When “hate” doesn’t mean “hate”

One of the most startling verses in Scripture is Jesus’ warning in 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.

When we come to verses that seem to teach something strange or puzzling, one of the first things we should do is compare the puzzling verse to other verses on the same topic that teach clearly. In this case, we start by remembering Jesus’ words in Luke 10.27:

And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”

Here Jesus clearly teaches his followers to love their neighbors. If we love our neighbors (including “father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters”), we cannot act hatefully toward them.

Let’s continue by looking closely at the context for Jesus’ teaching about hating one’s family. These words are part of a larger paragraph that runs from Luke 14.26-33. There is one phrase that’s repeated three times in those verses: “he cannot be my disciple.” That phrase acts as a marker to help us outline Jesus’ words. Here is the paragraph broken down into points:

  1. Unless you hate your family and your own life, you cannot be my disciple (Lk 14.26).
  2. Unless you bear your cross, you cannot be my disciple (Lk 14.27).
  3. Unless you renounce all that you have, you cannot be my disciple (Lk 14.28-33).

Jesus lists three things that you must do, or else you cannot genuinely follow him. Notice that none of those things are pleasant things. No one hates himself because it’s fun, bears a cross because it’s comfortable, or renounces all his possessions because he likes poverty. All the things that Jesus lists are very uncomfortable, unpleasant things.

Let’s look at the bigger context now: who is Jesus talking to in this paragraph and why would he tell them that they have to do three painful things if they want to follow him?

Luke 14.25 says that Jesus spoke these words to the “great crowds [who] accompanied him.” This took place after he had spent time travelling, doing miracles, and preaching. In response to his power, many followed out of awe and curiosity, but were not committed to him fully. These words were meant to stop the casual followers in their tracks and make them realize that following Jesus is exclusive.

In other words, Jesus is challenging his followers about ultimate loyalty. They can’t follow him when he’s doing impressive miracles, then turn away when it gets difficult to follow. Jesus warns them that the only way to follow him is to give him your full loyalty. You cannot let your family, your own life, your comfort, or your possessions compete with Jesus. If you follow him, you must be willing to turn your back on everything else. You cannot follow Jesus and someone or something else.

Practically, that means that family, life, and possessions are not necessarily bad things. Jesus never said, “It’s sinful to have a mother and father” or “You shall not own things.” Many people have family members who love Jesus – do they have to “hate” those family members? No. There’s no competing loyalty. Those family members aren’t trying to lead you away from Jesus. The same is true for possessions. Many people have wealth and are good at using it to further the gospel, show hospitality, help the needy, or provide for ministers of the Word. Do they have to “renounce” their possessions? No. There’s no competing loyalty. That wealth is right where it needs to be: part of following Jesus, not a distraction away from him.

Many others, however, have family who persecute or ridicule them for their faith. Do believers who have hostile family members need to respond harshly or rudely? No. Remember Jesus’ words in Luke 6.27-28:

But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.

Even when we are abused, we cannot respond with violence, sinful anger, or evil hatred. If we don’t “hate our family” with sinful anger, how should Christians obey Luke 14.26? This brings us back to the loyalty theme we saw earlier. Whether your family loves or hates Jesus, they cannot compete with him for your loyalty. If you are torn between choosing your family / life / comfort / possessions and choosing Jesus, the answer is simple: you must choose Jesus. That’s what it means to “hate” your family in practice: never, ever choose them above Jesus.

