“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.” – Luke 14:26 ESV
Since a man is to love his wife as Christ loves the church (Eph 5), and since I don’t think Paul was setting out to contradict Jesus, I think we are forced to seek an understanding of the context of Luke 14 that helps us understand what Jesus means when he talks about hating our relatives.
In the first part of Luke 14, Jesus is dining in a hostile environment “at the house of a ruler of the Pharisees” (14:1). It seems that they’ve set him up to do something for which they can accuse him — heal on the Sabbath, which he does (14:1–4), and then when he makes his argument (14:5) he silences them (14:6). Then Jesus goes on the offensive against them. He first addresses the others invited to the feast (14:7–11) and then he addresses his host (14:12–14) before responding to a comment made by one of the guests (14:15–24).
So Jesus walked into a trap, triggered the mechanism, but then the trap closed on those who set it, not on him. Having healed the man on the sabbath and then silenced their opposition to that (14:1–6), he begins to denounce these haughty Israelites who are trying to entrap their Messiah. He first calls them to humble themselves (14:7–11), and then he seems to address the way that this exclusive club of the Jewish leadership is not serving the nation but glad-handing one another (14:12–14). Notice that Jesus mentions friends, brothers, and relatives in 14:12.
Then in this hostile environment he starts giving examples of the kinds of excuses people are going to make as to why they won’t accept the invitation to come to the marriage feast of the Lamb. Jesus is basically listing out the reasons these people who are seeking to entrap him will give as to why they don’t want to come to his banquet. He mentions one person using the excuse of having just bought a new field (14:18), another new oxen (14:19), another having just married a wife (14:20), and in response to the ways that those who seem to be something in Israel have rejected him, the master sends the servant out to gather the things that are not in 14:21–the poor, crippled, blind, and lame. These are all the humble people who haven’t been invited to dine with this ruler of the Pharisees (14:1), and who don’t get glad-handed by these folks (14:12). Jesus told his host that he should have invited just these people in 14:13 (cf. 14:13 and 14:21).
It appears from 14:25 that Jesus has left the hostile banquet that was a trap, and yet what he says to the crowds in the verses that follow appear to have that banquet in view. So I would read this statement about hating father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters and even one’s own life as speaking directly to these elite members of this exclusive circle of Pharisees that has rejected him (cf. again 14:12). If one of those elite Pharisees follows Jesus, he is going to alienate everyone in his family. And Jesus is saying that he should do so in order to be his disciple. I would also read the comment about hating one’s wife in verse 26 in light of the fact that the new wife was just used as an excuse not to follow Jesus in 14:20.
There are some people for whom following Jesus will mean the repudiation of their whole lives–parents, wife, children, siblings. Maybe that’s the case for someone converting to Christianity out of Judaism today, or out of Islam, or maybe even out of some sectors of Roman Catholicism. For that person to be a disciple, he’s going to have to renounce “even his own life” (14:26). I’ve got a friend who left Christianity and married an orthodox Jewish wife. He has converted to Judaism. I hope he comes back to Christ. For him to be a disciple of Jesus, he’ll have to be willing to love Jesus in spite of the fact that it might well cost him his wife.
Some people will have that cross to bear (14:27), and so Jesus urges people to count the cost of following him (14:28–32). If an elite Pharisee is going to follow Jesus, he’s going to have to renounce all that he has to be a disciple of Jesus (14:33).
Jesus himself repudiated his family when they weren’t following him (cf. Luke 8:19–21), but then he made provision for his mother from the cross.
So I think this passage about hating your wife and your life and renouncing all you have has a specific application to some contexts where following Jesus means rejecting the views held by everyone else in your family and being rejected in turn by them.
Following Jesus does not mean that I need to hate my sweet wife, nor do I think it means that in comparison to the way I love Jesus my love for my wife is hate. No, I love Jesus by loving my wife. Same with the life God has given me. I don’t have a life that I need to renounce in order to follow Jesus. For me to renounce my life, in the life that I’ve been given, would be to renounce a life of trying to serve to Jesus.
What about losing your life to gain it? This means that I need to love my sweet wife by laying down my life for her–losing my life by loving her as Christ has loved the church. It would be foolish and disastrous for me to say to my wife that I have to be loving Jesus so I’m going to lose my life by not loving her or spending any time with her because I have to be loving and serving Jesus. That would be a good way to get myself disqualified from being an elder pretty quickly (1 Tim 3).
And all God’s people said…
I’ve always understood this verse to mean that we must turn away from, or ignore, the claims that those closest to us have on our lives. The greek word for hate most often translates as a kind of malicious feeling toward something or someone who is innocent. That’s why, on the surface, when Jesus says we must HATE those closest to us, we almost cringe. It’s as if he’s telling us we must feel a malicious animosity toward those who have done nothing but love and support us.
But particularly in this verse in Luke the alternate meaning – and all words in all languages have alternate meanings depending on context – is more along the lines of expressing aversion toward something that is in opposition (if that makes sense). When viewed along with the other arugments given for not attending the banquet (new ox, new wife, etc) I take this entire passage to mean that often the normal components of our personal lives can be the greatest hinderance to our relationship with Jesus. We’re more often very alert to blatant spiritual attacks(temper, lust, envy, covetousness, etc). Jesus, in these passages, is telling us that we are more likely to miss his blessings by becoming entangled in the mini-dramas of our daily lives rather than listening for God’s, often quiet, invitations for fellowship.
Thanks for clarifying this. Check the spelling of sister in your title… Would not want you to lose credibility over a spelling error!
Somewhat analogous is Paul’s comment in 1 Cor 7
1Cor 7:29-31 (ESV)
This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.
This is very helpful, Jim. You demonstrate how context is essential for understanding meaning, and you leave us with something that makes sense and is doable.
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