“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.” Cool. Cool cool cool cool cool. This is one of the trickiest texts in the Gospels. Not because it’s general point is so hard to get. Jesus is saying the our calling from God is the deepest and most insistent thing in our lives. But because it’s put in such a confrontational way. Hating your parents and family because you love God. That doesn’t follow logically, and Jesus’ own affection for people in his life should tip you off that he is exaggerating for rhetorical effect.
So let’s try thinking of this passage as a reiteration of the summary of the law. That’s the famous passage where Jesus is asked what is the greatest commandment, and he replies “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, and with all your soul.” That’s pretty clear, and then Jesus says, “The second is like unto it; you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments, Jesus says, hang all the law and the prophets. This is the algorithm that generates everything else.
But there’s a balance to be kept between them. The commandment to love God is first. The commandment to love people—all people, to be clear—comes second. Both are divinely issued, so neither gets discarded, but there is a priority put on loving God. They are tightly related, but loving God is the highest priority. On this point, Jesus is quite clear. And if God loves people, and you love God, then you ought to love people. Jesus does not actually call us to hatred. That way violence lies. The instruction to pray for your enemies remains in effect.
The bluster of “hate your mother and father, wife and children, etc.” then could be expressed equally as “your love for your mother and father, your wife and children, your brothers and sisters, and even for life itself, should not stand between you and God.” This sounds better. It doesn’t sound comforting, necessarily, and I guess some of that depends on your particular family, but there’s some logic to it.
For me, the Buddhist concept of non-attachment is helpful for thinking about this. Non-attachment is the practice of understanding that everything in the world is changing and passes away, and that your core identity is not determined by anything in this world. Not by your possessions, your family, or even by your thoughts. It doesn’t devalue those things or downplay how much they form our lives so much as help us see that they are separate from our inner connection with God.
With that realization, we can look at a difficult thought we are having, and say “I am not that thought. I am the one who experiences that thought, but I am not that thought.”Likewise, your connection with God is not contingent on your family or friends, or anything material in life. It is a matter of your inwardly saying “yes” to God’s call, and to trying to let your outward life reflect it, so that others might find their call as well.
But the call is pretty radical. Jesus tells his disciples they will have to take up their cross and follow him. That’s a phrase that’s been whitewashed from overuse, but it’s a pretty grim business. People don’t just carry crosses around in 1st century Palestine. People carry crosses on their way to be nailed to those crosses. Even death cannot deter God’s insistence on life.
And that’s where this passage really gets scandalous. Because Jesus isn’t offering a simple triumph over death or some magical escape from the suffering and difficulty of human life. Jesus transcends death by dying. The whole story is told against the backdrop of death. In Jesus, God is exposing Godself to the suffering and death that are inherent components of life. God is entering into life, which means God enters into death.
Meanwhile we are looking everywhere we can for a way around this simple reality, that the way of God is embedded in the struggles of life and not set apart from them. Because it all makes us nervous and we want to badly to escape suffering and death, so we fill our lives with things and relationships we think will insulate us from the things we are scared of. Jesus the whole time is in fact inviting us to be radically, profoundly honest about who we are. And so we don’t get some explanation that makes sense of suffering or of death. We get the steadfast promise that God’s love prevails even in the midst of suffering and death. It takes faith to follow a God you didn’t design.
All of which prepares us to say yes to God even in the dark times. This prepares us to be the bold and faithful ones who can face the shifting and perplexing realities of our world and see God calling new things, calling the impossible into possibility. To be the ones who can stand at the edge of chaos and rightly proclaim that God is moving here. It prepares us to follow our calling into the uncertainty of the future.
Turns out there’s a lot of stuff going on just below the surface of the text.
There is a pragmatic way to apply this lesson to ourselves and a spiritual one. Pragmatically, many of Jesus’ followers walked away from their livelihoods and their lives to become his disciples. It is less likely—though not to be ruled out—that you will be called to do something as dramatic as that to shape your life around Jesus. But you will have to make room in your life for the discipline and practice of following Jesus. It’s not something you simply add. It’s something that frames everything we do.
Spiritually, this rather abrasive text can lead us to a real liberation. We tell ourselves a lot of stories about who we are, and we put a lot of conditions on those stories. If I get into a top-tier med school, I’ll be a successful person, or if I land a lucrative job, or if I marry a beautiful person and have perfect children and a nice house with a manicured lawn… These aspirations and cultural attachments are not evil, but they can very easily keep us from seeing that we are called and loved just as we are, and that our true selves lie in that calling and that love.
Jesus lays it out clearly. “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” It’s a great litmus test of a line. It’s not given so we can measure other people’s faith. Measuring other people’s faith is obnoxious. It’s given so you can check your own spiritual temperature. How crazy does it sound to give up everything, to let your attachment to your external life be less than your attachment to the sacred in your life? Can you imagine yourself having value and worth apart from the people and things in your life?
This is a discipline. I don’t expect you to be able, at every moment, to say “yes, I will walk away from my life to follow God.” I can’t claim that for myself. But the discipline, the practice that Christians are called to, is to center ourselves in God. That means taking a moment to re-center ourselves, to notice how things that are not God have taken center stage and are blocking us from living into our deepest calling.
So this week, as you go about your life, perhaps while you’re riding the bus or walking to classes, just check in with yourself, and notice where your attachments lie. I don’t want you to judge yourself or be hard on yourself if you realize your attachments are more material than you think they should be. You[re practicing. Just notice what your attachments are. And remind yourself that your value lies in being simply who you are. It’s hard to believe, so go easy on yourself if you can’t believe. You don’t need to believe it or feel it in your bones. Just notice your attachments and remind yourself that the guy at the Episcopal Center said your value lies in being who you are, a creature of God. And see what the world looks like with that in mind. Love God, love people, love yourself. It all starts coming together.