Text: Luke 14:25-35
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Every so often there’s a reading that comes along in the church year that preachers dread getting and congregations hate hearing. It’s usually something that’s very hard to understand, or something that seems shocking, or offends our current sensibilities. Today is one of those days. We have some hard words from Jesus today, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, and yes, even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” If this sentence, from Jesus’ own mouth, doesn’t surprise you, then you weren’t paying attention.
It’s because we get so uncomfortable with these hard sayings of Jesus that people have dealt with them in a number of ways. Some people simply ignore those parts of Scripture. Others bend over backwards to explain it away. Still others say that it’s obvious Jesus didn’t actually say it; it must have been added by someone later. But when we shy away from these hard words of Jesus, we lose an important opportunity. Not all lessons are easy to learn, but the best lessons are worth the work in understanding them. Not everything that we learn automatically lines up with what we assumed we knew. World history is full of examples of people learning truth that contradicted what they believed had been true for their whole lives. So we would do well to listen to these words of Jesus and do the work of really trying to understand what He’s teaching us.
Can it be that Jesus is really telling us to actually hate those closest to us? Does Jesus here tell us to harbor hatred in our hearts for our parents, spouses, children, and siblings? In order to answer this, we must first look at other passages where this term “hate” has appeared in this way.
When our forefather Jacob, the grandson of Abraham, took his wives Leah and Rachel, he clearly had a favorite. Rachel was the one he wanted to marry from the start, but was deceived into marrying Leah. Even after he had worked for his uncle Laban for 14 years and was permitted to marry Rachel after Leah, even after Leah had borne him children, Jacob still favored Rachel. Now he clearly loved Leah—he provided for her, he had many children with her, she lived with him. But he loved Rachel all the more, to the point that the book of Genesis says, “When the Lord saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb.” Jacob did not wish Leah ill, he didn’t have fiery hatred against her. But in the comparison of his loves, his love for Leah was like hate when compared to the love he had for Rachel.
Another explanation can be found in Jacob’s forefathers: Abraham and Isaac. The Lord tested Abraham and told him to sacrifice Isaac. Abraham loved Isaac. Isaac was the fulfillment of the promise given to Abraham that through this boy Abraham would become the father of nations. Abraham even sent away his other son Ishmael for the sake of Isaac. But when the Lord told Abraham to sacrifice his son, Abraham did not flinch. It broke his heart, but when compared to his love for the Lord—who could raise Isaac from the dead if necessary—nothing, not even his love for his son, could compare. To Isaac it would seem like hate to see his father with the knife held over him, but in truth Abraham had nothing but love for his son. It was a matter of comparison.
So here, when Jesus says that His disciples must hate those closest to them, it clearly does not mean hate, any more than Jacob hated his wife Leah or Abraham hated Isaac. But when compared to their love for the Lord, who gave them every good gift and every precious person around them, all loves should pale in comparison. Remember, this is the same Lord who gave the commandment to honor your father and mother and to love your neighbor as yourself. But He is also the same Lord who says to the fear, love, and trust in Him above all things. That includes all people.
Jesus is claiming a loyalty and love that is reserved for God alone. All other loves compared to it should and will be cold in comparison. Now this tells us something about who Jesus is. For Jesus to claim this kind of love, this kind of loyalty and faith, He must be God. No one else could dare claim that. He must be the one that Abraham loved and trusted even more than his son Isaac. He must be the One who gave everything good to His people—to Abraham, to Jacob, to His disciples, to us. And so we fear, love, and trust in Jesus, who is God, above all things.
The reason it must be this way is because none of those other things will be enough when the end comes. That’s why Jesus goes from this shocking statement directly into a parable about building a tower or marching to war. Jesus is not giving architecture or accounting lessons, nor is he teaching military tactics and strategies. He’s saying that if we start out with anything less than the almighty God, then we’ll never complete what we set out to do. If we’re putting all of our love and faith into the gifts rather than the Giver of those gifts, then we’ll be like the man who started building a tower but couldn’t finish it. If we rely on the people and resources God has given us rather than relying on God Himself, then we’re like the king who marched out to battle with half as many troops as his enemy.
As much as we love the wonderful people that God has given us—father, mother, husband, wife, children, brother, sister, friend—as much as we love them, as much as they love us, they cannot save us. They cannot die in our place. They cannot defeat death for us. Only Jesus can do that. And He gladly does it for us. He rescues us from those enemies that are marching against us, He stops the mockery of the accuser and all his minions by completing everything Himself for us. And so we love Him, our Savior, above all things. We trust Him, the Giver, even more than His gifts, those people and things around us.
And here’s the really beautiful thing about it: God, who we love more than anything or anyone else, is not stingy. In fact, because Jesus is God, that means that He gives us all things. He doesn’t say that we need to love Him and then keep that love bottled up and on a shelf. No, the greatest turn in all this is when our love for Jesus outshines everything else, then we receive everything and everyone else as we were meant to receive them: in a perfectly ordered and healthy love. Maybe we can put it this way: If we would make these gifts into idols that we treasure more than the Lord who gives them, then we end up losing them. We lose them to cooled affection, to loss of earthly love, to heartbreak, and eventually to death. If we hold on to them tighter than anything else, we lose them.
But when we follow Jesus, the Giver of every gift, when we hold on to Him the tightest, then He gives us everything, never to be lost. He gives us parents, spouses, friends, siblings, loved ones. And then, out of love for Him and for them, we show them the Savior who will keep them safe forever—safe with us in His hands. Because He is the foundation, it’s His limitless, perfect love holding everything up. It worked for Abraham and Isaac. Abraham loved and trusted the Lord above all, even above Isaac, even when asked to sacrifice his son. Abraham loved the Lord more than anything, and so Abraham received his son Isaac back, alive and well. A sacrifice was offered in the place of his son so that Abraham could keep Isaac with him.
That sacrifice is Jesus. That’s why Jesus starts talking immediately about the cross after that hard saying about loving Him the most as God. Our love rightly goes to Him because of His love poured out for us in a flood at His cross. It’s there that He gives us all things, all people, all other loves. We will always struggle to understand the words of Jesus, especially the difficult words, if we don’t read them in the light of the cross.
So we live in that light shining from the cross. We see that it’s through the cross of Jesus that the Lord has given us everything and everyone that we love. It’s not because of anything we’ve done and it certainly isn’t because of how tightly we hold on. It’s because in the cross, God loves us more than anyone has ever loved us. In the cross we love Him above all things. Seeing His love, how can our greatest love and trust not be in the Giver of these good and precious gifts? So we love, knowing the Source, knowing the One who will keep all these loved ones with us, with Him, for eternity. In the name of Jesus, who is Love. Amen.