This is a re-post from an article I wrote for the CCK Reason Blog, which you can find here:
Jesus often can be very surprising. Traditionally, he is portrayed as a gentle figure that preaches love and acceptance. While this is correct, as far as it goes, it is not a complete picture of the Jesus described in the New Testament. We must remember that Jesus led thousands of people in a politically volatile land. He experienced considerable resistance from the religious and governmental establishments. As such, Jesus can be compared more accurately to a peaceful revolutionary, rather than a monk-like figure. As such, he often said and did things that might be unexpected, given our traditional Western views of him.
What does the passage say?
If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, even his own life, he cannot be my disciple, whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:22-27).
At first glance this is a shocking statement. However, we must never interpret a section of the Bible in isolation from its immediate context, and by extension its wider context. Firstly, by reference to the wider context of the Bible, Jesus is not saying that it is the duty of his followers to hate their relatives. This would contradict the fifth commandment to love your father and your mother, and Jesus expressly affirms the laws of God recorded in Exodus in the Old Testament form which this commandment came (Matthew 5: 17-20). Secondly, by reference to this passage’s immediate context, we can better understand what Jesus was saying. Reading further on: For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it began to mock him saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish’. This passage is a warning to those who are thinking about following Christ; they should first consider how much it might cost them. Acknowledging Jesus as your God and Saviour will demand your complete allegiance. If the claims of our relatives and the claims of Christ come into collision, the claims of the relatives must give way.
Following Christ is both simple and extremely costly. It is easy to accept Jesus as your God theoretically. Practically, however, it is often very hard. It is as the famous preacher Charles Hadden Spurgeon said: ‘Now, what say you to this? Are you willing to give up your own mind to God, and simply to believe what he tells you in his word? Are you willing also to give up self-rule? “We are our own” says one; “we may do as we like. Our tongues are our own, we may say what we like. We are free thinkers and free livers”. Let me tell you that, if you are saved by Christ, you shall find the only true freedom you can enjoy; but there must first be a complete surrender of yourself to your God’ (The C H Spurgeon collection: Comfort and Assurance, Emerald House, p. 116)
What about Jesus?
Did Jesus hate his family then? Not at all. The care that Jesus had for his mother is clear from what he said to John (one of his followers) while in excruciating pain on the cross; that John should look after his (Jesus’) mother Mary (as it is assumed at this stage that Joseph, Mary’s husband, had died (John 19:25-33))
It is also interesting to note that Mary was foretold that Jesus would put his ‘Father’ (God) before anything else in his life (Luke 2:34-36, 2:4-49). As a boy Mary lost Jesus in Jerusalem for three days. Once found, Mary said: ‘Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress’, Jesus replied, ‘Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ (Luke 2:48-49) Jesus also makes God the priority before his family in Luke 8:19-21, when a crowd was surrounding Jesus and his mother and brothers were standing outside waiting to see him. Jesus responds to the messenger who informs him that they are waiting for him by saying: ‘My mother and brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it’
Jesus consistently puts his ‘Father’ (God) before anything else, even his family. However, this by no means meant that Jesus hated his relatives. His devotion for God drove him: more than his affection for his friends, family or his own life.
The Law of Love
This question was brought to Jesus: Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law? He replied: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbour as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments. (Matthew 22: 34-39)
The ‘Law’ is recorded in the Old Testament. It was the standard of living decreed by God for the Jewish nation. Love, says Jesus, is the basis of the law. This is a love both for God and for your ‘neighbour’. One of Jesus’ followers asked who was one’s neighbour. Jesus responded by sharing the parable of the Good Samaritan, a parable that is famous today even to those who have not read the Bible. The parable of the Good Samaritan tells us that our neighbour is any fellow human being.
As such, all Christian ethics is motivated by a love for God and love for your fellow man. What happens, then, when your fellow human being does not want you to act in accordance with your love for God? This is the situation that the passage in question is dealing with. In essence, Christ is making a comparative statement: your love for God must be stronger, by comparison, than your love for your family. There is no doubt that this passage is very direct. The demand that Jesus makes upon his followers here is peculiarly stringent and heart-searching.
Those who have chosen to follow Christ in opposition to the wishes of their families should continue to show love and respect to those family members in accordance with the law of love. Jesus’ call to allegiance, in Luke 14:22-27, is completely met by those who decide, in the face of family rejection, to follow him. Even though this decision may cause offence, offence must never be made if it can be avoided. (Matthew 5:43-48, Romans 13:8)
Why is it necessary?
In some cases it is not necessary. Luckily, many people who become Christians (especially in the West) do not have to decide between their families and Christ. However, everyone who becomes a Christian will have to give up some things. Whether that be sex until marriage, your reputation, or maybe certain friends. The principle behind Jesus’ statement remains: Are you willing to give up the things that are important to you to follow him?
Nevertheless, in many cases, Jesus statement is directly relevant. There are many who have had to give up their relationships with their families to follow Christ. This is more commonly true in the Muslim world, for example. The acceptance of this passage by those who have to suffer the displeasure, or resistance, of their families to follow Christ is undoubtedly very painful. The division and relationship breakdown that can be caused by disagreement on spiritual, or even worldview, issues can run very deep. We cannot minimise the pain and heartbreak that is involved. Yet, Jesus makes it very clear that he will commend those who give up so much for him, and that the pain and rejection involved will by no means go unnoticed or unrecognised in eternity (Matthew 19: 29).
1. Ryle, J. C., Expository Thoughts on Luke: Volume 2, 1858
2. The C H Spurgeon collection: Comfort and Assurance, Emerald House, p. 116
3. The Apologetics Study Bible, ed. Chad Brand, E. Clendenen, Paul Copan, J. P. Moreland.