Have you heard the phrase ‘loving someone or something to death’? Or ‘I can’t live without you or it’? The idea that something (a partner, a child, a house, a car, a job) is so important to us that we’d die without it. It’s extreme language. Because our families, our possessions, our roles in life, however important they are to us, are not really so vital that we’d die without them. They’re not like food, or drink, or oxygen. Or are they? Someone who suffers a great loss may still be here, but you might say ‘something in them died’. ‘It’d kill him if he lost that job’ we might say, not because he’d have a heart attack if he got fired, but because having the job makes him who he is. Loving things to death. The language is extreme, but that’s because it’s describing something extreme. You can love something to death – love it so much that you’d die without it.
Jesus uses some similarly extreme language in our reading today:
‘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.’
We’ve talked about loving to death. This is the opposite: hating something to life. This is the Jesus who talks about following him as the way to life, who now seems to be saying that the only way to that life is by hating things. Hating things so much that you’ll live without them. Jesus has a track record for saying things like this – he talks about cutting your hand off so you don’t sin – things that he obviously doesn’t mean literally, extreme language to make us wake up and pay attention. Just like with ‘loving things to death’ on one level it’s clearly not true. We can’t find the way to life by hating our families, hating our spouses and children, hating ourselves. But is there a truth hidden in there like there is in loving things to death? Maybe we can understand what he’s getting at by thinking more about these two ideas: loving things to death and hating them to life.
I think sometimes I’m in danger of loving my family to death. And there’s a huge problem with that. When we love something or someone so much that we couldn’t exist without it – we stop actually loving it. We need to possess it for our survival. That’s not love. That’s ownership. And where it leads is death. Loving to death is actually a form of hate.
Now let’s think about what the opposite of that looks like – hating to life, in Jesus’ words. The radical challenge in this passage is that Jesus is clear that there can be no compromise in how we love and follow him. Perhaps we could think of this hate slightly differently – Rowan Williams in his book ‘Being Disciples’ says “Love God less and you love everyone and everything less.”
So perhaps this challenge from Jesus is less about hate and more about love. Maybe this hating that Jesus is teaching his disciples about is about trusting God for everything, allowing the wonderful gifts we have in our friends and family to be completely free, so that we love God enough to learn about love and life in all it’s fullness – in eternity, through death, resurrection and redemption. Letting go of our own lives and of those we love most deeply, this hating that Jesus speaks of, paradoxically, brings life for us and for them.
Following Jesus, being a disciple is about making a choice, a choice with real costs and consequences. Perhaps, we could say, a choice between loving things to death and hating them to life. Or if we were to take the language Rowan Williams uses- it’s a choice regarding how we love God and in turn therefore, how we love full stop.
We find Jesus’ words here difficult ‘hate your family, hate your life’ not just because ‘hate’ seems too harsh, too negative, but also because we all like to think that making the choice to follow Jesus shouldn’t have a real cost on our families or our lives. We don’t really want to think about the alternative: that those who follow Jesus are not always going to be making decisions based on “what’s best for me,” or even “what’s best for our marriage/ family/ children.” It may mean living more simply because our resources can be used better for others. It may mean making unpopular choices despite the protests of our family. Jesus asks us to count those costs carefully. We need to, because otherwise we will domesticate the gospel. We will let the message of God’s love and care for all humanity become the story of how much Jesus loves us and our families. We will love ourselves and our nearest and dearest – to death.
Jesus is talking in extremes to get us to pay attention. The danger is that we feel like it’s an exaggeration so we ignore it. But we can’t afford to do that. No, Jesus doesn’t want us to hate anyone, and certainly doesn’t want us to hate our families or our own lives. But he wants us to wake up to the fact that the way we love people isn’t the way he loves. The love of God is not a possessing love; it’s a gifting love. It’s a love not bent on ownership, but one that gives, even in the face of death. Hence the gift of life in the face of death – resurrection.
To know and have this kind of love is a choice, a choice to be more like the only person who can offer us it. A choice to be a disciple. A choice to be made with our eyes open. A choice we need to make and remake every day, aware of the cost.
“Love God less and you love everyone and everything less.”