This passage includes a number of what biblical scholars refer to as the “hard sayings” of Jesus: “hard” in the sense of being both harsh in tone and difficult to understand. Hate your family. Give up your possessions. Prepare to die and follow me if you want to be my disciple. This is not the kind of thing one hears at workshops on church growth strategies!
One way around these hard sayings is to treat them as if Jesus didn’t really mean what he said: as if they could benefit from a better public relations consultant to make the message a little more palatable. Another approach is to retain the hard edge to the teaching, but maintain that it is an impossible ideal. It is a set-up for failure, showing us just how far we are from the kingdom of God. It is meant to demonstrate how much we need to acknowledge our faults and repent. But it is not meant to teach us about how to live our life. So, we can admit how far we fall short of this ideal, and then go about our lives.
I’d like to suggest that while this teaching isn’t easy, neither is it impossible. It is hard because it cuts right to the heart of the fears that bind us and invites us to a new freedom. We are presented with a choice, and this choice is not without risk and sacrifice. What we choose will determine the shape of our life, so we do well to count the cost.
Jesus doesn’t mince words because what is at stake is too important and he wants to make himself clear. The very fact of his growing popularity at this point in his ministry makes Jesus suspicious that he is probably being misunderstood. And so just when he is drawing the biggest crowds of his career, Jesus drops these hard sayings on the people like a bomb. He wants to draw a sharp distinction between following the crowd and following him; between the usual consolations people seek from religion and the self-surrender true religion demands. Let me repeat: this is not the sort of thing one hears at church growth workshops.
The usual consolations of religion are something along these lines: if you do X (sacrifice the right calf, attend mass, make confession, obey your husband, pay your tithe, obey the law) you will avoid Y (sickness, poverty, loneliness, grief, punishment, eternal damnation). This is the consolation of religion in its negative formulation – avoiding curse.
It also takes the form: if you do X then you will gain Y (health, prosperity, respect, children, happiness, eternal salvation). This is the consolation of religion in its positive formulation – securing blessing. It is all about reward and punishment. Religion becomes a way of avoiding, or at least coping, with suffering, and a way of self-fulfillment, happiness, realizing your potential. It is an offer of carrots and sticks to relieve our anxiety and boost our self-importance. The problem is that it doesn’t work; at least, it doesn’t work for very long.
The reason is that religion practiced in this way remains all about me. It binds us more deeply to our fears in our futile attempt to try to manage, control and manipulate God and others to feel secure. The usual consolations of religion serve to reinforce our willfulness. We continue to be driven by fear in a thousand ways.
Jesus offers us something other than the usual carrots and sticks. He invites us to relinquish self-will in self-surrender to God. Following Jesus means abandoning ourselves to God’s love in the way that Jesus abandoned himself to God’s love. This is a hard teaching, because falling absolutely in love and embracing the demands of love makes us feel vulnerable and overwhelmed. It means accepting that we are but a part of a larger whole that is finally mysterious. This mystery comprehends us; we do not comprehend it. Surrendering to the mystery of God means leaning back into the flow of a love that we do not and cannot control. We just don’t know where it might take us.
The only way to move past our fear and follow Jesus is to entrust ourselves to mystery and surrender to love. Jesus has a very sophisticated understanding of the main forms that fear takes in our lives: fear of being ostracized, fear of economic insecurity, and fear of punishment by authority.
“Hate your family” means letting go of the need to please, manipulate, and control our intimate relationships to manage our fear of abandonment and loneliness. It means being free to go against the grain of the crowd when the demand of love may require us to sacrifice the approval and support of people we care about.
Jesus goes onto to expand this to even “hating our life” or our “soul” – being willing to let go of the sense of self we’ve carefully constructed, the persona that protects us. Self-surrender to God means refusing to cling to that identity if it inhibits our capacity to respond to love.
“Selling your possessions” means being willing to drop out of the rat race, indifferent to the ladder of success however it is defined. All the great saints of every tradition chose downward mobility. Why? So the fear of loss of material goods would have no power over them; so that they would be free to love.
“Taking up our cross” means being unafraid to risk the sanctions of social, political and religious authorities when our commitment to love threatens them. In all these instances, the point is not that family and friends should be shunned, or that possessions are bad, or that authority should always and every be resisted. The point is that if we allow them to define our identity, if we are bound to them by our fear of losing their support, then we are no longer free to follow Jesus. We are no longer able to surrender to God in love.
When Mom has to face the fact that her approval no longer determines your life because you’ve surrendered to a greater mystery, it may feel to her like hatred. When you are fired because you were unwilling to stay quiet about your company’s unethical and even illegal practices, it may feel like you’ve lost everything. Defying the authority of government to spy on its citizens and punish whistle blowers may force you into exile or prison. How free do you want to be? You do well to count the cost.
Jesus doesn’t care about carrots and sticks. This is way beyond that. This is about the kind of person you wish to be and the kind of world you wish to live in. “Hate your family, sell your possessions, and prepare to die if you want to follow Jesus” is an invitation to freedom, to surrendering our small, fearful identities to realize our participation in something much bigger. When we embrace our identity as God's beloved, there is no longer anything to fear, nothing to defend, no one to appease or impress. Punishment and reward are transcended. There is, finally, just being in love for love's sake.
“If with God's help and without a presumptuous reliance on his own efforts someone comes to win this condition, he will pass over to the status of an adopted son. He will leave behind servility with its fear. He will leave aside the mercenary hope of reward, a hope which seeks a reward and not the goodness of the giver. There will be no more fear, no more desiring. Instead, there will be forever the love which never fails.” (John Cassian, Conference X.9)