A couple of weeks ago we read in Luke’s gospel how the Lord gave a challenging piece of advice to his prospective disciples, ‘Try your best to enter by the narrow door, because, I tell you, many will try to enter and will not succeed’ (Luke 13:24). On that occasion I said that entering through the narrow door means putting our faith into action. I said that leisurely coming to church and saying our prayers, without letting our worship inform and change the way we relate to others, does not necessarily mean that we are living the Christian life in its fullness.
This morning things seem to be stepping up a little bit more as we read a couple of even more radical sayings that could leave us a little confused or even disheartened, because one thing is talking about a (self-evidently) metaphorical narrow door we must strive to enter; quite another thing is to talk plainly about hating our families and making ourselves destitute for the sake of the Kingdom of God.
Ancient culture valued a person’s family and clan above everything else; nothing was comparable to the wellbeing, and protection of one’s relations. Second after this ultimate priority came self-interest. Contemporary culture may be a little different nowadays, but the list of people’s priorities often still include the same two top headings of self and family - in whichever way you’d like to define them.
So the Lord is not commanding us to “hate” in the usual sense; but primarily he is asking us to revaluate the list of our life priorities, if do intend to follow him. “Hate” is not a kind ‘emotional revulsion’ towards particular people, neither it is a leaving behind, a kind of ‘physical distance’, rather it is a command to become spiritually detached, a command to dislodge our top priorities, whatever they may be, and replacing them with him. In this way Jesus redefines relationships and their (sometimes dysfunctional) dynamics for everyone who wishes to follow him, including for us here. Following this command would still demand us to love others as we love ourselves, but not because we like them, because we have to, or because we share family bonds with them, rather to love others because we find them in God whom we place above all else.
But there is more. The spiritual detachment Jesus requires us to practice goes beyond human relationships to include everything else. He says, ‘None of you can be my disciple unless he gives up all his possessions’ (Luke 14:33). In the same way, Jesus is not asking us to become homeless poor in order to be Christians – only certain people are called to self-imposed poverty for the sake of the Kingdom. No, Jesus commands us to prevent our possessions form possessing us, from shackling us in a constant craving for money and objects. Here too then, Jesus asks us to revaluate our priorities and to exercise spiritual detachment. By redefining our relationships and our priorities Jesus doesn’t call us to literally hate or despise anyone or anything. He calls us to be spiritually detached from all the things that distract us or slow us down in walking after him – even if these be our families or our most treasured things. By redefining our relationships in this way Jesus simply calls us to be free to live the Christian life in all its fullness and, importantly, in all its joy - a joy that comes primarily from knowing him, and a joy that (unlike for the rest of society) is not dependant on what we have or don’t have, or on the dynamics of our closest relationships, a joy that endures even when we have to carry our crosses daily behind him.
As we contemplate this passage, I guess few of us may be thinking “This is not for me”. If you are or if you feel that sometimes the bar to be a Christian seems to be set too high, I want you to remember that the Lord loves you and that he wants everyone, even you, to follow him in the way that leads to fullness of life. So, do not be disheartened, because it is in the moments in which I am humble enough to honestly say, “Lord, I can’t do this. This is too much for me.” that he comes to our rescue with his mercy and says, “Yes, you can, because I am walking with you.”