3 comments on When “hate” doesn’t mean “hate”

  1. So Jesus meant to say “hate your family if they aren’t Christians”? Honestly that doesn’t make it any better. Even knowing his penchant for parables (he warns that he speaks in parables to confound the wicked, otherwise they would turn from wickedness and be saved), I believe no one can speak for Jesus better than Jesus himself. It is unwise to take his words and say “what he meant to say was…” whenever he says something you don’t agree with. It was good to put the quote in context, but in this instance what he said does not appear to be a parable to confound the wicked, he did not always speak in parables, and was perfectly capable of being direct. Let us not over interpret the bible here, and interpreting a statement which says very clearly, in no uncertain terms, devoid of all ambiguity that you must hate father, mother, wife and child, brother and sister or else you are not worthy, it does not mean you must love them… but just love God more than you love them. Jesus was not in the least bit meally mouthed, or wishy washy, and who are you to put words in his mouth. He said hate your folks, he meant hate your folks, he did not mean love your folks. It was not opposite day in the Middle East. When he said bear your cross, he meant bear your cross, that you had to be willing to suffer and die. When he said give up your wealth, he meant give up your wealth, he didn’t mean keep your wealth and use some of it for charitable purposes. Seriously, if you don’t like what Jesus had to say, then disagree, but don’t use him as a puppet to say what you wish he had said. And if you love your family, and are not willing to suffer and die, and would rather not relinquish your worldly possessions, he has said that in his eyes you are not worthy to be his follower.

    • I’m genuinely puzzled: your comment has little to do with what I actually wrote. I’m publishing it & this reply in the hopes that you get an email notification with my reply. But since you hid behind a throwaway email address, I’m not optimistic that you’ll read this. I’ll likely be deleting your comment & this reply in a day or so.

      To reply to what you said:

      First, I never said “Jesus meant to say” anything. I explained how the words “hate” and “love” are on a spectrum and that they teach that no other loyalty should compete with our loyalty to Jesus. It sounds like you agree that Jesus should be the one to whom we give our ultimate loyalty, so I’m confused at your tone & disagreement.

      Second, I never said “hate your family if they aren’t Christians” nor did I claim that Jesus meant that. In fact (if you’d fully read the post), my exact words were “Many others, however, have family who persecute or ridicule them for their faith. Do believers who have hostile family members need to respond harshly or rudely? No. Remember Jesus’ words in Luke 6.27-28: ‘But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.'”

      Third, I’m genuinely saddened by your fixation with hating others. You said “no one can speak for Jesus better than Jesus himself.” I agree. That’s why every single verse about loving others (neighbors & enemies) was a quotation of Jesus own words.

      Fourth, I believe you’re wrong that the statement about hating is “devoid of all ambiguity.” Jesus says that “love your neighbor” is one of the two greatest commandments, and he repeatedly commands his followers to love even their enemies – unless there’s a way to hate & love at the same time, this statement needs to interpreted correctly in light of Jesus other words.

      Fifth, I’m sorry I didn’t make this clearer: “hate” & “love” in modern English aren’t identical to “hate” & “love” in the Ancient Near East or early Roman Empire. In Jesus’ day, they expressed a spectrum. The modern English definition of hate as “intense hostility and aversion usually deriving from fear, anger, or sense of injury” has nothing to do with Jesus’ words.

      Finally, I wish you the best. I’m sorry that you think I’m not worthy to be Jesus’ follower, but I hope you find grace, joy, and love as you walk with him.

      • Sorry about the throwaway email, but I’m as stingy with my @ as my phone number. And please read this post through… I know it might seem outrageous at first, but if you see it through to the end, you’ll understand where I’m coming from.

        To the point about not saying to hate non Christian family members, I suppose you didn’t say it so much as imply it, when you wrote (no idea how to do block quotes in comments):

        “Many people have family members who love Jesus – do they have to “hate” those family members? No. There’s no competing loyalty.”

        However, you are right, you did explicitly say you shouldn’t hate non Christian family members, so I stand corrected.

