First Reading: Wisdom 9:13-18
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 89(90):3-6,12-14,17
Second Reading: Philemon 9-10,12-17
Gospel: Luke 14:25-33
The term “hate speech” has been thrown around a lot in our day, especially in connection with various “isms” and “phobias”. The term no longer necessarily refers to actual hatred in its proper sense, but seems to be increasingly associated with any view or opinion that does not conform to what is considered “politically correct”, particularly when such ideas challenge the state’s legislated pseudo-morality. This coercive tendency to label that which does not conform to the popular narrative as representing “hatred”, while it is characteristic of our age of social and mass media, is not new.
In fact the early Christians of the Roman Empire faced just such an accusation. Since they obstinately refused to take part in immorality or anything associated with the worship of the false gods of pagan religion, Christians were labelled “atheists” and charged with “hatred of the human race”, according to the Roman historian Tacitus (Annals c.116 AD). In short, the first generations of Christians were labelled ‘haters’ because they stood against sin and put Jesus before all else. Indeed, if the ancient Romans had read this Sunday’s Gospel reading, they would only have been confirmed in their opinion that Christians are haters: “If any man comes to me without hating his father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters, yes and his own life too, he cannot be my disciple” (Lk 14:26). This is one of the hardest and most confusing verses in the Bible. On one hand, our Lord tells us we must love God with all our heart, soul, and mind; and love our neighbour as ourself (Matt 22:37-39). On the other hand, Jesus insists we must hate our parents, spouse, children, siblings and our very selves. So which is it, Lord? Were the Romans correct?
First, we should consider how shocking this statement is not only to our sensitive modern ears, but to Jesus’ first hearers. One of the most important Commandments of the Law is “honour you father and mother” (Ex 20:12). For Jesus to so bluntly appear to contradict this law might well have made his Jewish audience gasp, just as it hits a nerve within us as we hear the unsettling injunction to hate mother and father. One might have rightly questioned, who is this guy? Who does he think he is? The Law is given by God himself! For Jesus to issue statements that seem to contradict the Law, then, suggests that he believes he has the authority to do so. Implicit here is the suggestion of Jesus’ divinity and his equality with the Father. This is important to note because it goes to the heart of what Jesus is actually saying here. When Jesus tells us we must hate those dearest to us, as well as our very selves, there is indeed an intended shock value, but he is certainly not encouraging the strong and violent emotion we know as hatred. It is common in ancient Hebrew parlance to talk of loving and hating as ways of expressing preference of one thing over the other (e.g., Genesis 29:30-31). In Matthew’s Gospel, the same teaching is expressed more diplomatically, revealing Jesus’ meaning of preference: “He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matt 10:37). In short, to be a disciple of Jesus means loving him and giving preference to him above everyone and everything else in our lives. That is a huge demand. Who does this guy think he is? Well, this is where the suggestion implicit in Jesus’ words come in. He is God. Jesus is equal to the Father and the very first commandment of the Law is, “you shall have no other gods before me” (Ex 20:3).
Now, Jesus’ words here contain another subtlety, which is often lost in translation. When our Lord says we can’t be his disciple unless we “hate” those whom we love, he doesn’t imply that he rejects those who don’t measure up to this demand. In Greek the term for “can” is dunamai (δύναμαι) which literally means “I am powerful” or “I have the power to”, hence, “I am able”. When Jesus says one cannot be his disciple if he or she fails to hate those whom they love, there is no sense of exclusion on his part. Rather the implication is if we do not absolutely love and prefer him over our loved ones, we simply will not have the ability/power to be his disciple. This is clarified by the examples which follow: Jesus cites the example of the man building a tower who must calculate the cost before he starts. The same goes for a king going to war, he must calculate whether his forces are strong enough to conquer the enemy. In the same way, Jesus is urging would-be followers of his to calculate the radical cost of discipleship. If we prefer human beings, possessions, comfort or even our own lives over him, we simply cannot afford to be his disciple, but will be like the man who began to build the tower and ran out of money shortly after laying the foundation. If Jesus is not number one in our lives, we will not have the capacity to finish the costly project of salvation.
Dear brothers and sisters, I don’t know about you, but this is a hard pill to swallow. Christianity is not a “fluffy” religion. Each of us is challenged this weekend to consider our allegiances. Are we willing to follow the example of the first Christians in becoming “haters of the human race”, in the sense that Jesus calls us to be, by putting him and his teachings first and foremost? Or will we show preference to creatures and comfort, and so risk not being able to afford the cost of discipleship? Let us pray for the grace to desire him above all else!