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.