I am glad I did not say this:
25Now great crowds accompanied him, and he turned and said to them, 26“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. 27Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. 28For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? 29Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, 30saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. 33So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.
Jesus knew how to get His followers thinking: hard sayings and tough questions.
If the Savior had done a series of tweets saying these things, Jesus would have drawn the wrath of Christians. First, God in Flesh evidently did not know He was love and so could not hate anything. Second, the command to bear a cross was going to get in the way of self-esteem and human desires. Third, His command to “count the cost” threatens to steal the dreams of those lacking the privilege of wealth. Finally, His command that we “renounce all” in following Him is bound to lead to zealotry and religious extremism.
And yet Jesus said it.
At this point Bible school training kicks in and I am compelled to remind myself and my reader (hello Mom!) that Jesus is engaged in hyperbole, a common practice in the ancient world and on talk radio. Good readers have to contextualize the hard sayings with the whole message and life of the Lord Jesus.
This is true, but perhaps hasty. This hard saying was meant to be a hard saying before being softened.
There is a great deal of theological truth in this passage, but softening the hardness will not help find it too quickly.
My first reaction when reading this without my “it must not mean what it says” lenses on is: “What? No, Jesus, really? God forbid!”
If Jesus followed the pattern He used with Peter (Matt 6:23), and I could only be so lucky, Jesus would rebuke me and then leave me to think through and experience His hard saying.
In fact, I have had to do so. What have I learned?
No love can be absolute but the love of God. I love “one nation under God” because when I have to choose between obeying God or government, I must obey God. In the name of Christ, my love for my Mom and Dad, wife, children, and friends also must be “under God.”
Compared to my love for Jesus, my love for Hope must be like hate. In Paradise I would never have to choose between Jesus and Hope, but in a broken world I might have to do so.
If the most beloved person in my life becomes Jesus enemy, then I must love Jesus more than the beloved.
I am afraid of this truth, because I know historically it can breed extremism and violence. It can be used to justify evil prejudices and hates.
And yet the solution to one vice is not to run toward the other. History contains more examples of those who loved King and Country more than God’s commands. Society is littered with the wreckage of mother love become “smother love” and those who placed family ties over justice. West Virginians did not feud as much as outsiders think, but we did sometimes go too far for family ties.
It is hard, very hard, for me to break that pattern. In fact, it is so hard that Jesus is telling me to count the cost: “If you become my disciple, I demand everything.” A guru who demands this is either God or a tyrant. Every human being is called to love God more than anything.
Of course, I hastily add in my mind I will know I love God when I love my neighbor. Of course, I add, loving God can lead to sacrificial service, even to the point of death, for my country, my family, my community. Of course, my “hatreds” are rarely holy and more often “hate” as it is commonly defined: “the opposite of love.”
But before I explain away the hard saying completely, a gentle voice prods me: “Love for a Christian is the Nature of God.” This seems good, safe even, but the gentle voice continues: “All the lesser loves flow from this divine Love. Love God well and you will love your neighbor well.” Again I rejoice. Christian love is powerful, tough and demanding.
Christian love for family often requires great sacrifice. Christian love demands caring for the sick, even when they don’t “deserve” it. Christian love demands treating even the worse criminal with a degree of dignity, because of our love for the image of God the lawbreaker still has. This is hard, painful, and almost beyond me, but it is even more complicated than I would hope.
I could (almost!) imagine obeying or at least knowing a simple law of love: “Love everyone.”
“But sometimes, because the world is broken, loves conflict, demands and duties contradict,” the voice continues, “what then?”
And I know I must love Love and not the lesser objects of love.
If I adore God (Love Himself), there are times when that will mean acting in opposition to what I would have done if some lesser beloved were all there was.
I will “hate” the lesser beloved to preserve perfect love the greater Beloved.
This is hard, but true to life. Hope E. Reynolds must be one the greatest of human loves in my life. If another person dislikes or disrespects her, then it would be hard, basically impossible, for me to have anything but a superficial relationship. How much more true of Jesus?
“But!” my heart responds, “doesn’t Jesus love sinners? Didn’t He love and even die for those who hated Him? Didn’t He forgive them from the Cross?”
And this is a deep truth, but another reminder that though I am to be like Christ in some ways I am not Christ! I am not called to die for the sins of the world. I am not capable of forgiving sins against Jesus, since only Jesus can grant that authority. Like the good father in the parable, I must wait in hope for any person to turn to the Savior and run to greet them. I can throw a party for them, but even in the parable the prodigal will not inherit any more wealth from the Father. He has squandered his inheritance and that consequence remains.
Too often we condemn the older brother, as we should, and we rejoice in the coming home of the youngest son, as we should, but in our hearts condemn the father for allowing the younger sons choices to matter.
My sin is forgiven, but the scars remain. Forgiveness and restoration is total in that I can stand before a Holy God (o the bliss of this glorious thought!), but His hands retain the marks of my sin, my community retains those marks, and I retain the marks: thank God they are becoming birth marks of a better me.
At the end of such reflection I know that mostly I do not love enough: not anyone, not anything. Because too often my standards come from my taste and opinions, and not the eternal law of God, and because I have no divine hierarchy of loves, I protect myself by holding back. If I must retain a friend no matter what, I will keep my relationships superficial. Worse, I can become like the abused spouse who thinks that enabling his or her abuser is “love.” We forget the spouse who hits has made himself or herself the enemy of a human (even the only human is self) and so of God.
So oddly, limiting my love for Hope allows me to love her more freely. Some reserve, some appropriate check, is placed on my commitment and on her response. Honestly, as a romantic I long to say to some human being: “I will love you no matter what. I love you so much I would rather go to hell than not be with you.” It used to frustrate me that Hope would say: “I love you under God.”
She would not accept absolute romance or commitment from me.
Though still tempted to it like an alcoholic to drink, I can feel the attraction while writing, I know the peril. One marriage, under God. One family, under God. One nation, under God. I must love all with God’s love and so love all, but in the proportion and in the way God would have a man love.
And God, Love Himself, is the only absolute love of my life.
And not my image or idol of God either, but a Holy God (Holy! Holy! Holy!) who is so “other than” me that everything I say of Him is an analogy, except in the person of Jesus Christ.
Jesus. Jesus. Jesus.
How small my love is for you compared to how big it should be!