Many a student has felt confused, while many a teacher might prefer explaining a different text. “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother, wife and children, and brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26).
The explanation provided is often headed in the right direction. However, failure to explain the ancient idiom lying behind Jesus’ words robs the listeners of an “Ah Ha!” moment that can also unlock a number of other texts as well.
In Luke 14:26, Jesus’ usage of hate reflects only half of the full idiom of love versus hate. This language of love and hate belongs to the crucible of decision where something must be chosen causing something else to be rejected. Before we dig further into Jesus’ words here, consider the full idiom where love and hate stand juxtaposed.
In Romans 9 Paul reminds us that with the birth of Isaac’s twins, Jacob and Esau, God faced a choice. Through whom would God work? Through which of these two sons would God’s people be named? Who would be chosen for service? While Paul’s point involved underscoring that God’s selection was not based upon character or merit but rather upon God’s initiative in calling, notice the language of choice and rejection. “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” (Romans 9:12). To love is to choose. To hate is to reject or not choose.
Going back to the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught us about the impossibility of having two masters. His purpose was to highlight the absurdity of sitting upon the fence trying to serve both God and the things of this world. To illustrate how unattainable this is, Jesus drew us into the dilemma of a servant attempting to serve two masters. Such a servant must decide which master’s instructions he will obey. “Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will despise the one and hold to the other” (Matthew 6:24). A choice must be made.
If we harbor some doubt about this language of love and hate equating to choosing and rejecting, consider God’s words at the Mount of Transfiguration. Matthew and Mark record what is most commonly remembered. “This is my beloved Son” (Matthew 17:5; Mark 9:7). Compare this with, “This is my Son, my Chosen One” as recorded in the oldest manuscripts of Luke 9:35. By replacing loved with chosen, Luke’s gospel equates the two while also recalling Isaiah 42:1.
Furthermore lest we forget, Matthew 12:18’s quotation of Isaiah 42:1 intertwines the ideas of chosen and loved. What is loved describes what is chosen. Whatever is not chosen, that is whatever is rejected, is hated.
This brings us back to what Jesus taught regarding discipleship. Jesus’ followers must conform to a hierarchy of decision making where choosing him, that is loving him, must come before all others (Matthew 10:37). Jesus repeated this principle when he instructed those who would be his disciples to hate family and even their own lives (Luke 14:26). Discipleship forbids organizing one’s life around anything other than the Lord.
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