When it comes to his teachings about discipleship, Jesus says some pretty difficult things. In Luke 14, Jesus says, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters — and even himself — he is not able to be my disciple” (14:26).
This statement seems to contradict ‘nicer’ things said by Jesus, such as: “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you” (Luke 6:47), or “And just as you would wish that others would do to you, do so to them” (Luke 6:31).
Why this talk of hating? Μισέω is typically translated as “hate.” According to BDAG, μισέω can also mean, to “disfavor, disregard in contrast to preferential treatment” (BDAG 653 §2; cf.Matt 6:24, Lk 16:13, John 12:25, Rom 9:13). (LSJ doesn’t give any sources in support of this un-preferential treatment.) In I. Howard Marshall’s opinion, μισέω “is usually said to have its Semitic sense, ‘to love less’” (Marshall, 592; cf. Gen 29:31-33, Deut 21:15-17, 2 Sam 19:7, Prov 13:24, Isa 60:15, Mal 1:2, Rom 9:13, 1 John 2:9). This is detectable in Matthew’s parallel: “He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves a son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matt 10:37-38).
In this way, μισέω isn’t a psychological hostility, but a renunciation, a disowning, or rejection (Marshall, 592; TDNT IV, 690). As a person chooses to follow Jesus, to become his disciple, he or she must sever the natural connections and obligations he or she has toward father, mother, spouse, children, brothers, sisters, and to renounce even himself/herself. According to Bonhoeffer, “By calling us [Jesus] has cut us off from all immediacy with the things of this world. He wants to be the centre; through him alone all things shall come to pass” (Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 95). Such a separation would be extremely disorienting. As Carson Brisson comments,
These words enter a cultural setting in which an individual was primarily defined, from birth through death, by her or his family. In such a milieu, this saying sounds a call for individuals and the community of faith to embrace discipleship to Jesus as their new and ultimate basis for personal and corporate identity (cf. 8:19-21). Such a call would have presented a radically impractical choice, not simply an emotionally difficult one, and a nearly impossible act in a cultural setting in which contemporary definitions of freedom as individual self-assertion and many contemporary forms of economic support outside one’s family system did not exist. . . . If God’s invitation is so urgent and so absolute that an individual’s family ties no longer form the basis of her or his identity, what is left that discipleship may not require? (Brisson, Carson. Luke 14:26-27. Interpretation, 61 no 3 Jl 2007: 311)
The answer is, of course, “nothing.” There is no more to give after a disciple renounces even his/her own life. To make this ominously clear, Jesus states, “Whoever does not bear his own cross and comes after me is not able to be my disciple” (Luke 14:27). Luke uses this language elsewhere, in 9:23 in which Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”
The cross is, of course, and ultimately, a death sentence. Here, though, the cross also communicates the manner of life those who follow Jesus can expect – namely, one of shame and suffering. Just imagine, if we find it difficult today in our own time and culture to step outside the bounds of what our family members expect from us, how much more difficult would this task be within the bounds of the shame-honor culture of first-century Judea? But Jesus doesn’t call us to an easy life. He calls us to a life submitted completely to him. This is why the apostles refer to themselves as δοῦλος τοῦ Ἰσοῦ Χριστοῦ, “slave of Jesus Christ.” The life I live is not to be my own. In following Jesus’ call, I give up my right to direct my own life. It’s a total submission, an absolute resignation of self-sovereignty. If I declare that Jesus is Lord (κύριος), then that declaration has something to say about me too — that I am his servant, his slave. Jesus becomes the anchor of our new reality. He is the mediator through whom we relate to the world and other people. No longer am “I” the lowest common denominator, but Jesus instead.
Ultimately, this order to “hate” is a declaration of where life is found. Am I so certain that there is more life to be found in my familial relations than in Jesus, or more life in wealth or in the other forms of security this world can offer? Or am I willing to let go of absolutely everything to which I previously clung to cling singularly to the one who offers life like no other can?