Why should I love Jesus more than the members of my family?
'Whoever comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters - yes, and even life itself - cannot be my disciple'. Luke 14.26
That is a hard saying! And I would like us to focus on this verse for a few minutes and to see if we can work out what is going on here.
For most of us, our family is our life. It is our family who give us our name, our values and our identity. Even if we have rebelled against our parents, it is our very act of rebellion against them that has given us our identity: we are not them.
And it is usually our family who we rely on. If everybody else fails us, we turn to them as our last resort. Think of the prodigal son. He had rejected his father and walked out on him, but he makes the decision to go back to his father when everything else had failed.
So it makes sense for Jesus to link our family and our life. Hating your family and hating your life go quite close together.
So what are we to make of this saying?
I do not think that Jesus is telling us to cut ourselves off from our family
That is important, because some Christians in the past have done that.
There are some very hard sayings about families in the stories of the desert fathers and mothers. There is the story of a mother of two monks who comes begging to see her sons. They refuse to see her. She begins to wail. Another the monks comes to Poemen and says, "What shall I do about your mother? She wants to see you." ‘Ask her’, said Poemen, ‘Do you want to see us in this world or the next?’ She said, ‘If I don’t see you in this world, shall I see you in the next, my sons?’ He said, ‘If you don’t insist on seeing us here, you shall see us there.’ So the woman went away happy, saying, ‘If I shall indeed see you there, I don’t want to see you here.’
That is quite harsh.
And we read of the stories of missionaries even of the last century, who left their wives or children back in the UK, sometimes for many years, because they believed that they had been called to work overseas. And while we are on shaky ground when we pass judgement on the saints of former years who lived in a very different society to the one that we live in today, and while we recognise and honour the enormous sacrifices that they made, I certainly would question people who make those sort of decisions today.
I don't think that Jesus is telling us that for his sake we should abandon our families.
Families are good. They are God given.
And Jesus is clearly not telling us to hate our fathers and mothers, partners and children, brothers and sisters in the way that the world understands hate.
After all, the fourth commandment tells us to honour our father and mother. And Jesus has commanded us to love our enemies and to do good to those who persecute us, so he would not ask us to do anything less for the members of our own families.
And we need to care for our families.
Jesus specifically rebukes those who use an act of religious duty to avoid giving help to their parents. (Mark 7.9-13). He says to them, 'You give a little bit of your money to the temple as a reason for not supporting your parents in need. That is a very strange way to interpret the word of God'.
And as he hangs on the cross, Jesus thinks of his mother: he asks John to support her as his own mother, and he asks her to care for John as her own son.
Later in the New Testament, Paul, building on what Jesus has taught, rebukes those who do not ensure that their families are provided for. "And whoever does not provide for relatives, and especially for family members, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever". (1 Tim 5.8)
So quite clearly we are not allowed to use this scripture as an excuse for running out from our family, or avoiding our very special responsibilities to the members of our family.
So what does it mean?
The commentaries on this passage are helpful.
They point out that the Hebrew writers often used exaggeration to make a point. So Jesus says, "If your eye causes you to sin, gauge it out". That is a very dramatic way of saying 'Guard what you look at'. It is not something that we are to do literally.
And they exaggerate to emphasise a contrast. So, when in the Old Testament, we are told that God loved Jacob but hated Esau, many suggest that we need to interpret these words as saying: 'In comparison to my love for Jacob, my love for Esau is as hate'.
And I suspect that is how we are to read these verses:
'In comparison to your love for me, your love for your family should be as hate. I must come first, before your family and - later in this passage - before your possessions' (Luke 14.33)
That is still pretty radical.
It means that in the end it is not our human family identity that is our true identity.
Yes, I am a Rogers, but of far more importance is the fact that as a Christian I bear the name of Jesus Christ. My identity as a Christian takes precedence over my identity as a Rogers. If Rogers have always done it this way, but God's way is different, then I need to do it God's way.
