If You Don’t Hate Your Father, You Cannot Be My Disciple
The Discomforting Sayings of Christ
Radical obedience to Jesus relativizes natural relationships.
- By natural relationships, I mean relationships established by ordinary, non-miraculous processes, such as the relationships between parents and children, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, and so on.
- By radical obedience, I mean that the supreme value of Jesus has taken hold of us at the root (Latin radix), and we seek to live in a way that shows that supreme value, with the teachings of Jesus and the apostles as our guide.
- By relativizes natural relationships, I mean that the claims of natural relations are never absolute in comparison to the claims of Christ, and that total devotion to Jesus may at times prevent even biblically sanctioned forms of respect and affection.
This means that following Jesus often introduces ambiguity and sorrow and pain into family relationships. If you are looking for a religion that will make all your relationships clearer and smoother and happier, you will find a great obstacle in Christianity.
Hating or Honoring Your Father?
Let’s take the relationship with our fathers, for example. Jesus says we may need to “leave” them, be “against” them, have them as our “enemies,” love them “less” than we love Jesus, even “hate” them, and possibly not be there for their funeral, or even say goodbye. What is clear from the teachings of Jesus is that he is not a sentimentalist. He goes out of his way to put our natural relationship with our fathers in jeopardy, when his own claims on us take precedence.
On the other hand, it also is clear that Jesus embraced the fifth commandment as normative for his followers. He skewered the Pharisees and scribes for not honoring father and mother by telling people they could give to the temple what they ought to give to their parents (Matthew 15:3–9). He told the rich young man, “Honor your father and mother” (Matthew 19:19).
But when we have sat at Jesus’s feet through all four Gospels, and he has won our trust, and our allegiance, and our utter devotion, the overwhelming sense we have is that everything has changed. No relationship will ever be the same again. Some will be exquisitely deeper and happier — as we discover who our true family is (“Whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother,” Mark 3:35). Some will be shattered (“A person’s enemies will be those of his own household,” Matthew 10:36).
Let’s be specific, and listen to the way Jesus relativizes our relationship with our fathers.
1. Jesus may call us to “leave” our fathers.
Peter began to say to him, “See, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.” (Mark 10:28–30)
The rich young man had just refused to leave his wealth to follow Christ (Mark 10:22). Peter pointed out that he and the other apostles had been willing to make that sacrifice. Jesus responded by saying, in essence, “What sacrifice? Anything you leave, because of valuing me more, will be repaid a hundredfold. That’s not a sacrifice.” But it does feel like one. There is loss. And even though there is greater gain, the loss is still loss, at least temporarily.
Included in the things we may be called to “leave” is our “father.” This is part of the real loss — something more than simply, “A man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife” (Mark 10:7). This is a leaving beyond that.
Many Mothers, Not Many Fathers
Remarkable is the fact that when Jesus describes the “repayment” for the losses, he does not say we will receive “fathers.” We will “receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers [no mention of fathers] and children and lands.” Why no mention of fathers?
Perhaps because Jesus wanted the reality of the fatherhood of God to be so dominant in our discipleship, that he did not want to encourage us to think of having many fathers in the church. In fact, he said, “Call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven” (Matthew 23:9).
So, in calling us to “leave” our fathers “for my sake and for the gospel,” the emphasis falls on the fact that we have a Father in heaven who will take care of us. The natural relationship is put in the background, and our allegiance to Jesus, and our relationship to our Father in heaven, is put in the foreground.
2. Jesus may call us to be “against” our fathers and know them as our “enemies,” since he calls us to love him more than them.
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:34–39)
“Jesus offers himself as peace, but when supreme love for him is not shared in a family, he becomes a divider.”
“I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Of course, this is not the only thing Jesus said about his mission. He was indeed sent for peace! The angels said so at the beginning: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:14). And Jesus himself said to his disciples, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace” (John 16:33). “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you” (John 14:27). And when Jerusalem turned against him, he said, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace!” (Luke 19:42).
In fact, when Peter and Paul preached the gospel, they could sum it up as Jesus’s accomplishment of peace: “[God preached] good news of peace through Jesus Christ” (Acts 10:36). “He came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near” (Ephesians 2:17).
So, he was indeed a peace-bringer — peace with God, and peace with those who found peace with God. But as the old man Simeon pointed out when Jesus was a baby, the painful reality was that “this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed . . . so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:34–35).
