How do we get from “hate your family and even your own life” (Luke 14:26) to “give up all your possessions” (Luke 14:33)? Let’s start with verse 33, which is the punchline for this paragraph. This will involve some close reading of the Greek text, but I think it will be worth effort for faithful interpretation.
“In this way, therefore,” Jesus says to the large crowds who were going about with him, “each of you who does not renounce control over all of what belongs to them will not be able to be my disciple” (Luke 14:33, my translation). Many scholars suggest that our passage is largely a composition by the Lukan author since it doesn’t show up in the other Synoptic accounts. That matters for our interpretation (whether one accepts that scholarship or not) because it means that this is a specific concern for the community to which the Lukan author is writing.
The verse has a “therefore” (Greek = oun). Therefore (ha, ha), it draws a conclusion based on what precedes it. Too often in our casual reading we can miss these connective words. But they are crucial to an accurate reading and faithful interpretation of the text. For the Lukan author, this verse is not a bumper sticker phrase tacked on to the end of some other random verses. This is a small conclusion to a rhetorical chain of thought and should be treated as such.
The verse begins with “in this way” (Greek = outos). For the Lukan author, the previous verses describe why it is that disciples must take the action in verse 33. There is something about hating family and life, and about counting the cost, that leads to this idea of “renouncing control over what belongs to them.” That connection is not obvious or intuitive. It takes some hard thinking and reflection.
Let’s look at the verb I translate as “renounce control over” (Greek = apotassetai). The root verb (Greek = tasso) can mean “to appoint to or establish in an office.” It can also be used to describe putting someone in charge of something. It can mean, finally, to “order, fix, determine, or appoint.” The verb has to do with determining the fate or status of something or someone. It has the sense of control – not merely ownership.
When we get to the verb in our text, we’ve added the preposition apo. This preposition has the sense of a move away from something or someone. That’s how we get to the lexical meanings of the verb. It can mean to say farewell to someone or something, to take leave of someone or something. In an expanded sense, it means to renounce or give up someone or something. This moves us closer to the connection between verses 26 and 33 in our text.
I would suggest that to “hate” family or life itself is not to emotionally reject those loved ones. As I noted in the previous post, the psychological content of “hate” comes to the fore for post-Enlightenment individualists. Instead, when Jesus uses the verb “hate” (or at least when the Lukan author uses it), Jesus talks about saying goodbye to, moving away from, giving up allegiance to someone or something.
I think, however, the sense is stronger than that. Verse 33 says that disciples say goodbye to reliance on controlling things and people around them as the source of their life. Disciples cannot serve two masters. We’re going to come to that statement in Luke 16:13. It is instructive that this verse also contains the verb “to hate.” When we serve a master (the Greek is the word for “Lord”), the Lukan author says we will love the one and hate the other.
We can have that sort of allegiance to only one Lord. And in Luke 16, the choice is between God and “mammon.” We are going to study that text in a couple of weeks. Therefore, keep all this in mind as we go forward. We’re dealing with a major focus in this section of the Lukan account. The Lukan author is going to keep hammering at this emphasis and won’t really be finished with it until the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19 (right before the Lukan Triumphal Entry).
Disciples say goodbye to the security and power we get from things (and people) we control. Disciples say goodbye to “power over” others as the means to abundant life. This brings us to the other important word in verse 33, the word the NRSV translates as “possessions.” That’s an acceptable translation, but I think it loses its edge in English. We tend to think exclusively about material possessions. I don’t think that’s a broad enough meaning for our text.
The base meaning of the word (Greek = huparchousin) is “to be present” or “to be at one’s disposal.” If we take the word apart, we get a literal meaning of “to rule over.” These possessions aren’t merely the stuff we have “at hand,” although that’s included. These possessions are the things we rule over, have power over, have control over. That can and often does extend beyond the material stuff we have in our closets and storage units.
Now we can zero in on the verses earlier in the pericope. Those who follow Jesus are called to “hate” family and life itself. If you look closely, you’ll notice that no one is called to “hate” their husband. The imagined person being addressed is a prototypical paterfamilias, a Roman head of the household. Such a person was always an adult man. That adult man, in legal theory in the Augustan empire, had the powers of life and death over all the members of the household. This text isn’t for everyone. It’s for the men who are really in control of, who have power over, everyone else.
The possessions of such a household included dependent parents, spouse and children, and enslaved persons, as well as the non-human inventory of the estate. The Imperial definition of authentic humanity was this free, adult, propertied, and powerful male – the master (“Lord”) of all he surveyed. Jesus calls disciples to say goodbye to all of these platforms of power over others and to embrace radical dependence upon God alone. It is no accident that this renunciation would then lead to cross-bearing, the deepest place of shame on the Imperial honor/shame scale.
Who is it who can contemplate building a watchtower for his vineyard or a new farm building? Both of those structures are acceptable translations of the Greek word purgos. The landless poor in the crowds following Jesus might labor in such a building project. But they are not going to plan or pay for such a structure. This image is salient to free, land-owning, property-controlling males who have power over others to carry out such a project.
Who is it who might fantasize about being a king and fielding a private army? It’s not the dependent elders, the wives and children, the (younger) brothers and sisters in the crowd. It’s those who actually have some of that power in their lives in the here and now. It is those with the means who would even bother to count the costs of such adventures. And the cost, if such a one wishes to follow Jesus, is to say goodbye to that power and control.
In light of this close reading of our text, I am inclined to use the Second Reading, from Paul’s Letter to Philemon, as the basis for my sermon this week. I love that letter and have studied it intensively and extensively for the last ten years. It shows up just this once in the Revised Common Lectionary, and I don’t want to miss the opportunity to expose listeners to this remarkable text. More to the point, however, this letter gives us multiple case studies of the connection between discipleship and saying goodbye to what and who we control.
The first case concerns Philemon. I imagine him to be both the paterfamilias of that household in Colossae and the head of the little house-church there. We don’t know if Apphia is his wife and Archippus is his son. But that’s a fair conjecture. We do know that the Christian assembly gathers regularly at his house. And we can be pretty certain that this letter was read aloud to that assembly in Philemon’s house while Philemon sat and listened.
We can debate just what Paul was asking Philemon to do. But it is clear that Paul is asking Philemon to say goodbye to his control over Onesimus as his “possession.” Whether that led to formal manumission of Onesimus’ enslaved status is not clear from the letter. But Paul asks Philemon to regard Onesimus “no longer as a slave” but rather as a beloved brother in Christ. Philemon, if you do not say goodbye to what and who you have power over, you cannot follow Jesus. Therefore, dear brother, what will you do?
The second case concerns Onesimus. I want to address our brother, Onesimus, more fully in my next post. For now, we can reflect on the concrete realities in the case of Philemon and how those realities connect to our lives. To what must I say goodbye in order to make room for following Jesus as the highest priority in my life? What will that choice (made daily, as we read elsewhere in Luke) cost me? Will I pay that price?
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.