There are at least two reasons why many Christians would find the statement of Jesus recorded in Luke 14:26 difficult, even off-putting. The first is that this saying is simply difficult to accept. The second is that it appears to contradict the teachings of Jesus recorded elsewhere in the Gospels. For example, in Mark 7:9-13, Jesus censured the Pharisees for introducing a law which prohibits people from using the money they have vowed to give to God to meet a need of their parents. This ‘human commandment’, according to Jesus, is a direct violation of the fifth commandment to honour one’s father and mother.
Furthermore, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus exhorted his disciples to love not just their friends, but also their enemies (Matt 5:43-48), thereby radicalising what it means to love one’s neighbour. If ‘neighbour’ is stretched to include one’s enemies, it surely must also include the members of one’s family. How, then, could Jesus insist that his disciples must hate those whom are nearest and dearest to them if they were to follow him? This statement, it seems, not only goes against nature, but it is also against the very law of love that Jesus came to teach and embody.
Many people are perturbed by the word ‘hate’ which Jesus used in this passage. Did Jesus really mean that a person must dislike, detest, loathe, abhor, his father, mother, wife, children, brothers and sisters in order to be his disciple? Commentators and theologians argue that when Jesus used ‘hate’ in this passage, he meant ‘to love less’. This same expression is used in Genesis 29:31: ‘When the Lord saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb’. The explanation of this statement is given in the immediate context in verse 30 where we are told that Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah. Put differently, Jacob loved Leah less than Rachel, and it was in this sense that Leah was ‘hated’.
When Jesus said that his disciples must hate their family, he was speaking hyperbolically in order to emphasise that their love for him must be wholehearted, and that they must always put him first. This becomes clear when Luke 14:26 is compared with a parallel passage in Matthew 10:37-38; ‘Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me’. The exaggerated demand to hate one’s family in the Lucan passage is toned down in the Matthean passage in which the disciples are admonished not to love members of their family more than they love their Master.
The hyperbolic language in Luke is purposed to drive home the message that citizens of the kingdom of God must show unconditional loyalty to God. This means that God must be given first place and nothing must be allowed to usurp the place of God. Jesus warns that just as wealth and personal ambition can come between his disciples and the kingdom, so can family ties. Without in any way trivialising his disciples’ responsibilities towards their family, Jesus reminds them that God and his kingdom must take priority, and that everything else must take second place. In fact the Matthean passage suggests that giving one’s family second place to the kingdom is one way in which the disciple of Christ takes up the cross.
Even when understood in this way, Jesus’ statement ceases to be radical. Many Christians would no doubt agree that one should never let wealth, career, and personal happiness prevent them from obeying the Lord. But the proper care of one’s family is always seen as something that is profoundly more noble and humane. Is this not a legitimate reason for postponing obedience? In insisting that it is not, Jesus warns against what some theologians and commentators have called the ‘idolatry of the family’, where loyalty to one’s family is deemed more important that one’s loyalty to God.
Here Jesus must not be seen as contradicting Paul, who in 1 Tim 5:8 insists that ‘If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever’. It must be emphasised yet again that Jesus did not ask his disciples to shirk their responsibilities towards their families. Rather he reminds them that the kingdom of God is nearer and dearer than even their families, and that they must take their responsibilities as citizens of that kingdom with utter seriousness.
In his commentary on this passage, New Testament scholar William Hendricksen uses this analogy:
When an alien wishes to become a citizen of the United States of America he must renounce allegiance to his native land and take an oath of loyalty to the country of his choice. This does not mean that he cannot continue to think highly of the nation to which he said ‘Farewell,’ but it does mean that from now on he must serve ‘the land of the free and the home of the brave’. Even far more absolute and unconditional must be the loyalty which citizens of the kingdom of God sustain toward their heavenly country and its ‘Lord of lords and King of kings’. If a person is unwilling to tender that unconditional devotion, then, says Jesus, ‘he cannot be my disciple’.
Thus, in exhorting his disciples to ‘hate’ their families, Jesus is simply urging them to love God more than anyone and anything.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article was published in The Bible Speaks Today (May 2014).