23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, September 8, 2013

In this Sunday’s Gospel Jesus said, “If any one comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26) I’m sure that the first thing that comes into the minds of most of us is the Fourth Commandment, “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your God gives you.” Jesus’ words seem to abrogate the command to love one’s parents.

As harsh as these words sound, it gets worse. Jesus went on to say, “everyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:33) Every red-blooded American who hears this will instinctively reach for his or her wallet – just to be certain that it is still intact and undisturbed. These words ought to make us stop, and give our serious attention to the issue of discipleship. Does discipleship really require us to sever all contact with our families, and to divest ourselves of all our material goods? Christian history is littered with the lives of those who took these words literally. What might be our fate if we do not?

Although it might not be apparent at first glance, we use the words “love” and “hate” in exactly the same ways that Jesus did. Everyone here has said at some point in their lives that they “love” a particular food, and “hate” some other food item. Most of us have said that we “love” a particular type of music, but “hate” other kinds of music. There are activities that each of us “love,” and other activities that we “hate.” You might hate going to the doctor, but you do so for an annual check-up because you love your good health.

This is a particular way of using language that conveys preference. To “love” a food item or style of music or sports team does not connote the same kind of love relationship one has with a family member or dear friend. To “hate” a particular food or activity or style of clothing does not connote the same kind of animosity that one might have for an enemy. This use of “love” and “hate” is a statement about preferring one thing over another. It is a statement about personal allegiance; our preferences indicate the nature of our commitments.

In the Scriptures, “love” refers to the binding commitment between covenant partners; it is a statement about mutual obligations rather than emotions. “Hate,” by comparison, means a lack of preference for something that is judged to have a lesser importance. It is common for us to use these words in exactly the same fashion. I hate my smart phone because it is so geeky, but I don’t plan to replace it because I love the things it does.

Jesus used this common experience of preference to describe discipleship. Jesus said that a disciple’s first, and irrevocable, preference must be for him. In this context, to “hate” one’s family, life and possessions means to give preferential loyalty to Jesus, that is, to prefer faith over all other relationships. This isn’t really a startling statement; it’s something well within our daily experience. Jesus said that discipleship means putting his teaching and God’s will first in our lives; everything else can be no more than a distant second. If that isn’t the case, we cannot call ourselves his disciples.

When Jesus said that being his disciple requires us to “hate” family and possessions he meant that our commitment to him automatically precludes the possibility of ultimate commitment to anyone or anything else. This is well within the realm of common experience, and well within our capacity to accomplish, but it should still command our serious attention.

What will happen to our parents, spouses, children, loved ones, friends and possessions if we do not love them as the most important things in our lives? Don’t married people owe one another an unique form of love and commitment? How will children grow up to be loving people if their parents don’t treat them with love and respect? Isn’t Jesus asking something that is actually destructive of life and love when he asks us to take up the Cross and follow him? (Luke 14:27)

The truth about human life and love is that it is not indeterminate. Human life has a specific purpose and human love has a specific goal. This truth is apparent even in the lives of those who do not fulfill this purpose or goal: each person longs for a satisfying life and unconditional love. Sadly, not all find what they seek, because not all direct their desire toward its proper fulfillment.

Only God can bear the burden of granting us perfect happiness and unending love. To place this expectation on the people or things in our lives is to guarantee unhappiness to all involved. No parent, spouse, child, friend or thing can provide perfect happiness or love. The best of people and the finest of things will always have their imperfections. To make a person or a thing into a god precludes the possibility of actually loving them (or of them actually loving us), because it puts them in the impossible situation of owing what they cannot give.

Human life and human love have a pre-ordained goal, which is God. The things in our lives can be stepping stones along the path to that goal, or they can be stumbling blocks. We can treasure the people in our lives as companions on that journey toward God or we can cause them to lose their way (and get equally lost ourselves).

In order to love the people in our lives, and to enjoy the things in our lives, we must prefer Jesus’ teaching and God’s will over all else. Anything else is an idolatrous life that will be devoid of love.

Faith doesn’t require that we renounce all happiness and love. On the contrary, the only path to real love and happiness is to bear the bear the burden of complete commitment to Jesus. Only when we love God above all else can we love parents, spouses, children, friends and possessions in the ways in which they deserve to be loved.