September 8; 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time; Year C

23rd OT2Hate the less in order to love God more

Don’t look shocked if you’ve just heard Jesus tell you that you need to hate your father, mother, wife, children, brother and sister. Let’s be honest! Many of us are ready to throw our father, our mother, our wife, our husband, our children and siblings under the bus and we don’t have to wait for Jesus to give us the cue. But just because He tells us, to “hate” this whole list of people doesn’t justify hostility. Now, if hostility is wrong, why did our Lord tell us to “hate”?

Admittedly, if the word “hate” here means what most modern people use the word to mean, then Jesus’ statement is indeed shocking - a form of hate speech that flies against decent family values. The word translated as “hate” does not always mean to despise, detest, and loathe. Nor is the word “hate” used here as the opposite of love. In Hebrew Scriptures, the contrast between “love” and “hatred” is sometimes used to communicate preference. For example, in dealing with inheritances in polygamous marriages, the Mosaic Law referred to “two wives, one beloved, and another hated” (Deuteronomy 21:15). The law was not indicating emotional hatred on the part of the husband, only preference. One wife was preferred over the other.

Therefore, the context of the conversation between our Lord and His disciples has very little to do with detestable hate and has everything to do with a choice, with preferences, priorities and even necessary sacrifices. When our Lord calls us to hate our families and even ourselves, what He's really talking about is the sacrifice that we must make when we follow Christ. The word “hate” used in this passage is the Greek word “misos” which means to love less. When faced with the decision of following what your parents or what you want for your life and what our Lord wants, He wants us to consider our desires and the desires of even our closest relations as inferior to what He desires. In order to be His disciple, we must be willing to give up everything for the Lord. He tells us, “none of you can be my disciple unless he gives up all his possessions.” And ‘possessions’ here do not just mean material wealth but also our most treasured and significant relationships. So, if and when we are faced with the painful choice of loyalty to family versus loyalty to Jesus, we must choose the Lord.

The point our Lord is making is that no commitment, however, sacred, can come before our commitment to God. We are to seek God first and to fulfil our commitments to people only in so far as these do not contradict our commitment to God. The ties of family are not absolute. They are important. They are even sacred, but not absolute. In Christ, our relationships are redefined. Through baptism, we, who are strangers without blood ties, are made brothers and sisters to each other. This is what happened between Philemon in the second reading and his slave Onesimus. St Paul reminds Philemon the master, that Onesimus is returned to him no longer as a slave but as a “blood brother as well as a brother in the Lord.”

Of course, it is right to love our family members. Elsewhere, the Lord confirmed the fourth commandment that we should honour our father and mother. And St Paul sternly warned that “anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8). Likewise, St John even tells us, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” (1 John 4:20) Thus the Lord’s command is not to detest people, but simply to hold Him as preeminent in all things.

Additional light is thrown on this passage when our Lord relates His point to two metaphors. If we intend building a tower, we must make sure that we have the required materials and sufficient resources to complete it. If we are going to engage in battle, we need to ascertain our chances of victory. Both these illustrations help explain His difficult statement about hating our mother and father—namely, we must count the cost of being a disciple. If we want to be disciples of the Lord we must be ready to give up all our possessions. This demands the single-mindedness of the Shema, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind” (Dt 6:5).

Therefore “hating” (or “to love less”) one’s own family and one’s own life, merely means to be sufficiently detached to love God more and to give Him our best and our most. That is why the spiritual teachers and mystics have taught us the supreme value of spiritual detachment. Spiritual detachment is a process that frees us from whatever interferes with our spiritual growth. To be detached is to establish and maintain a relation to everything and everybody in one’s life according to which all things are valued by how much they help or hinder us in our relationship with God, the imitation of Christ, and the service of other people. Our Lord calls each of us to spiritual detachment when He says, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Mt 16:24). In other words, in order to follow Christ we must detach ourselves from all worldly attachments (deny yourself); and attach ourselves to His person and mission (take up your cross).

That is why our Lord teaches us to “hate” our relations in the sense of prioritising love of God over them. Even healthy relationships can be hindrances to our spiritual growth, not because they exist, but rather in how we view or treat them. When we find ourselves longing for human companionship over God’s companionship; when we desire affirmation and acknowledgment from our comrades; when we hope to be included among our friends at social gatherings or in conversations, we inadvertently end up loving God less in favour of loving them more. Spiritual detachment does not mean that we have to refrain from or avoid loving anyone or anything. Rather it is a matter of being attached to people and to things in such a way that we are willing to let them go if and when we are called by God to do so.

When we read the hard sayings of Jesus, we may wonder if He is too severe in His call for us to be detached from the world. In an age that glorifies self-expression and self-affirmation, we may even think of self-denial and mortification as a rejection of the goodness of God’s creation. But this is not the case. Our Lord wants us to be free from the burden of attachments so that we might be happy and enjoy life to its fullest potential. We are asked not to “hate” life, but to love life, not just any life but eternal life. Ultimately, we will find in heaven the best of what we have laboured to realise on earth. It’s important to note that there is nothing wrong with having natural desires or loving someone or something. We must have desire in life or life will be colourless and empty. Some religions view desire as the root of all evil and so teach that one must empty oneself of desire. But this is not what our Catholic faith teaches. God hardwired us with desire when He created us, because all desires ultimately point to the desire for God.

St John of the Cross in his monumental spiritual treatise, the Ascent of Mount Carmel, notes that it makes little difference whether the leg of a bird is tied with a strong rope or with the tiniest thread. If anything is holding it, it cannot fly. Flight to God cannot occur till all attachments that cause us to resist the call of grace are broken, however apparently insignificant they may appear. This single-minded whole-hearted commitment to God and to doing God’s will is what gives that special flavour to the life of a disciple of Christ. If this is lost, the life of the one who might claim to be a disciple loses all value.