“And there went great multitudes with him: and he turned, and said unto them, ‘If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brothers, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.”
— Luke 14:25-26
People have been debating the meaning of these words of Jesus ever since the moment they were first uttered. Kierkegaard even wrote a book that used them as its basis, Fear and Trembling. They belong to that collection of sayings known as “hard sayings” which Luke was so intentional about highlighting in his gospel.
Many people, with some justification, have read this statement through the years and taken it to mean, “Jesus demands a loyalty that supersedes loyalty to family.” “The blood of the cross runs thicker than the blood of the earth.” There’s truth in that statement. Those who try and read the Gospels without bias are normally confounded by the cultural agenda of “family values” Evangelicals, who see in the teachings and ethic of Jesus a platform for twenty-first century American family values, because Jesus just wasn’t a “family values” kind of Guy: He encouraged celibacy among His closest disciples and declared that it was they, the people who did the will of His Father, who were truly His mother and sister and brothers.
But this statement goes deeper than that. It goes deeper than merely saying, “Forsake your father and mother to the extent that they keep you from Jesus,” although that’s a great truth, a profound truth. In this passage Jesus, in His beautifully subversive and iconoclastic way, is actually cutting to the heart of two instinctual human tendencies: (1) the tribal tendency, whereby we elevate our “tribe,” our clan, to an irreproachable realm; and (2) the individual propensity to self-righteousness, where we easily see sin in other people, but mysteriously overlook it in ourselves.
Let’s start with the first one.
I’m an Evangelical, so I’ll speak from the realm of my own experience. There’s a propensity within Evangelicalism—because there’s a propensity in people—to cluster into groups that affirm and support one another. That’s called having friends, and it’s perfectly normal, for humans have a deep hunger for friendship. We’re relational beings. But what we too often end up doing—Christians, Muslims, pedestrians, the Monday night black-and-white film club, everyone, almost universally, in every single sphere of society—is turning a blind eye to the sin in our midst, while projecting it onto those outside our sphere. So for example, it’s remarkably easy for an Evangelical like me, and my Evangelical friends, to become excessively worked up about all the horrible sinning sinners in the world: those who are having abortions, and those who are being gay, and those who are having parties, and those who are voting for President Obama. And because we feel so alarmed by the sins of these horrible sinners, it’s easy to congregate in our little Christian enclaves sanctimoniously taking “courageous” stands against sin and never actually meeting any of the people who are committing these fabulous atrocities. And when you don’t know anything about a person, or a group, it becomes easy to demonize them. Undoubtedly the Catholics and the Democrats are going to be responsible for bringing the world to its fiery and ill-fated conclusion. Not us, though. We find ourselves praying, in genuine wonder and gratitude, “God, thank You—truly, thank You!—that I’m not like those people…”
But lest you should think only Evangelicals are guilty of the sin of being communally self-righteous, be careful! Jesus isn’t willing to let us off the hook so easily. For four and a half years I attended a private, secular, largely agnostic liberal arts college. And I can tell you that we as Christians are not normally alone in praying some version of the Pharisee’s prayer in Luke 18. On the morning after the 2004 election I “re-made” myself into a Kerry supporter so that I could have the privilege of sitting on the mall with the most liberal students on campus. And what I found was that the instinctual tendency to tribalism, to defend the righteous group against the evil world and all its evil forces, spanned the religious and political spectrum. I nearly got thrown out of the circle when I questioned the wisdom of being perpetually angry at 51 percent of the country. I have heard social progressives rip into the intolerance and narrow-mindedness of “fundamentalists” with a level of vitriol that would shame the good people of Westboro Baptist (the “God hates fags” guys). On the other hand, I’ve grown up in a country where Christianity is too often defined less by what it’s for than by who it’s against: Mormons, Iraqis, gays, single moms, divorced husbands, Calvinists, non-Calvinists, people who don’t believe in prophecy, people who do believe in prophecy, women, Catholics, Pentecostals. You have a huge group of people self-righteously scratching one another’s backs and judgmentally glaring at a huge group of people who are glaring right back at them. I don’t care whether you’re a believer or an unbeliever, this is hatred, and it’s just as offensive to God when it hides beneath the cloak of religion as it is when it strides out naked and ugly in the sunlight.