And it is easier for us having lived in a country which has been steeped with gospel values, but as our society moves away from those values it will become harder. There will be very clear distinctions between what our family does and expects and what Jesus would have us do. And when there are those conflicts, we need to be prepared to follow Jesus and not our family.
There are times when, by becoming a Christian, we are seen to be betraying our family
That is why there is such persecution for people who become Christians in cultures dominated by another belief system. It is not so much the fact that they have become a Christian, but rather they are seen as rejecting their family and their upbringing.
Some of you may know this. A brother or sister, a son or daughter has become a strict Muslim. And you feel, whether it is true or not, that they are rejecting you, and that they are rejecting everything that you have stood for. And you feel betrayed.
Nigel Taylor used to run CYM in Ipswich a number years ago. He told of how his father had said that if he became a Christian, he would be turned out of the house. So when he did make the decision to become a Christian, a few days later he came home to find his suitcase had been packed and put by the front door. He had to leave. He was given a choice: his family or Jesus.
But if it is not as dramatic as that, there will be conflict at times.
It happened with Jesus.
On one occasion he is with his followers, and his family come for him. They have heard people say that he has gone mad, and they want to take him away to look after him - especially when they hear that he is not eating properly - that is a mum for you (Mark 3.19-21)!
And that is when Jesus makes a pretty radical and potentially offensive statement to his followers. They tell him, 'Your mother and brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you." And looking at those who sat around him, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother".
Jesus is making it very clear that his biological family do not have the first claim on him.
And there will be conflict, because Jesus challenges the way we do things, and how we see people.
He speaks, a few chapters earlier, of how he has come to bring division: division within families - father against son, son against daughter, mother in law against daughter in law (Luke 13.51-53).
That division should never begin with the one who has become a Christian. We are told, 'as far as it is up to you, live at peace with all people'. But if those who we love force us to make a decision because we are Christ followers, then Jesus is saying that we have no choice. We need to put him first.
And when Jesus calls us to put him before our families, he is also warning us against treating the members of our family as our final security.
Yes, of course, we turn to them when we are in trouble - but they will never be able to be that ultimate ground of our safety.
As a parent, you long to protect your children from all suffering. But you can’t.
And one day that person in whom you have put your love, your trust, your hope will be taken away from you.
It is possible to put too much of our identity, hope and trust in another person.
We actually prevent them from being the person who God made them to be because we see them only through our eyes, through our need of them.
Augustine wrote that we should love people 'for the sake of God'.
We should love them not as they relate to us, or as we relate to them, but as they relate to God and as God relates to them.
I remember in Holloway speaking with a single mum who was thinking about becoming a Christian. She was doing what the person who built the tower in Jesus' story did not do. She was trying to work out whether she could afford to follow Jesus. And for her the big stumbling block was whether she could love Jesus more she loved her son.
She moved away, but when she came back two years later, she was a Christian. She told me how she had begun to realise what Jesus meant about loving him more than her child. Because whereas before she had imposed a burden that was far too great on her child - basically she lived for him, and had put all her hopes in him - she now realised that her child was a gift from God, that he belonged to God, and that it was her privilege and responsibility to love him and bring him up for God. Her son was not in the centre of her life, but her Jesus was.
And it is easy for us to put too much of our dependence on another person - to love them for our own sake, when we are called to love them for their own sake and 'for the sake of God'.
God, in his love for us, placed us in human families. It was his way of providing a system through which we can care for each other and love each other. But human families are provisional.
The bible tells us that when you were baptised, you died to your old way of life. You became a new person and you became a member of a new family. That is why baptism is not a biological family thing. It is fundamentally disruptive of the family. It is about how the person who is baptised becomes a member of a new family, a bigger family, a more important family. And this new family, the family of Father God, with Jesus Christ as the older brother, has become your true family.
It is not an excuse for running away from our earthly family, and from avoiding our God-given responsibilities to the members of our family. But this new family is the family to whom you owe your ultimate allegiance. Your biological family will pass away, but this is the family that will last for ever.
That is why as Christians we are to love Jesus more than our fathers and mothers, more than our husbands or wives, and more even than our children.