23rd Sunday: Love and hate
Wisdom 9:13-18; Philemon 9-10,12-17; Luke 14:25-33
For the second time in recent weeks we have a particularly difficult Gospel, one which puzzles us as well as presenting us with a challenge. What on earth do we make of “hating” our closest family members, and how do we reconcile the call to carry the Cross with parables which seem to urge caution and calculation?
Before we face those questions, there is something else worth noting: this passage in St. Luke’s Gospel follows immediately upon the parable of the great banquet to which all are invited, brought in from the highways and byways, the streets and the hedgerows. So the “great crowds” which are mentioned at the beginning are likely to be hoi polloi, the odds and sods who are gathered in from here, there, and everywhere, with an invitation to the banquet of the Messiah.
Now they are effectively being told that there is no such thing as a free lunch, as Jesus spells out the implications of accepting the invitation, which is truly an invitation to follow Him. What are the consequences? They involve a radical self-surrender, a wholehearted commitment to Him.
That is where the “hating” comes in. Of course, Jesus is not actually telling us to hate anybody: that would contradict the whole essence of His message, which is a call to love. The word “hate” here is a typically Semitic exaggeration, used to underline a basic point. The clue to the real meaning of the word comes in the final sentence of the passage, where Our Lord calls us to give up all our possessions. In other words, “hate” here means not to be possessive of, not to cling onto, not to make a god out of.
The follower of Jesus must not prefer anybody or anything to Him—must, in fact, obey the First Commandment, which is to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. In a strange, paradoxical way, the call to “hate” is actually a call to genuine love, because to love someone involves allowing them their freedom, not attempting to control or possess them, not to cling onto them.
Possessiveness is the real obstacle to discipleship, and we can be possessive about all sorts of things. You may know people who are possessive of their children, who won’t allow them to grow up. The law of the land now recognises that there can be a destructive possessiveness in relationships, and has made “control and coercion” an offence. If any of you are followers of “The Archers”, you may recall the story of Rob and Helen, a few years ago. He was possessive and controlling of his wife who eventually stabbed him, and was acquitted. The whole story line was introduced to highlight the problem of control and coercion.
We can also be possessive of our time, of our routine, of our own way of doing things, and the irony is that, when we think that we are controlling these things, we are actually being controlled by them. Consequently, the call to “hate”, the call to take up the Cross, is actually a call to freedom, a call to liberate ourselves from the desire to possess, a desire which actually possesses us, which prevents us from being free.
This call to freedom is a radical call, one which affects the very root of our being. That is the reason for the two parables which follow, the parables which urge us, like the tower builder and the warlike king, to weigh up the consequences of our actions. Are we ready and willing to respond to the call of Jesus, the call to take up the Cross, the call to free ourselves from possessiveness? We may hesitate, but if we are wise we will answer “Yes” because this is a call to true freedom, a call to become the people whom we were created and called to be, a call to alleged hatred which is, on the contrary, a call to full and genuine love.