And the really wonderful thing about the gospel of Luke is that in it Jesus offers us a way out of that. The narrative is intentionally designed as a series of encounters with the shocking grace of Jesus. So, for example, when John tells the Lord, “We saw someone casting out demons in Your name, and we forbade him, because he is not with us,” Jesus responds, “Forbid him not; for whoever is not against us is on our side” (Lk. 9:50). In the very next verse, Jesus and the disciples pass through Samaria, and the Samaritans refuse to hear His words. John suggests blowing up the entire town, but Jesus again rebukes him: “You do not know what spirit you are of. For the Son of Man did not come to destroy people’s lives, but to save them” (v. 55-56). Again and again we see Him calling out and rebuking this religious spirit, this judgmental condescension, this “us vs. them” mentality. In the parables He takes this to a level which would have seemed, to the Jewish religious leaders of His own day, downright blasphemous. For example, in the story of the Good Samaritan, the hero of the story is a Samaritan, the most despised of all people. If we wish to understand how shocking this story was in His own time, we need to imagine a grace that extends to a place that makes us radically uncomfortable: imagine Jesus telling the story of the Good Homosexual, or the Good Palestinian, or even the Good Baptist. God’s grace is available to all people, for all people are broken and in need of a Healer: that is the message of Luke.
And that brings me to the second universal human issue that Jesus is addressing in Luke 14:26: the uncanny efficiency with which we overlook our own sins, while obsessing over those of others. At the beginning of the chapter that follows this exhortation, in Luke 15, a radical thing takes place: sinners are enthralled by Jesus. Sinners and Jesus eat dinner together. Sinners and Jesus throw parties.
Now sadly, this passage seems to have been accidentally omitted from a lot of modern Bibles. I myself was genuinely stunned not long ago on opening up the gospel of Luke to find the story glaring out at me. Jesus ate with sinners. I don’t know about you, but normally when I read that statement, in place of the word sinners I imagine a man in a suit, kneeling down before the altar in a Baptist church. Sinners aren’t really a problem, as long as they’re our kind of sinners—as long as they stay neat and proper, and don’t make a mess. Once again, it might help to replace the word sinners with the most vividly horrible word you can think of. Prostitutes. Drug addicts. Sex traffickers. Pornographers. Serial killers. Abusers. The unfaithful. The deceitful. The scum of the earth.
Yet that in itself presents another problem: for too many of us, the “worst” kinds of people are a hypothetical abstract, heard about but largely unknown, like the Nazis. It can become easy to admire the grace of Jesus in saving the “worst sorts of people” and fail to extend that grace to the people in our own sphere of life. Sinners came to Jesus. Sinners. Think of the people who have hurt you. The woman who stole your boyfriend. The man who stole your wife. The family member, the church member, who insulted and emotionally abused you. The people who you wonder, how can they sing about love with a straight face when they won’t even look at you? Won’t even speak to you? How can they pack the pews on Sunday when they punched you in the face?
A fair question, perhaps. But it cuts both ways.
You see, even in asking the question, you’ve placed yourself in terrible danger. You’ve made yourself judge of another person’s heart. You’ve said, “I choose to stand in moral outrage over what this person did. I choose to harbor hatred, accusation, and bitterness against them. I choose to refuse to extend to this person the chalice of grace.”
And that’s just what the Pharisees did:
“And the Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, ‘This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them’” (Lk. 15:2).
Yes, this is Jesus, who did not embody God as the religious-minded felt that He should. Quite simply, He wasn’t holy enough. He wasn’t exclusive enough. He freely extended the circle to people who didn’t belong in the circle. His deepest, most abiding loyalty was to the love of His Father. That was His team: Team Love. Anyone who stood in the way of Team Love met the wrath of Jesus—friend and enemy alike (Mt. 16:23).
And what the Pharisees failed to realize is that their self-righteous anger, their contemptuous condescension, was actually just as offensive to God as the immorality they so “courageously” opposed.
Do you know what contempt is? You need to know what it is, because Jesus relegated those who persistently operate in it to the smoldering trash heap of human existence (Mt. 5:22). I call it the “glare of the spirit.” You know how you feel when someone is dancing in front of you in a way that is just absolutely embarrassing to behold, and you feel humiliated watching them and you want to get away and the whole time you’re thinking, “Get away from me, you freak.” Imagine feeling that emotion all the time, towards everyone. That is how people like me and the Pharisees operate. We feel contemptuous towards everyone.
And we get away with it by calling it “religious.” We love to pretend that this feeling is blessed by God.
But it’s not. If immorality is a speck in the eye, contempt is a plank. It’s a log. It’s a tree. Practiced long enough, it’s so much worse than all the sins you judge so proudly. It will kill you.
