Reading the Gospel, Learning to Hate?

Recently I was asked why in the Luke 14:25-35 Gospel lesson does Jesus teach “hate”:

“Now great multitudes went with Him. And He turned and said to them, ‘If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple. And whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple.'” (emphasis not in the orginal text)

Jesus teaching us to “hate” seems uncharacteristic of the Lord who not only taught us to love not only neighbor but enemy as well, but who died for us while we were still considered to be the enemies of God!

In answering the question about why Jesus said we are to “hate” other family members, I’m not going to address any issues about translating the Greek word for hate or its connotations.   Rather, I want to bring attention to the very way in which we read Scriptures as a key to dealing with the difficult sayings of Jesus. I won’t claim that my answer will address the question satisfactorily, but it raises an issue we should keep in mind as we read and try to comprehend the Bible .

There are the claims that Jesus in this passage is speaking with a certain form of speech referred to as Mideast or Mediterranean “exaggeration.”    I’ve also heard it said that Americans tend to prefer understatement when speaking and thus “exaggeration” seems even more magnified in our minds.   All of this possibly gives us some insight into  understanding Jesus in Luke 14.

There is the fact that Jesus at times confronts us in our thinking and tries to shake us out of our lethargy by making shocking statements.   He speaks from the point of view of the Kingdom of God whose values are often just the opposite of what we might expect say for example of justice which turns out to be forgiveness, or where the first are made last, and the least are made the greatest.

Jesus demands from us a radically new way of life, and if we listen to his words we really have to wrestle with what he could possibly have meant. What is He teaching us to do? This saying about “hating” parents is just the opposite of his teaching to “love your enemies.” It is the world of the up-side-down Kingdom of God. We are to examine our assumptions, loyalties, dependencies, and our worldly values in order to constantly question how it is possible for us to live in this world of the Fall and yet claim membership in the Body of Christ and thus claim membership in the Kingdom of Heaven.

In other words, one possibility is that Jesus wanted to challenge us in our normal thinking and make us realize how different the values of the Kingdom of Heaven really are.

In that sense, His words cannot be taken out of the context of the Gospel. In other words, we cannot simply take one line out of the Gospel and try to create a way of life around it for Christ gives to us the values of the Kingdom of God to transform the world.   It can be a  dangerous thing (which we often do) to take one sentence of Christ’s teaching out of its Kingdom context and try to impose it on our lives in the world of the Fall.  This is very true of Jesus’ teaching on hating family (for He also said other things about family which tell us to love and respect the other members of our families, and when at His death He commends His own mother to the care of His disciple John, he also demonstrates something different than hate for His mother ).

Unfortunately, many Christians rely on single passages or sayings of Jesus as their only encounter with Christ.  There are countless books which “help” us by rearranging the Gospel lessons into neat collections of sayings, one liners, sound bytes, which are designed exactly to give full power to each sentence by taking them out of context so that each saying really stands out in our minds.  This form of Scripture reading when it becomes our only way of reading the Gospels, causes us to think of the Bible as an endless collection of quotable quotes, favorite sayings, and incantations to apply to any situation.   While it is a way to read the bible, it should not be our sole diet of Scripture reading.  Each text will be much more meaningful when also understood in its context.

The saying of Jesus about hating one’s parents or children are meant to shock us, to force us to take notice, and to actively pursue their meaning – but their meaning within the context of all the other things Jesus taught and commanded.  If we simply take one line out of the Gospel context and try to comprehend it separated from the rest of Christ’s discipline and from His body of disciples, we distort its meaning.

The same Christ who spoke to us about hating parents and children, tells us to love our neighbors and enemies. We cannot read each verse as if it is unconnected from all the other teachings of Jesus. We need to read them all within the context of the entire New Testament, and we need to read them within the Christian community in order to be able to search for their meaning.

When we try to treat the bible like a collection of one line pithy sayings, then we think we can just pull any one verse out of its context and use it as almost a magic saying to live by for the day.   In doing this, we begin to treat each line of Scripture almost as some magical spell if we say it correctly will exhibit magical powers.  Think for example of the fictional Harry Potter books and movies.  There the wizards and witches have to memorize one line formulas and each when spoken has magical power to do something.   That is not what Scripture reading is to be.  We are not engaged in magic, we are not invoking the elemental powers of this world.  Rather we are engaged in a process by which we ourselves become transformed by the teachings of Christ:  whether in imitating Him or obeying Him, we begin to conform our lives to the values of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Sometimes  taking individual passages out of their contexts reduces the passage to a magic spell formula.   But that is not what the Scriptures are nor do they ever tell us to use them in that way.  Every text of Scripture is to be kept in the context of the Bible.  When we read them contextually, we also make them the context in which we understand them and try to practice them!  Scripture is theology, not wizardry.

Every Scripture text has its context, and so reading any one of the difficult sayings of Jesus is meant to draw us back into the deep well of the Scriptures and to try to understand the saying in the light of all of Jesus’ other teachings and his own actions. Did He hate his mother or brothers? NO.  In fact He expands His definition of brother, sister mother to include all of His disciples including us (Mark 3:34-35).   Do we see Him showing respect for the 10 Commandments law to honor your mother and father? yes.

So obviously a mere literal reading of a single text taken out of context is not the best way to read the bible.  Memorizing certain passages has value to it, but we are not merely trying to inform our minds, we are trying to transform our hearts and lives.   This happens best when we keep each line of Scritpure in its context:  the rest of the bible and the Christian community.

We are to keep on reading the Scriptures, and wrestling with the text, and learning to understand them within the context of the people of God to whom God entrusted them.