Over the past weeks the readings have alternated between presentations of Jesus as a model of compassion and mercy and as a leader who makes harsh demands of his followers (e.g., entering the narrow gate, casting fire on the earth, bringing division among families). In today’s Gospel the demands mount. One cannot be a disciple without hating family and even one’s own life. Most people would see Jesus’ advice as downright destructive, considering how family difficulties cause so much suffering today. It is also jarring in a church that stresses that the family is the fundamental human community. These statements may reflect a historical period when Christian discipleship did involve wrenching separation from loved ones and went against established social customs. Also, the word hate has been widely interpreted to mean not emotional anger or desire of harm to others, but “loving less” when faced with a fundamental life choice (cf. Mt 10:37)—one that makes a disciple turn his or her own life upside down. For Jesus this is equivalent to carrying one’s cross. Jesus then appends two parables that in effect say, “If you follow me, you’d better know what you are getting into and prepare for the long haul.” Luke has already warned against an initial joyful and enthusiastic response to Jesus’ word that then withers and dies in time of trial (8:13). Proper discernment must precede radical discipleship.
These dramatic conditions for discipleship were rarely fulfilled in the early church or by Christians throughout history. They have often been misused as literal prescriptions for religious life (religious were sometimes not permitted to visit a dying family member). Is their relevance, then, only as a memory of a utopian vision by Jesus the martyred prophet, or are they limited to a few heroic saints—even though Jesus says, “any one of you?” They are rather indicative of a kind of total commitment that every follower of Christ should be prepared to live. The radical demands of Jesus call us to center our lives on the suffering and risen Christ—which relativizes even family values and the security of possessions. Yet the ultimate reversal remains that the one who chooses the kingdom of God over family will receive “an overabundant return in this present age, and eternal life in the age to come” (Lk. 18:38), and that those who seek to preserve their lives will lose them, while those who lose them will save them (Lk. 17:33).