Jesus responded by telling a series of stories that the Pharisees were not happy about. The longest and most famous of these is the parable of the Prodigal Son (Lk. 15:11-32). A certain man had two sons. One of them, the younger one, demanded his share of the inheritance, left home, and wasted it on riotous living. Finding himself in a desperate, lonely, and unhappy place, he resolved to go home to his father and ask to be made a hired servant. But while he was yet a long way off, his father saw him, ran out to meet him, and hugged him tightly. He welcomed him back into his home. They threw a party.
But when his older brother found out about it—and this is the crux of the story—he came to his father in bitterness, and told him, “I have served you these many years, and never once have I disobeyed you. Yet you never gave me a goat, that I might make merry with my friends. But as soon as this your son was come, who has destroyed your living with harlots, you have killed for him the fatted calf.”
And his father replied—in words that are at the very heart of the whole Gospel message—“Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. It was well that I should make merry, and be glad: for this your brother was dead, and is alive again; was lost, and now is found” (Lk. 15:32).
Contemporary readers, often not knowing the context in which this story was told, can sometimes miss the sting of it. But its meaning would not have been lost on the Pharisees. The older brother in the parable suggests the remnant of Jews who had returned from exile in Babylon and rebuilt the temple—who had faithfully restored the law and striven to follow the commandments. The people, in other words, who were worthy of heaven; who were worthy of having a Messiah. The younger brother spoke, then, of those who had been elsewhere: who had squandered their substance “in a far country” (or, as the Greek says, in an “empty waste”). And Jesus is saying, “I welcome them to the table. I celebrate their existence. I bless and honor them. I sing over them with joy.”
Christians instinctively flinch when they hear talk of “the Force” or “the spirit in all living things,” but from a traditional theological perspective, such talk is not far wrong. I think of St. Francis, who called all living things his brothers, who once confronted a snarling wolf and talked it into leaving the village—such a perspective is actually more truly and more deeply Christian than our latter-day fear of being associated with nature and the world; with the assumption so pervasive in Left Behind theology, especially, that “the world is just going to burn anyway, so why should we even bother taking care of it?” I think of Thomas Merton, who after spending fifteen years in a monastery, came out into the streets of Louisville, Kentucky and was overwhelmed by an unbreakable feeling of kinship with everyone around him. He became suddenly and everlastingly aware of the oneness of everything. He said, “There’s no way to tell people that they’re all walking around shining like the sun.” I still recoil slightly when I hear such things, because I’ve been trained during years and years of living this born-again life to believe that some people are plainly bad and should never under any circumstances be accommodated, and it’s true, there are bad people in the world, and there’s good and there’s evil, and they shouldn’t be confused; but how much better, how much more Christlike, to regard other people instinctively with love, not suspicion? To regard them as brothers before you shun them as foes?
Down through the centuries people have expressed a feeling of discomfort and even despair when they read the words of Jesus in Luke 14:26, quoted earlier: “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brothers, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.” But rather than alarming us, they should fill us with a deep sense of hope. What Jesus is actually saying is, “No one is excluded. Forget your old teams; forget your tribes. I’m your new team. I’m your tribe.”
Embedded in this statement there is both a comfort and a warning. The comfort is this: there is no sin you have committed so great that can prevent the incredible, super-abundant love of the Father from running out to meet you with open arms. Where sin is astonishing, grace is even more astonishing. Come to Him in your repulsive messiness; He already loves and delights in scandalous people.
But the warning is this: never become so cozy in your family, your clan, your church, your country—or your heart—that you can treat sin as a light thing. Never let yourself become so absorbed with the sins of those people out there that you fail to see the even greater sin now springing up in here. Be a scourge to sin—meaning immorality, of course, but also anger, prudishness, pride, hatred, exclusivism, narrowness, religion, self-righteousness, contempt for other people. Never let it grow; never let it take root. Scourge it when you see it in your closest friends; scourge it when you see it in yourself (“yea, and his own life also”). Quit being zealous for an arbitrary manmade moral system and become zealous for Jesus with the kind of zeal that only Jesus can inspire. That involves wholeheartedly embracing the universal scope of the love of the Man from Nazareth—the Man who sends rain on the righteous and the wicked; who sent out into the streets and found the crippled, the lame, the diseased, the repugnant—you and me, in short, and so much more—and brought them to a banquet. Demons are demons; humans are humans. Don’t demonize humans. Love them. Love them because He loves them. Love them because He loved you.