In today’s Gospel from St.Luke, Jesus address the crowds with a shocking statement: “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”
How do we interpret such a seemingly harsh statement? What does Jesus mean when saying that to be his disciple we must hate those closest to us?
Given Jesus’ message of universal love and his boiling down of the law into the Great Commandment of Love God/Love One Another, Jesus clearly is not asking us to literally hate our parents, spouses, children and siblings. Following Jesus, can’t mean having hate in our hearts toward anyone.
But Jesus is asking something that is not a whole lot less radical and that is equally difficult for us: to give up our attachment or preference for anything and anyone that distracts from our wholeheartedly following him and wholeheartedly following the Great Commandment.
And I think that includes recognizing that sometimes the emotional love we have for those closest to us can distract us from developing the Love we are intended to develop toward all, without regard to who they are for us and to us.
It is, of course, wonderful that we have great love for our family and friends. That love can help dispose us toward greater Love. But it also has the capacity to close us off from the greater Love, lulling us into thinking we’ve satisfied the command to Love because we have warm feelings to those closest to us (warm feelings that are often tinged with self-interest). In that sense emotional love can create a wall that causes us to prefer some over others. And I think “hate” in this context is a command to give up that preference.
It is a hard teaching. But if we claim to follow Jesus, we can’t just ignore the parts of his message that are challenging.