Earlier this week, I ran across these words of Jesus from Luke’s Gospel:
If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple. So, therefore, whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26-27, 33)
Can it really be true that Jesus wants us to hate our families and renounce all that we have in order to be considered one of his followers?
This particular teaching or saying of Jesus is a good example of how biblical texts can draw us into a conversation which ultimately leads us to a deeper understanding. Before you read any further, you might first want to spend some time with this text yourself, allowing it to draw your own soul into conversation and discovering where it leads you and what God might be trying to say to you through the text.
As I placed myself in conversation with this saying of Jesus this week, I eventually got past the “shock value” that it contains. I came to the conclusion that Jesus was not inviting me to hate my family, because hatred is not a Christian value. It seemed to me that Jesus was using such strong language, such shocking imagery, in order to get my attention and get me really engaged with what he was trying to say.
Once I was able to respond to this text with greater attention rather than shock or surprise, I found myself drawn to reflect on the nature of the relationships that Jesus names at the beginning of the passage: parents, spouse, children and siblings. On the one hand, these relationships are among the most sacred of our lives. We would not be here without our parents, who not only gave us life but also nurtured that life in a way that allowed us to reach adulthood. Our spouse is our life partner, and that partnership can bring incredible richness to our lives, and in most cases, it is that partnership that gives rise to children. And children stretch our lives and enrich our lives in amazing ways. Siblings are people with whom some of us are close, and some of us less so. But regardless of how close we may be to brothers or sisters, siblings are people who in most cases share something of our experiences growing up in the world, we are linked to them by a common history and by sharing that history together, we have an enlarged sense of what “family” can mean.
At the same time, these relationships can also demand a great deal from us. Our parents may love us, but they may also have a hard time regarding us as adults. Sometimes parents can have expectations of their children which, if unmet, can introduce into the relationship a dynamic of disappointment. Sometimes parents are unwilling to allow us to become what we are sure we are meant to become, and we find ourselves in something of a struggle for our own identity. In the time of Jesus, parents (and particularly fathers) often had a great deal of authority to determine significant aspects of their children’s lives, including one’s occupation and one’s marital partner.
In Jesus’ time, it was also not common to find marriages in which the terms were equal. Marriage was not understood as necessarily having a basis in mutual respect, or even in love, for that matter. Marriages were often arranged, and men had far more rights in those relationships than women did. It was the norm that a woman’s identity would be tied to husband and children, without much regard for her own needs. Marriage could be a joyful and enriching experience, but it could also be stifling and oppressive. The assumptions and expectations that come with marriage today are in some ways significantly different than in Jesus’ time, but it remains true that for some, marriage is experienced as a blessing while for others it is quite the opposite.
There is probably little difference between the time of Jesus and our own time when it comes to the demands that children place upon parents. While we experience children as an amazing blessing, they also require a significant investment of time and energy which can re-order the priorities in our lives. Sometimes that re-ordering can lead to a devaluing of things that should be important in our lives, including a devaluing of the spiritual dimensions of life. Throughout my career as a priest, I have known parents who have found the demands of meeting their children’s schedules leading them away from active or regular involvement in church, and I certainly have known first-hand how difficult it can be to develop a personal discipline of prayer or meditation when small children are needing our attention.
I think that Jesus does value these connections and relationships in our lives, but I think he also values the freedom – the spiritual freedom – that is essential if we are to develop a deep and meaningful relationship with God. The message, I think, is that while we do need to value and attend to these relationships, the demands of these relationships should not be allowed to get in the way of our relationship with God, nor should they be allowed to determine our identity, since who we truly are can be known only in relation to God.
I think what Jesus is getting at both with respect to these fundamental relationships in our lives and when he suggests that we need to renounce all that we have in order to follow him is the essentially spiritual problem of attachment or, to use more biblical language, the problem of idolatry. What I mean by this is the tendency to define ourselves in terms of our relationships or in terms of our material prosperity. We become “attached” to relationships or wealth in a spiritual sense when we understand who we are and what our lives are about primarily or solely in terms of those relationships or that wealth. Jesus, in this passage and elsewhere, rather forcefully tries to help us to see that our true identity is not found in any relationship but our relationship with God nor is it found in the things that we possess. Using biblical language, we can understand this in terms of idolatry, which arguably is the greatest sin of the Hebrew Scriptures. Idolatry is the assigning of ultimate value to something that, in truth, does not possess ultimate value. It is putting something else in the place in our lives that can only rightfully be occupied by God.
What it comes down to is asking these questions: what is eternal, truly lasting? And what is temporary, passing away? Much of what we put our energy into is temporary. Our relationships, even with the most important people in our lives, will ultimately pass away, if for no other reason than the people in those relationships will one day die. The things we possess, the wealth we amass, will also pass away. We can’t take it with us, as the saying goes. Even our bodies will one day be gone. What is left, according to our faith, is the essence of who we are, the heart of our being, what we might call the soul. And it is at the heart of our being, in the soul, that we experience most intimately and authentically our relationship with God, the Eternal One, and it is toward the soul that much of our spiritual practice is directed. The most sublime form of prayer in the Christian tradition, as in most spiritual traditions, is to be in silence, seeking to simply rest in our souls so that we may experience the presence of God. Those who practice this kind of prayer regularly witness to the fact that, over time, this way of prayer does help us to find our true selves, “hidden with Christ in God”, and to define ourselves less in terms of our relationships and our wealth.
It is precisely this cross, I think, that Jesus invites us to bear: to let go of all the traditional ways in which we value ourselves and each other (which is a kind of crucifixion of the ego) in order to stand vulnerably before God, ourselves and the world simply as we are, recognizing that our value comes not from our parentage or how successful our marriages are or whether we have children or how successful those children are; recognizing that our value does not come from our wealth or how good we are at our jobs. Rather, we are meant to recognize that our value comes simply from the fact that we are, that God has given us being and life, and that we are loved by God and rendered lovable by God simply for that.
If we are able to bear this cross and to truly recognize our value solely in relation to God and God’s love, there is an incredible freedom in that. I cannot claim for myself that I am able always to live with this awareness. Too often do I develop an attachment to things or define myself by how well (or how badly) I think I am doing my job or parenting my children or being a husband. Yet, I have had those wonderful, graceful moments when I have gotten a glimpse of myself simply as loved by God, and known in that glimpse that nothing and no one is able to take that from me. And in those glimpses, I have tasted that joyful freedom of Christ, the peace that passes all understanding. I am grateful for those glimpses, and in many ways it is those moments that sustain me in my spiritual life, that urge me on. Because it seems that those moments are truly the moments when I have experienced the kingdom of God. And as much as my life is enriched by my most precious relationships and by the satisfaction I have from the successes of work and life, there is nothing as enriching as these glimpses of eternity.
And in the end, when all has passed away, it is this that shall remain: God, the Eternal One, and the Love which keeps our souls.