This morning I read these difficult words from Jesus in Luke 14:
“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.” That’s several ‘ands’ from Jesus there, all subordinated by the verb ‘hate.’
The following verse doesn’t take the edge off either: “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” All or nothing words from Jesus. There is no partial loyalty allowed in Jesus’ kingdom. Total devotion to Jesus and the way of the cross is essential in his kingdom. “Any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.”
Among the troubling passages in the Bible, this conversation between Jesus and his disciples must rank near the top. Jesus’ commands are so jarring that I am tempted to find a positive interpretation without allowing the sharp edge of these words to confront me.
Jesus makes me anxious with these words. It’s like ‘wife and children’ appear in italics to my eyes even though it’s not formatted that way on the page. I love Emily and Madeleine most of all. I want to flip to an encouraging psalm or a passage about compassion right away.
But part of ‘trusting in Jesus’ is believing that his goodness is always enclosed even with his sharpest commands. We read the Gospel by faith, not sight. I cannot conveniently avoid these difficult words. I believe there is truth and goodness in Jesus’ abrasive words even though I cannot see where that goodness may be found.
Difficult passages test our avowed commitment as orthodox Christians to live ‘under the authority of Scripture.’ This is where that scriptural value takes root…or doesn’t. I may be troubled, anxious, and perplexed by Jesus’ commands, but that does not mean my search for meaning ends. I must search other portions of scripture. N.T. Wright says that when we read any small portion of scripture, we should see that one episode within the grand, vast story of redemption.
Remembering the whole story of the cross is the key to understanding this passage about family, friendship, and loving one’s life. These difficult words about devotion to the cross are not the sole words we are given concerning self-denial and loyalty to Christ. Earlier in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus says: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” (Luke 9.23-24, emphasis added).
I am not meant to forget these words when Jesus later speaks to his disciples about ‘hating’ their family members. Jesus’ calling to take up one’s cross promises that losing our life is the very means for saving our lives. The call to renounce our lives, our families, and our friendships is not a calling to abandonment. It is the calling to renounce those relationships as the ultimate relationship. But that is no abstract, stern calling without reward. The cross is not an isolated event that leaves us in despair. The arduous way of the cross ends with the joy of resurrection and new life. Losing our lives for his sake means our life and our relationships will be transformed.
Those that cling to father, mother, sister, brother, husband, wife, and children more than Jesus will never discover the greater fullness of love and joy that comes to those who trust the way of the cross and resurrection in family life and friendship. Our dearest, most cherished relationships are returned to us, transfigured and beautified, when Jesus is enthroned in our hearts above all others.
For those we love most dearly, do we not wish to experience the greatest fullness of love that can be known in relationship? The richest experience of love in human relationships cannot be given to us without the transformation that comes through resurrection. And resurrection does not come without the cross. And following the way of the cross does not happen unless Jesus is loved above all others, beginning now.
So renouncing our lives is not a heartless rejection of those we love; it is laying down our lives and relationships so that we might take them up again in the power of Christ’s resurrection, with greater fullness and glory than we could have asked for or imagined. And there I find the goodness of God again, discovered by faith, not sight.