Like many of us I prefer the sayings of Jesus that are all about love and peace and joy, all about acceptance and inclusion. I like images of family and church as places of loving relationship, so what does Jesus mean by “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.”? There is no easy way to gloss over the texts this week: they are scandalously harsh and dangerous words and they deserve to be taken seriously (RCL Jeremiah 18:1-11; Psalm 139; Philemon; Luke 14:25-37). Time to take courage and dig deep.
The texts this week are jarring to most of us. Images of being shaped and reshaped by another’s will, even divine will, does not sit comfortably. And as for hating our brothers and sisters, our parents, surely this is what we are working against! So let us grapple with these texts a while and find where the life is. Remember that I have suggested several times that one model for engaging with biblical text is to consider: behind the text; the text itself; and in front of the text.
Well, firstly, to go behind the text. What was happening in Jesus’ day and at the time that this gospel was being written? What was the context in which these words were spoken and heard? At this point in his ministry Jesus had turned his face toward Jerusalem and was preparing himself for his passion. As a faithful Jew Jesus already knew that the religious leaders were his strongest critics and that they were antagonistic toward him and that in announcing the kingdom of God he was speaking against the power of Rome. Whether or not he knew the precise detail of what he is in for he would have been becoming aware that it was going to be difficult and maybe he suspected that his disciples were going to find it hard to be faithful. If so his harsh words are not to drive them away but to challenge them to informed commitment.
So what about the faith community to which the gospel of Luke is written? It is thought that this was written at least 70 years into the Common Era, thirty or forty after Jesus’ death. It would seem that it was written after the overthrow of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple, the temple which had taken 70 years to build, was never finished and was then razed until all that remained was the foundational wall that is now referred to as the wailing wall. Israel, which was meant to be a blessing to the nations, had been overturned. The Temple was destroyed in a war in which Israel was destroyed as a nation and remained scattered until 1948 when modern Israel was formed. And so you can see how in Luke’s view these events might all be linked: the failure of most Jews to recognise Jesus as the longed for Messiah and the destruction of the Temple – the symbol of Jewish faith, and the political overthrow and dispersal of the nation.
Secondly what is happening in the text itself? Well there are probably at least three things we want to consider. One is the story line – the context of this story within The Story. In chapter 13 there has been a mixture of parables about the nature of the kingdom of God, healings, and ending in the lament over Jerusalem. And then in chapter 14 we have a literal meal with a Pharisee and some teaching and a parable about eating in ways that are radically inclusive and which overturn traditional values about who is invited and honoured at such gatherings. Then we have this teaching about the cost of discipleship. And in chapter 15 there are three parables each pointing to the infinite value of the lost and the least and of the lengths that God will go to restore the lost to the fold. So these harsh words are the meat in a sandwich of parables about the nature of the kingdom and the lengths God will go to to reach us. Which places words apparently about hate in quite a different light!
The next thing we should do is compare the text with other parts of the text. Let’s begin by comparing how Luke treats this story with how the other gospels, in particular, Matthew, does. In the Greek Matthew and Luke use different words for hate. Matthew uses a word, which means “love less” whereas Luke uses the word for hate! Much stronger and more demanding. In some ways Matthew’s rendering is easier for us to understand. But it is important to consider the words love and hate did not necessarily mean the same thing in Biblical times as they do now. For us these are intensely personal and romantic or domestic words about our feelings. In Biblical times these are the same words that were sometimes used in vassal treaties where the subordinate party was sometimes contracted to love their master and hate their master’s enemies. That is, these were words very much about allegiance and commitment not simply personal feelings. Also the conventions of rhetoric included the use of hyperbole or exaggeration to drive home a point (we see that in some of the large numbers Jesus uses in some of his parables so that we can't miss the point he is making) so when we consider the difference between Luke's account with Matthew's we might consider they are telling the same story with Luke using hyperbole to make even clearer the point Jesus is making.
So how does this teaching on family, and indeed discipleship, contrast with Jesus’ other teachings on family? Jesus certainly upheld the commandment to honour your father and mother in debates with the Pharisees and scribes. The stories of his passion suggest that he maintained a close relationship with his mother. But there are also stories of his denying or distancing his family and stories that suggest they were concerned for his mental wellbeing! And over the last weeks we have heard Jesus frequently call into question all our traditional relationships – with family, with possessions, with beliefs. And certainly in many of the stories of call to discipleship there is a command to follow without going back to finish off other commitments including to family. Family then, more than now for us, was not only about personal belonging but also economic, cultural and religious affiliation and responsibilities. It is very possibly one of the reasons why Jesus and later Paul often said things that cut across these conventional belongings in order to free the follower to belong to a broader and more universal community.
So we come to ourselves in our time, those of us in front of the text. What does all this convoluted reasoning have to do with the issues we face? Well in some ways we have more in common with Luke’s community than our forbears did in the 1950’s. For we too live in a world in which we as Christians are a minority. We too live in a world in which much of our former glory is just that – former! In a very real sense our religion has failed to deliver the blessing to other nations that we were called to. Many of us may feel like exiles in our own land.
And there are the universal themes of the cost of discipleship. Following Christ truly has always cost. Sometimes much more than others. And in some places much more than others. And issues of building and preparing for war are very topical for us in the church and in most Western nations including here in Australia.
So how do we bring all this together? Firstly I think that this text demands that we attend to our relationship with Jesus, with God, and surrender to a journey, a process of becoming and unbecoming, of being formed and reformed in the image of God. Before family, before our attachments, before all that makes us who we are and how we are, we must at some point decide who we are before God and where we stand in relation to Jesus. Who and what in our life is first, is central? And from this decision will flow a way of life, a set of values and priorities that will upset, overturn, re-orientate our relationships with all those people and things we hold dear.
But these words, which use the language of hate, would be indeed hateful, if it were not for the context in which they were spoken. The overarching context is the call to be guest at the ultimate inclusive meal, to be part of the blessing to all. And to be invited by one who so loves us and longs for us that God, like a shepherd, goes looking for us and rejoices at our return.
And we who respond to that call and accept the claim of God upon our lives are called to a life of discipleship and work; to the work of building something far greater than a magnificent Temple that tumbles or to planning a war that cannot be won. We are called to announcing and seeing in the reign of God, the building of the kingdom. And like clay in the potter’s hands we will be formed and reformed by this calling, made and remade in the creator’s image until we are most truly our selves and we live in a world in which all others may also be who they most truly are.
Even so, come Lord Jesus, come work your purposes of love in us and through us so that all may belong.