By Clinton Wilson
Whether we are speaking of our families, or any relationships in which we find ourselves, we must learn to hate them in the right way, so we don’t learn to hate them — or they don’t learn to hate us — in the wrong way. Yes, we must learn to hate them in the right way, that is, as those who learn to be mutual subjects turned toward God, so we don’t learn to hate them in the wrong way, that is, as the ultimate object of our desires and hopes that only God can shoulder.
The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church is fond of saying, “If it isn’t about love, it isn’t about God.” Jesus is the one who ultimately defines love, and that love is cruciform. Strangely, this one who is the fullest embodiment of love puts forward a stark invitation … to hate our families. It was Jesus who said, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26-27).
In Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus reaffirms and expands this teaching:
Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (Matt. 10:34-39)
The words we hear from the lips of Jesus are some of the most troubling in all of Scripture, and are raised by skeptics and atheists alike as examples of the inconsistency of Scripture. Is Jesus justifying violence, and has he not read his own Sermon on the Mount? Is this Jesus in Matthew the same Jesus who told us to love our enemies, and who only earlier in the same gospel said that one who calls his brother a “fool” “shall be in danger of hell fire” (Matt. 5:22)? And isn’t Jesus violating the commandment about honoring one’s father and mother? I don’t think Jesus’ command here is going to end up as the headline of any Vacation Bible School curriculum anytime soon. Q: What did you learn today, Johnny? A: To hate my family!
These passages make us squirm, precisely in order to make us look beyond the surface, and the context of the gospel passage clarifies our conundrum. Good hyperbole does this, and Jesus is a master rhetorician. For Jesus has already mentioned the love the Father has for sparrows, which is only a fraction of the love he has for his children. And so, clearly God loves his family, and Jesus assumes that we will love ours too. The point is that his peace does not come through the sword or violence of the Empire, or even from the love of family, but through the cross on Calvary, which is the sword his disciples must likewise take up. Doing so will force upon them the question of where their true loyalty lies. Will Jesus be their supreme Lord, or something (or someone) else?
Disciples must maintain a thoroughgoing commitment — not to our family alone (although this is important) — but to the new family created through Christ, the church. It is the way of this Father, and the way of the cross, that Jesus is calling people to inhabit; he is relativizing the natural family to create a new one, the family of God. However, the natural family is not dissolved, but reordered within the larger salvific community of our heavenly Father. To be sure, this was scandalous, because in the Jewish story salvation came down precisely through ethnic and familial lines. To this Jesus says, “No, my vision is broader than that.” The new kingdom of God family is not rooted in DNA, or family heritage, but it crosses the lines of all race, all class, all social stations, and all socioeconomic status, rich or poor. This will lead him to say in chapter 12 of Matthew’s gospel, “For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
Of all the things we tend to idolize, family might be one of the easiest and most subtle forms of idolatry. We more readily perceive that sex, drugs, and rock and roll are dead-end streets. But family? It is, after all, our Christian duty to be family people, to cultivate the domestic church, forming persons together through love within and without the home. Additionally, it is in the interest of the common good to encourage strong families, which are the bedrock of sustainable societies (though some might disagree with this assertion). Nevertheless, Jesus calls his disciples to take up their cross, and even family can get in the way of this. Therefore, Jesus says again, “Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”
So does Jesus call us straightforwardly to hate our family? No, but every good thing — including family — goes wrong when we make it an ultimate thing. For those who don’t have family, we can easily insert friends into the mix — who often become something of a chosen family. However, parents and grandparents especially need to learn how to hate their family. A surefire way to make sure your family is not happy in life is to place them above God, thereby making them shoulder all of your hopes, your dreams, your needs, and your aspirations, which they cannot shoulder like God can. How often we have seen parents who are living vicariously through their children; placing their own significance on how well their child performs, or scores on the test, or measures up against the children of their friends.
If we want them to be happy, if we want to love them well, we must learn to hate them in the way Christ commands (which is another way of saying to love them as God intends) — that is, as subjects whom we love in a mutual turn toward our maker, not as objects of our ultimate devotion that only God can fulfill.
Perhaps you remember the college admissions scandal of several years ago; what a terribly sad reality! The motivations of these parents are complex and multifaceted, but surely they are rooted, in part, in an elevation of our children to an idolatrous level. Channeling Henri Nouwen, we must learn that our children are not what they have, what they do, or what others say about them. Ultimately they too will be judged on how well they take up their cross, on how they respond to the grace poured out on them through the cross; are we preparing them for this? I’m sure many of these children now hate their parents in the wrong way, precisely because their parents didn’t hate them in the right way.
But there are still other implications to what Jesus is saying: It might be that for many of us, in order to take up our cross, we need to put down our phone. In order to take up our cross, we need to put down the cocktail glass. In order to take up our cross, we may need to loosen our grip on our children. But if we do so in the way that God envisions, we will gain them back again, and more. They will not then be people of our making, but vessels of God’s divine providence, whom we have nourished and loved and discipled, to be sure, but for whom we have also modeled an ultimate allegiance to Jesus Christ, and the requisite humility and repentance when we fall short, which is inevitable (at least, for me).
In other words, we must learn to hate our children in the right way (that is, as mutual subjects turned toward God), so we don’t learn to hate them — or have them hate us — in the wrong way (that is, as the object of our desires and hopes that only God can shoulder).
If we do this, we just might find that by losing our loved ones, we actually gain them back again as the gift that God intended them to be all along. Indeed, in likewise giving our lives away for Jesus’ sake, we just might find true life for the first time.