“Jesus turned to the crowd and said, ‘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.’” (Luke 14:26)
This passage is what biblical scholars refer to as one of the “hard sayings” of Jesus. It’s a party-stopper. One can almost hear the D.J.’s needle scratch across the record.
I still remember the very first time I read this passage. I was in my childhood bedroom in Paragould, Arkansas, reading the denim-covered Good News Bible I’d been given at third-grade Sunday school graduation. That Jesus, meek and mild, would say such things confused me and brought me to tears. I got out of bed, found my mom, and told her I wouldn’t hate her, no matter what Jesus said. My incredulity isn’t much less today than it was circa 1980. In a world in which hating one another seems ever more acceptable, in which disagreement becomes tantamount to a declaration of war, do we really need Jesus pushing us in that direction? What does Jesus mean here?
If ever a word study in New Testament Greek mattered, it does here. When, in twenty-first century English, we say “hate,” we mean something like “mean-spirited disdain and hostility,” a loathing that ultimately writes off the other as unworthy of our consideration or care. That is not what the word in Luke today means. Let me say that again: That is not what the word in Luke today means. It would be out of Jesus’ character and out of sync with the entire rest of the Gospel for Jesus to commend us to hate in that sense. So, what does Jesus mean, and is it important to us today?
For fourteen chapters in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has been proclaiming—and, more importantly, living—a Way. He has shown grace, love, and mercy when no one else would do so. He has denied custom; he has denied his family when they sought to silence him and bring him home; he has even denied the law whenever these things sought to stifle his words or actions of love and grace. Ten chapters ago, the people of Nazareth among whom he was raised even attempted to throw Jesus off a cliff and shut him up permanently. And yet Jesus has continued to proclaim and live the Way he knows is God’s hope for the world. At each turn, he must leave behind someone or something he has loved—and still loves—in order to be faithful.
Now consider this (and feel free to use it as a conversation starter with your more Evangelical friends): By my count, in the entire Gospels Jesus says to those around him, “Believe in me” twice. Two times. By comparison, Jesus says “Follow me” twenty-two times. Discipleship—following Jesus—is exponentially more important to Jesus than belief. That’s not my opinion; that’s the repeated stress of Jesus’ own preaching. And for my fellow grammar nerds, this is the imperative case, the command of Jesus, “not an ask, but a tell,” as my mother would say. The Way Jesus proclaims and walks is not a way for him only. It is the Way of God’s hope for the entire world. It is the Way anyone who claims Jesus is called to walk with him.
Often when I study the Gospels, I sometimes try to imagine myself as various characters in the story, to picture in my mind’s eye what the action would have been like from the participants’ point of view. (Try it sometime.) As I engage in this exercise, I seem to return repeatedly to that buddy threesome from Capernaum who are constantly at Jesus’ heels: Peter, James, and John. They are, in Luke’s Gospel, the first three people who tether themselves to Jesus. Until Jesus meets them on the banks of the Sea of Galilee, he is a solitary preacher. Forever after, Jesus is rabbi with disciples. Peter, James, and John leave behind everything they’ve known to walk in his Way. What would it have been like to be Peter, James, or John? More specifically, how would Jesus’ hard saying today have struck them? In order to know that, we need to look at a mountain and a garden.
First, we need to go back five chapters in Luke’s Gospel, to Mount Tabor, rising up from the Jezreel Valley. On a different, earlier day, Peter, James, and John follow Jesus up that mountain, and on its summit they have a collective epiphany. Jesus is transfigured before them. The veil drops, and for just a moment Peter, James, and John see the world as it truly is, as God intends it to be, without shadow and without illusion. It is the spiritual high of all spiritual highs. The three friends are awash in joy and an eager desire to do something, to respond to this gift in some big and profound way.
We may never have seen Jesus transfigured, but very many of us get it on some level. We, too, have had some mountaintop experience, somewhere along the way. Maybe it was in church; maybe it was at a spiritual renewal weekend like Cursillo or the Emmaus Walk; maybe it was in the grandeur of nature; maybe it was at a vulnerable low point of health; maybe it was sitting in quiet solitude over morning coffee. Regardless of the setting, we have felt so close to God, even if for just a moment, that the encounter worked its way into the very marrow of us. It made us feel so good, so loved, so accepted that the background radiation of our epiphany has lingered ever since, so much so that it has perhaps come to define for us what our relationship with God is all about. It’s what we want faith to be all about: a recurrence of that experience and that feeling.
Fast forward thirteen chapters in Luke’s Gospel, leapfrogging over today’s hard sayings at the halfway point, and Peter, James, and John again find themselves alone with Jesus in a garden called Gethsemane on the down slope of the Mount of Olives. Their encounter in the garden has none of the hallmarks of the earlier experience on Mount Tabor. Jesus is not transfigured. Rather, now Jesus is starkly, abjectly alone. Jesus has reached the destination to which walking in God’s Way has taken him, where his willingness to walk away from all the things in his world that push against God’s hope has taken him. In the garden, Jesus doubles over in anguish so intense that Luke tells us, “His sweat became like great drops of blood falling to the ground.” Jesus seems horribly, pitifully human, and the scene is worsened when the mob shows up and drags Jesus away from his friends. This is not the big and profound way Peter, James, and John had hoped—had believed—things would go. And suddenly discipleship isn’t academic. These three must decide if they can and will continue to walk the Way of Jesus, the way of grace, in the face of everyone—the mob, Pilate, the Jewish leaders, their families—who pressure them otherwise. They will hesitate. They will falter. They will temporarily forget the joy and power of the Mount of Transfiguration as they are overwhelmed by the anguish and sorrow of the Garden of Gethsemane. Now realizing that the way of grace requires sacrifice, and discomfort, and loss in addition to feelings of warmth and joy, Peter, James, and John must decide whether they will still walk the Way of Jesus. Imagine yourself as Peter, James, or John, and imagine the jarring disconnect between the high on the Mount of Transfiguration and the low in the Garden of Gethsemane, from rapturous joy to stunned and hollow sorrow. And only then return to a consideration of the hard saying in today’s Gospel passage.
The Greek word for “hate” that appears in this saying of Jesus–miseo–does not, it turns out, mean mean-spirited hostility.[i] It means, rather, that in the case of conflict between Jesus’ call of discipleship and anything else, including our most cherished relationships in the world, followers of Jesus must choose the Way of the Gospel, which is always the way of love and grace.
The hard lesson learned by Peter, James, and John is that the gift of the heady and sublime experience on the mountaintop, which does indeed change us, is not given to us by God simply to uplift our spirits and buoy us through the world. The mountaintop experience is given to us so that we have the strength still to follow, still to remain faithful, when the pressure, and sorrow, and anguish around us and in us becomes so intense that we sweat like drops of blood.
The mountaintop experience reveals to us that we are created in love and showered in grace. And it compels us to live through love and shower the world in grace always, and especially when the political, social, familial grain would have us do otherwise. The Garden of Gethsemane always eventually follows the Mount of Transfiguration. They are forever tethered in this broken world. We should rejoice in the mount and thank God for it, but we must always remember that the mountaintop experience energizes and sustains us so that we have the strength to follow Jesus through the garden. These days, the Garden of Gethsemane seems to have extended from the down slope of the Mount of Olives out across the landscape of the whole world. These days, it is so easy to despair of so much hatred, and selfishness, and vitriol that we sweat in sorrow like drops of blood. But the world as God hopes it to be is also right here, just on the other side of the veil. We have seen it in glimpses; we have been empowered by the gift of that vision; and we are called to follow the Way until the love and grace of God transfigure the whole world.
[i] The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. IX, pg. 292.