Sign Against Their Unbelief
When that happened, some families would be shattered. Jesus did not come to gloss over that reality. Where family members would not love Jesus more than they loved their family, they would be divided from those who did love Jesus more. “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37). When supreme love for Jesus is not shared in a family, Jesus becomes a divider. This is not because Jesus fails to offer himself as peace, but because some family members fail to love him supremely as their peace.
In that sense, Jesus comes “to set a man against his father” (Matthew 10:35). And in that sense, “a person’s enemies will be those of his own household” (Matthew 10:36).
This painful loss of a peaceful relationship with a father or a son is described as part of taking our cross (Matthew 10:38) and losing our life (Matthew 10:39). That is not an overstatement, because what follower of Jesus would not willingly give his life to save his son or his father? Taking our cross and losing our life means dying to all natural relations for the sake of Christ and his kingdom. We die to them in the sense that we embrace the pain of relational brokenness for Christ’s sake, rather than treating the relationship as whole at the expense of Christ’s supremacy.
3. Jesus may call us to “hate” and “renounce” our fathers.
“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. . . . Any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26–27, 33)
There are two issues here. One is what Jesus means by saying we must “hate” our fathers. The other is why he talks this way. We all know that Jesus calls us to honor our fathers (Matthew 19:19). And we all know that he commands us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves (Matthew 22:39), and to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44), and to love each other (John 13:35). So, there is a profound sense in which we must love our fathers, even though we must “hate” them.
One clue to Jesus’s meaning is the way he speaks of “hating” our own lives in John 12:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (John 12:24–25)
We must hate our lives now in order to keep them for eternal life. And keeping them for eternal life is a good thing. Indeed, the desire to keep them for eternal life is a way of loving our lives. So, we must hate them in order to love them. That’s not double-talk, because Jesus adds the phrase “in this world.” “Whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”
Looks Like Hate
The meaning is this: We will be called upon to make choices in this world that look as if we hate our lives in the sense of caring very little for their well-being. For example, we may have to die for Christ. “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Revelation 2:10). To the world, this will look like the ultimate self-hate — throwing your life away for a myth! Jesus says it is a kind of “hate,” but it’s also a way of preserving our lives for eternal life — which is a very radical form of love for our lives.
Similarly, when Jesus says we cannot be his disciples unless we “hate” our fathers, he probably means something similar. That is, we may be called on to do things that look as though we hate our fathers when, in fact, we long for them to join us in eternal life.
What behavior might look as though we hate our fathers?
4. Jesus may call us to forgo something so personal and affectionate and honoring as not attending our own father’s funeral.
As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:57–62)
You can imagine a person writing an email to you: “What are you doing? Do you hate your father? Why don’t you come to his funeral? Why didn’t you at least say farewell? You act like you hate your father.”
Why does Jesus talk this way? “If you don’t hate your father, you can’t be my disciple. . . . Leave the dead to bury their dead. . . . If you are thinking about turning back to say goodbye, you’re not fit for the kingdom.”
Why Talk Like This?
I think he talks this way because it exposes our self-protective reflex to reject his talking this way. He knew what kind of reaction the word “hate” would get. He knew how heartless it would seem not to attend our father’s funeral. He is putting things in the most extreme form to test us.
Will we bow to his radical claim on our lives? Will we let him put all our natural relations in jeopardy for the sake of the kingdom? Will we put our hands over our mouths and accept that his claim on us is a thousand times stronger than any other claim? Will we be willing to have our hearts misunderstood and slandered for his sake (2 Corinthians 6:8; 1 Peter 3:16)? Will we, in the most extreme and difficult situations, accept the agonizing choices for Christ that make us look callous?
“The radical sayings of Christ expose our self-protective reflex.”
You may never have to make such a painful choice. I hope you don’t. But around the world today Christians are having to make such choices. For them, trusting and following Jesus cannot be added on to their former lives. If they follow him, almost everything they knew before will be shattered. They will be called haters and destroyers. It may cost them their lives.
Whatever you do, don’t domesticate the radical teachings of Jesus. If they make you uncomfortable, let them do their work. They are designed to create real disciples who are ready to lose all to gain Christ. The world may call it hate. They may call it foolishness. It is not. It is love. And it is the wisdom of God.