Text Study for Luke 14 25 to 35 (Part One)

13 Pentecost C 2022

Most of us preachers will have to deal early on with Jesus’ demand that we “hate” any and all who would claim our loyalty and care in competition with our commitments as disciples.

My mom taught me that it was wrong to say I hated anyone. Perhaps you received similar formation. That instruction hasn’t kept me from hating people, but it certainly has kept me from saying it out loud or demonstrating my hatred too plainly. When I was growing up, saying I hated someone (or even hated some thing, like spinach) was regarded as just below uttering a profanity.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

If our listeners have received similar training from little on (and if some of them are forming their children in the same way), then they may not hear anything else in the text. With that in mind, it’s probably important to address Jesus’ command to hate before going on with further reflections. I’m not sure that’s how it will work out in my message this week, but I suspect that it’s a generally good policy with this and similar texts.

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate their father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters, and furthermore, their own self,” Jesus declares to the crowd, “then they will not be able to be my disciple” (Luke 14:26, my translation and emphasis).

Richard Swanson urges us to resist the temptation to cushion the hammer blows of that demand. “It will not do to soften these words by appealing…to notions of ‘oriental hyperbole,’” he writes. Many interpreters tone down the violence of the verb, “and the whole offensive mess becomes a tame suggestion that one ought to value one’s religious faith relatively more even than one values family obligations,” Swanson continues.

But that won’t do, he concludes, “The word translated as ‘hate’ means ‘hate,” he argues. “That’s all there is to it” (page 189). Swanson reminds us that this demand is in the same context as the demand that disciples bear their own crosses. That demand can also be softened into a moralistic metaphor which turns nosy neighbors and morning halitosis into “crosses” to be born. Swanson reminds us that Jesus’ first listeners would have made no such connections. Jesus words about cross bearing “would have been heard as obscene and offensive” (page 189).

Levine and Witherington do not set the interpretive bar quite so high regarding verse 26. “Claims that the apparently hyperbolic statement is typical of Jewish wisdom literature or that that they represent a Semitism indicating not ‘hate’ but ‘love less’ are plausible,” they write.

They note that the Matthean version of the demand offers precisely this reading. “Yet for Luke,” they continue, “discipleship does not appear to be a both/and; it is rather an either/or. Everything that is not directly related to discipleship is to be rejected,” they continue, “to hang on to earthly life will be giving up the heavenly one, just as piling up treasures on earth depletes the heavenly treasury” (page 401).

Levine and Witherington note that our text is paired in some lectionaries with Philippians 3:7-9. While that’s not the case in the current Revised Common Lectionary, that’s a connection worth examining. They note that as Paul writes to the Philippian Christians, he is imprisoned and facing the prospect of Imperial execution because he will not put allegiance to the Empire above his allegiance to Jesus as Lord. “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ,” Paul writes to the church at Philippi. “More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil. 3:7-8a, NRSV).

Paul’s words take this “love/hate” discussion out of the realm of abstractions and put it into a concrete and real-life situation. It would take just a pinch of incense on the altar and a few insincere words to satisfy the Imperial authorities. With those small concessions, Paul could maintain all the “gains” of his previous life. But, in comparison to “gaining Christ,” he regards all the other goods of his life as “rubbish.” The Greek word, of course, is something much more akin to “shit.”

Levine and Witherington offer a necessary caveat in this discussion of “hating” and “cross-bearing.” This “hatred” is not enacted on another. Nor is cross-bearing exercised in violence against another. “Such a total dedication therefore is not compatible,” they remind us, “with the dedication shown by those who would, in the name of God, blow up federal buildings or shopping malls, buses and trade centers. To take up the cross,” they conclude, “means to give up one’s own life rather than to take the lives of others” (page 402).

Malina and Rohrbaugh offer some extended remarks on “love” and “hate” in the first century world of our texts. While we post-industrial post-moderns would regard love and hate as purely internal states, that would not be the case in the first-century Mediterranean world. Malina and Rohrbaugh would understand “love” in that world as “group attachment” or “attachment to some person” (page 376). Love is, therefore, about loyalty and allegiance rather than warm feelings of affection.

“Hate” would, by contrast in this worldview, mean “disattachment, nonattachment, indifference.” These external states do not necessarily reflect internal feelings. “But it is the inward feeling of nonattachment along with the outward behavior bound up with not being attached to a group and the persons that are part of that group,” they write, “that hate entails” (page 376).

The social networks of the first-century Mediterranean world were exclusive in nature. They focused on “love” for in-group members and “hate” for out-group members. Those social networks included family and kin connections, village (which often was about the same network), ethnic groups, class and honor status connections, and perhaps national or tribal connections.

Malina and Rohrbaugh note that Jesus calls for inclusive table fellowship. This is the import of the previous parables in chapter fourteen. “The break with biological families and social networks implied in Jesus’ call for inclusive table fellowship,” they write, “is here made explicit, and the price to be paid for it is spelled out” (page 369). That will also be the connection, I would observe, with the following chapter, where some grumble because Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them (Luke 15:2).

Malina and Rohrbaugh speak the language of sociology when they describe groups in the early Christian movement as “fictive kin groups.” I have only to think of all the Christian congregations that describe themselves as church “families.” That metaphor wraps the “insiders” in a warm and comforting quilt of familiarity and belonging. That quilt feels like “love” to the insider. But it can present “outsiders” with an impenetrable wall of norms and expectations, assumptions and connections that are simply opaque to the newcomer. That wall feels like “hate” to the outsider.

I mention this as a way to accomplish two things. First, we can use this common experience of church communities to make familiar something that seems quite foreign in the text. The “love” that insiders experience may be an internal state, but it is primarily an external reality. People can belong to the same congregation, despise one another, and still consider themselves part of the same church “family.” Congregations may express great love for “outsiders” (notice the many signs that announce “all are welcome”) and yet act with “hate” through exclusionary habits and structures.

Second, we can remind folks that what we insiders experience as church is not what outsiders experience. If our communities are to be inclusive table fellowships on the model of Jesus’ preferred community, then we are called to see ourselves from the perspective of the outsiders. That’s difficult, because we will then see the “hate” we have demonstrated in our community boundaries, structures, habits, and values. We insiders won’t enjoy that experience (at least I hope we won’t).

The fall (in the United States context, anyway) used to be a time when people “returned” to churches in one way or another. While that’s not nearly so common as it was a generation ago, it still happens. This text can offer a helpful prod for Christian communities to examine our practices of hospitality and to discern whether they and we are, well, hospitable. Do we speak words of “love” in our publicity and practice works of “hate” in our behaviors?

This discussion moves us toward a more systemic and less psychological understanding of “love” and “hate” in the framework of our text. One of the marks of Whiteness, for example, is the assertion that racism is only about individual intentions and actions that consciously proceed from such intentions. Anything that does not flow from individual intentions is therefore not culpable since “that’s not what I intended.”

But if “love” and “hate” are descriptions first of external realities and secondarily of internal responses to those realities, then we can be and should be culpable first for the outcomes of those external realities. I may feel welcoming to all. I may not have a racist bone in my body. But if my behavior excludes others from the goods of community and society due to race-based policies, practices, and structures, then my behavior is racist regardless of my intentions.

We have moved beyond the discomfort Jesus causes because my mommy told me it was wrong to say I hated anyone. We have now moved into the discomfort of Whiteness that chooses to render invisible any systemic advantage we White people may have. If that advantage becomes visible, then we (those of good conscience, anyway) must grapple with the “hate” that is built into the systems that benefit us.

References and Resources

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington, Ben III, The Gospel of Luke, 2018.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, 1992.

Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Luke, 2006.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s