        As for the letting Jesus speak for himself point, I honestly do believe there is so much over interpretation going on that Jesus essentially gets turned on his head whenever he utters a teaching that people think is unpalatable. How can “hate them”, really mean “love them”? You’re definitely correct that hate and love are on a continuum, but they are opposites on that continuum, much like “extremely high”, and “extremely low”. There are many, many points on this continuum, but there is never a point where extremely high, and extremely low might be confused with one another, and no point where they meet, because between them is “moderately high”, “somewhat high”, “slightly high”, “level” etc. Love is an extreme thing, it isn’t wishy washy, and neither is hate, which is also extreme. Love is a glue that binds us together, and hate is what tears us apart. You could rejoinder that love and hate can meet when one is of two minds about someone, and I’m sure we’ve all experienced the turmoil of love/hate relationships (most often with family members), but one does have to be of two minds, because on that continuum the midpoint is not love/hate, it is indifference. You may notice with love/hate relationships that one doesn’t consciously love and hate at the same time, rather one vacillates between them… which I suppose is why they’re so emotionally draining. Now, there is truth to cognitive dissonance as well: consciously maintaining one thing, but unconsciously maintaining the other, but that’s where the two minds bit comes in.

        You mentioned Jesus’ very explicit statement to love one’s enemies, a statement which I’m surprised is never over interpreted. He said “love your enemies”, it’s a strange and difficult teaching that almost no one follows, so I would expect this to be overinterpreted just as much as when he teaches to hate your mum, if for no reason other than the fact that, as I said, it’s a very difficult teaching. But the teaching to love one’s neighbor was immediately complemented by a teaching which deals with family, namely that there is no reward for loving your brothers. Basically it’s easy to love people who love you, everyone does it. I realize this is a far cry from a command to hate them, he does not say that, and does not say don’t love your brothers. However, in the statement which is the bone of contention here he definitely does say hate them.

        Over the last few years I’ve focused a lot on what the bible has to say, and with a particular attention to the words of Jesus. I have undertaken this task honestly, and I can say that I endeavor to be honest in my studies. There are things in the bible which are ambiguous, especially when you look at the language, and in fact the two main arguments why this passage does not mean what it appears to mean are: it’s a metaphor, or it’s a mistranslation, that Jesus actually said to “love less” one’s family and not hate them. However, how can one claim this as metaphor, but maintain that the teaching to love your enemies is literal, there is as much evidence that was metaphorical as this. What is metaphorical hatred anyway? A very devout young woman I know who was reading through the NT with me took a moment to ponder this, decided it clearly must be a metaphor, and that not the hatred, but the family was the metaphorical thing, she said surely it must mean the society you come from. But those would be the neighbors, and quite possibly enemies whom one must love. She agreed it was a difficult teaching, and spoke of it no more, concluding it must not mean what it says. The linguistic argument depends on a certain hubris as well, that the modern day interpreter knows more what Jesus said than the person who wrote the gospel.

        This verse came as a shock to me as well, as probably to all who read it. 13 year old me did not remember ever coming across it as I read the bible, or hearing of it in church, reading about it in biblical commentary, or in Christian literature. This is one of several teachings of Jesus I could not bring myself to believe, it went against everything I was taught to believe. But when I finished the NT I saw Jesus as a completely different person than I had before.

        I suppose Jesus saying love your neighbor would make this statement to hate one’s family more nuanced, but family and neighbors are different categories. He did however affirm on many occasions that the law as handed down to the Israelites was in no way up for review, including the commandment to “honor thy father and mother”. In fact he mentioned that commandment specifically, which is why it’s so confusing that he would state unambiguously to hate them… it seems a strange sort of honor.

        But honestly, look at his teachings about the family. The only positive things he has to say about family are “honor your father and mother”, and… I guess that’s it. He chastised his followers to forget their families and follow him, he claimed only he and his followers were true family. He taught that he came to divide families, and as we see here even to hate one’s own family. He seems to have only valued the institution of the family because it leads to babies. This may sound harsh, or bizarre, but google ‘what does Jesus teach about family’. Or actually it’s probably better to just read all of his recorded sayings in the bible. It’s a far cry from what we’re taught to believe.

        All this being said, I enjoyed your post, you’re a gifted writer, and presented the most well thought out argument why this teaching doesn’t say what it appears to say I’ve ever heard or read. I don’t fixate on hate, I don’t hate my family, and I don’t try to love my enemies. I don’t have a problem not measuring up to Jesus’ idea of a worthy follower, I know no one who does. Best wishes to you as well, and surely you deserve grace, joy and love too.

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