When Jesus spoke about hate he communicated two different ideas. Failure to differentiate can create confusion. After all, Jesus taught that people should love everyone and not hate anyone. How then could he teach discipleship requires hating family and self?
As used in scripture, hate normally signifies to detest or to desire ill toward another. Jesus’ memorable words in the Sermon on the Mount conveyed this standard meaning. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor, and hate your enemy.’ “But I say to you, love your enemies“ (Matthew 5:43,44).
With these few words, Jesus’ position regarding hate was clear. Love must replace hate. Hatred deserves no space within the hearts of Jesus’ followers.
While his disciples should not hate others, Jesus knew others would not be so kind. He foretold that his disciples would be hated on account of him (Matthew 10:22; Luke 6:22). Nevertheless, even then his followers were to respond with blessings and prayers (Luke 6:27,28). We expect Jesus to teach this.
Because this is Jesus’ perspective on hate, Bible teachers sometimes squirm when explaining Luke 14:26. “If anyone 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.” This shocks us. It can be unexpected. Is Jesus’ point to shock us or might there be something more?
In Luke 14:26, Jesus’ usage of hate reflects only half of a full idiom of love versus hate. This language of love and hate belongs to the crucible of decision where something must be chosen (loved) causing something else to be rejected (hated). Do people value what God offers? Will they choose his banquet rather than continue to pursue their own routines? (Luke 14:15-24). And if someone considers following, Jesus challenges them to count the cost (Luke 14:26-33).
With this idiomatic usage of love and hate in neither case are one’s affections the focus. It revolves around the crossroads of choosing and rejecting.
For example, imagine someone having two bosses with each boss providing different instructions. The employee must decide which to obey. In Jesus’ words, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money” (Matthew 6:24). To choose to serve one boss is to love him. To choose to not serve the other is to hate. This is the language of choice, not affections.
Or consider God’s working through history to choose the bloodline through whom the Messiah would arrive. “Jacob I have loved. Esau I have hated.” God chose Jacob to serve his purposes and rejected Esau.
Thus when Jesus taught it was necessary to hate one’s family and even oneself in order to follow him, he identified the nature of discipleship. To be a disciple involves dying to living for self, others or things (Luke 9:23-25; 2 Corinthians 5:15). All of these are to be rejected/ hated. The disciple chooses /loves the Lord.
In Matthew 10:37-38 Jesus expressed the same idea from the other side of the idiom – love. To be a disciple a person cannot love (choose) family over Jesus.
Jesus could not be more clear. Discipleship is a lifestyle requiring a person to organize his or her life around serving Jesus. Furthermore, this lifestyle involves seeking the wellbeing of all people, including one’s enemies.