Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. At this point, he is very aware of what his journey is going to lead to. He knows he is going to Jerusalem for an inevitable confrontation. He knows it is a confrontation he is bound to lose. He knows that means he will most likely lose his life.
But he also knows that this is the way. Does he understand it? I don't know. I suspect all that he has to go on as he journeys to Jerusalem is trust that somehow God will make this good, if not before his death, then after it. This hope is what drives him.
And with this knowledge, these thoughts, weighing heavier and heavier on his mind, the crowds grow larger. People continue to be attracted to his message. They want to be near him because being near him they experience being near God.
And Jesus grows troubled by them and impatient with them. He knows that they do not know what he knows, don't understand at all what he is headed for, and don't have a clue what continuing to follow him means.
This tension finally breaks.
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.
Well, that's certainly one way to get their attention. In his frustration, Jesus makes his point in what seems to our ears to be a most extreme, even unacceptable, way. It wouldn't have sounded any better to the ears that were listening then, either.
His point in saying this harsh thing is made clear in the two parable-like illustrations he gives after saying it.
Which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether or not he has enough to complete it?
Don't do this—don't follow me—without counting the cost, he is saying. You are not following me to Jerusalem for more free lunches and healing sessions. What waits me there is not a crown but a cross and you will learn things about the way of God with this world that you would rather not know.
Following me is a choice, he is saying, a choice to risk your life. Don't lose sight of that, and what it costs to make it.
But hating, we ask? Does the choice involve hating? Does the one who taught us to love our neighbors as ourselves also want us to hate our families and our very lives?
Yes and no.
"Hate" here is not emotional hate, just like the "love" we are called to have for one another is not "emotional" love. Hate here is more like detachment, complete non-dependence, or the willingness to do without.
The love we are called to have for God and for one another is shown in action, the action of service, often sacrificial service. The love we are called to have for God and for one another involves choices that we make each and every day, and sometimes those choices are very risky.
In that sense the love we are called to have for God and for one another involves first what Jesus means here by "hate." To make the choice to love God and or to love our neighbor we must first be detached from any sense of obligation or possessiveness we have in this life.
Paul’s letter to Philemon is a perfect example of what Jesus means.
Paul is writing to his friend Philemon about a man named Onesimus. Onesimus was a slave belonging to Philemon. He had apparently left—we can assume without permission—to go and be with Paul, who is in prison.
Paul is sending Onesimus back to Philemon, but presents Philemon with a choice he must make, a choice Paul feels is a fundamental consequence of the fact that both Philemon and Onesimus are Christians.
That fact changes things, Paul says. Onesimus is no longer primarily your slave, he says, nor are you primarily his master. You are now primarily brothers in Christ, equal before God.
Here Paul is putting in action, a principle he lays down in several other of his letters. We know it best from the third chapter of the letter to the Galatians.
As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ. (Galatians 3:27-28)
For Philemon, a consequence of his being a Christian, his following Jesus, is that he can no longer think of Onesimus as a possession or as an inferior. This is an example of what Jesus meant when he said, "You must hate your own life." It is like saying, "You must hate your own life in order to be free enough truly to love it.”
Answering the call to follow Jesus always means traveling with him on the road to Jerusalem, the place where we will have to let go of life in order to be free enough truly to live it.
Letting go of life means letting go of any attempt on our part to control it; it is, essentially, to admit we have no control over it. Letting go of life means trusting God to give us what we need rather than struggling on our own to take it. Letting go of life means letting go of everything we think we know about other people, especially those we have been taught to mistrust, or have been taught we have some kind of superiority or authority over.
I presided at the marriage of a lovely young couple yesterday. When I asked if the freely entered into this lifelong covenant, I did not ask, “Lindsay, will you hate Zachary enough truly to love him?” If I had asked the question that way there would have been gasps and protests and suggestions that I was out of my mind.
And yet, do we not ask of a married couple that as a part of their vows, they will give up their control over life? What do you think we mean when we say “…for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and health…until we are parted by death”? Why is the word “death” in our marriage vows and not the word “life?” Why? Because underlying these vows are Jesus’ words that following him means giving up all of our claims on life, choosing to walk with him toward death, and, therefore, receiving life as a sheer gift.
That is what Paul was asking of his friend Philemon. It is what Jesus asks of us. Give up all your claims on control of your life and you will be free enough to receive it back as the sheer gift that it is.