Text: Luke 14:25-35 (Series C, Proper 18)
Hate is a strong word. We might say that to our kids when they flippantly or emotionally cry out, “I hate broccoli!” or worse, “I hate you” and slam the door. Lacking self-control, they reach for the strongest word they can, but they do not know what they are saying. Hate is, indeed, a strong word.
That’s why it is so shocking to hear Jesus say, “If someone comes to me and does not hate mother, father, wife, children, brothers, sisters, he cannot be my disciple.” It is shocking to us, and it would have been no less shocking to the crowds following Jesus—most likely, it would have been even more shocking to them, because they defined themselves according to their families, according to their lineage.
Hate is a strong word, so strong that we may be tempted to weaken it, water it down, and to put words into Jesus mouth that he doesn’t say. It may be tempting, for example, to say that what Jesus means by “hate” is actually “love less,” as if Jesus were saying, “Love them less than you love God,” as if Jesus were talking about getting our priorities straight: God is the first on the list priorities, he ranks highest, love him with most of your heart, and then family, and then friends, and then career and so on. But that is not what our Lord says, and it is not, in fact, how love works.
There’s an old R&B song from the 70s that goes: “It’s so good lovin’ somebody and somebody loves you back.” But the most ridiculous line is: “I said not 70-30, not 60-40, talkin’ ‘bout 50-50 love, yeah.” For Jesus, however, there is no 50-50 love. Love is 100%. Love, if it is love, can never be anything less. Love the Lord your God will all your heart, all your soul, all your mind. Love your neighbor as yourself. “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” As Solomon writes, “Love is as strong as death.” It is this self-giving love, this sacrificial love, the love of the heavenly bridegroom for his bride the church, that drives Jesus to his death to redeem us. So, the Apostle Paul writes, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.”
So, if Christ is love and the model of perfect love, how can Jesus demand of us that we hate? Hate is a strong word. Christ, in his own Christ-like way, reveals himself under opposites. In the death of Christ is the life of the world, by his wounds we are healed, by becoming sin upon the cross, Christ is our righteousness, and in losing our life for his sake, we gain life. So also, only in hating father, mother, wife, children, can we truly love them. This is the way of the cross.
Leading us further into this mystery, Jesus uses two metaphors: a man who counts the cost before building a tower and a king at war who sues for peace when he figures that he can’t take on an army twice the size. Then Jesus concludes, “In this way, every one of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.” Now Jesus has spelled out for us what he means by hate. He is not talking about murderous anger. He’s not talking about something emotional. By hate, Jesus means forsake, renounce, give up your idols. And make no mistake, this is a strong word.
Being Jesus’ disciple, following Jesus, is a death march to the cross. You don’t get to pack your bags for this march. In fact, everything that you hold on to so dearly will be stripped from your hands until there’s only the cross left to cling to. And the idols, they get burned. So repent! Give them up! If the Lord is going to burn up your idols, why would you make idols out of your father, mother, spouse, and children?
You see, you can’t actually love idols and idols—as idols—can never love you back. Instead, you anxiously worship your idols, making sacrifices to them in the false hope that you’ll get something back. We often do this with our children. We pin on them our hopes, our dreams, our aspirations and ambitions, imagining that we love then while trying to make them into something that serves our own egos, making up for our own failures with their success. Your children are not your future, they are not your hope; Christ is. Christ could return today. He could return this very moment. And if He so desires, He can take your children, your spouse, your father, your mother, from you this very day. They aren’t yours to cling to. Give them up. Commend them to the Lord. Only in losing them to yourself, to your ego, can you get them back, as you get everything from the Lord, as gifts. They can only be loved as gifts, each smile, each belly laugh, each car ride, each conversation around the dinner table, each opportunity to discipline them and train them in the fear and wisdom of the Lord: a gift. Receiving them as gifts, you can love them as you are given to love them, in Christ.
Hate is a strong word. And it almost seems as if Christ is asking: Are you strong enough? Are you strong enough to hate, to renounce? Do you have it in you to give up everything, your own loved ones, your own self, and march to death with me? Have you counted the cost? Are you willing to pay? But you can’t pay the cost. You don’t have it in you, not by your own reason or strength. You are like the tower builder. If it were up to you, you wouldn’t expose yourself to shame and ridicule by starting something you know you can’t finish, just like you wouldn’t sign on the dotted line for a mortgage if you thought you would get canned and lose your job tomorrow and have to foreclose. That’s sage financial advice, after all. That’s the wisdom of this world.
In light of Jesus’ metaphors about the builder and the king at war, what Jesus himself does seems foolish. In the foolishness of the cross, Jesus builds himself up as the temple by first letting himself be torn down and stripped bare. To all appearances, it seems that Jesus did not finish what he started. To anyone passing by, he looks like another failed revolutionary. Willingly, he exposes himself to open mockery and ridicule. And in coming undone, Christ puts on the finishing touches, completing your salvation. He didn’t sit down with an abacus and do the math. No. No calculator could compute so high a sum. He just paid it with his blood, because you couldn’t and he loves you.
In the foolishness of the cross, Christ, the King, knowingly and willingly goes out to meet an armed military force, the officers of the temple guard who hand him over to a Roman governor with legions at his disposal. He doesn’t send a delegation. He doesn’t sue for peace. Christ, who could call upon legions of angels, instead goes out to meet an army with only 11 disciples who have two swords between them, outnumbered, outmatched, so that he may be taken captive as a transgressor, a ne’er-well-revolutionary with no plan for military success. The eleven run away. Even his heavenly father abandons him. He dies as a loser, defeated, and in dying he wins. He forsakes everything, renounces everything, loses everything, and wins it all back for himself. Christ’s love was strong enough to hate his own life, so that he might win you. Dear Christian, Christ has given you his Holy Spirit in your baptism and built you up as his temple, his tower. He has defeated Satan’s army and placed you in his kingdom to live under him in everlasting innocence, righteousness, and blessedness. He has made you his disciple, even though you aren’t able to be one by your own reason or strength. He who began a good work in you will complete it. You will follow him as he cleans his temple and burns away your idols, even as he marches with you to death and raises you to eternal life. Amen.