, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.
This seems a shocking thing for Jesus Christ to say. Firstly because he comes to show us God as a Father who created us, loves us and wants us to share his life, and who, in order to keep us with him, will forgive all that we do. Secondly, because this idea of hating father, mother, wife, children, brothers, and sisters seems a sin against human nature, with all its love and natural loyalties within the family, which is the most important unit of society. After all, Jesus himself said that the law should be summed up as loving God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our might, and loving our neighbour as ourself. Surely he cannot mean that we should love our neighbour and not those to whom we are bound by the highest calls of sacred duty? It is against the 5th. Commandment. And remember, too, that Jesus spoke against those people who had vowed to give God a sum of money which they later discovered could have been used to help their parents in need, and were not free to give that help because the money had been vowed for religious purposes. He expresses his anger at such behaviour in Mark 7:11.
So what does he mean?
In this chapter Jesus is talking about the cost of discipleship. We cannot be half-hearted in our response to his call - if salt has lost its savour, it is fit neither for the land nor for the dunghill. It must be thrown away. (v.35) This is a violent, radical way of speaking in order to bring home to his hearers the seriousness of what he is saying.
The language he was speaking (Aramaic) is using an exaggeration here to stress that any one who stands in the way of complete commitment to Jesus, even our closest relations, must be renounced. "Hate" in this sense means "prefer less". It is as radical as 9:23: If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily and follow me. We can see the same idea in Deuteronomy 21.15, where two wives are mentioned, the one "loved" and the other "disliked". The meaning is that if one loves one less that the other, it is wrong to discriminate against her children in the inheritance coming to them. Loving one wife less is translated by "disliked" or even "hated".
It is certainly true, however, that a person might be so caught up with family ties that they might have no time or interest for matters of even greater importance. The love of family can become a form of self love, a sort of selfishness that ignores truth and justice outside the family. It may be a shocking idea to "hate" your close relations, but Jesus said this to shock people into realising the supreme and overriding demands of loyalty to God.
This meaning becomes clear in Matthew 10:37, where Jesus says, He who loves father or mother ore than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.
One's family, therefore, must take second place to the kingdom of God. This comes out clearly in Mark 10:29-30: Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brotheres or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands.
Later in the New Testament period we see in the Bible that family life was acknowledged as the norm for Christians: If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his own family, he has disowned the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. (1 Timothy 5:8) This is a natural virtue. Jesus, however, wanted to use the most challenging language to make it clear that God and the demands of the Gospel must be placed first in all things, even in the family.
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The Hard Sayings of Jesus copyright © 2004 Fr. Francis Jamieson.