It startles our ears to hear Jesus saying we should hate our parents, our siblings, even spouse and children. What can this mean?
Well the truth is, it’s impossible for us to be sure. It’s impossible to make even a good guess at what Jesus is saying when we read only this short passage.
The gospels are collections of sayings and stories put together by the author or editor in a way that is intended to convey meaning when read in their entirety. The writer of Luke’s gospel, which we have been reading from since the beginning of Advent last fall, has several themes that we can discern; he is particularly interested in portraying the importance for Jesus of the notion of the Commonwealth of God, a term you have heard me use a number of times over the last three months.
Luke wants us to know that a central part of Jesus’ message is to help us understand the nature of the Commonwealth of God. But that concept defies the kind of detailed blueprint we might like to have. It’s not even clear where or when the Commonwealth is. Jesus says that with him it has come near. He seems to say that we can enter it if we behave or believe as he advises.
The Jewish tradition has a belief that if all of the people follow all of the commandments for just one day, then the Messiah will come. And the Messiah is not so much an individual person as it is a new day in our human relationship with God. So we could say that if all the people follow all of the commandments for one day then we will have entered into the Commonwealth of God.
To follow the commandments doesn’t mean just to obey the rules in a grudging sort of way. The greatest commandment, remember, is to love God and neighbour. Our attitude is as important as our behaviour.
So, when Luke records Jesus as saying that we must hate our family, it is unlikely that he is telling us to pick up our guns and spray bullets around the dining room table, which a literal reading might suggest. We can’t be sure this saying is included because Luke thinks it relevant to how we understand the Commonwealth of God, but given that is a concern that is woven throughout his gospel, it gives us a place to start as we try to do that.
I asked Mark to read a passage from Matthew’s gospel this morning that parallels our focus passage from Luke. Comparing the way similar stories or sayings appear in the gospels is one of the basic ways in which we can enrich our understanding of the Bible as we dig a little deeper toward the meaning intended by the author and the meaning that Jesus may have had in mind.
The difference between the two gospels that stands out here is that Luke says we should hate mother and father and Matthew has Jesus say we should love him, Jesus, more than mother and father. Now the latter may be a challenge, but it is far from unimaginable. It is a strong statement about the role that Jesus expects to play in our lives, but it is coherent with a faith that emphasizes loving one’s neighbour.
Why might Luke have recorded Jesus as having said we should hate our family? Well, it may be that he said just that. A first century Galilean peasant speaking in Aramaic might have had in mind that we should think about our mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers the way that Donald Trump thinks about Mexicans. I doubt it, but it is possible.
But before we accept that, let’s look at what it means that Jesus was speaking Aramaic. The first thing it means is that what we are reading today as the word “hate” is a translation of a translation, because Luke was writing in Greek. So when he says Jesus used the word “miseo” (the Greek for hate) he is translating from the Aramaic.
Something you may not know about the Aramaic language, something I only learned as I studied this passage this week, is that it has no word that is equivalent to the English word ‘like’. An Aramaic speaker has no way of expressing gradations of affection between love and hate. You or I might say we like chocolate ice cream but are not as fond of vanilla. An Aramaic speaker would have to say something that we can only translate as I love chocolate and I hate vanilla. Our gentler way of expressing this allows us to express preference in a way that makes it clear we would not turn down a bowl of vanilla ice cream, even if we would eat the bowl of chocolate first.
Matthew’s translation of Jesus’ words is phrased differently, perhaps because Matthew has recorded Jesus speaking different words on a different occasion, but much more likely because Matthew has introduced his understanding of a nuance that he believes is present, but is hard to express if one simply inserts the Greek word “miseo” (hate) for the Aramaic. Matthew, most scholars believe, knew Aramaic better than Luke and so his translation is more faithful to Jesus’ intention.
It may be that the meaning of the Aramaic is conveyed not just by the written word, but also by other cues in the language. In every language, we carry meaning into words based on context. Some languages also indicate meaning based on pronunciation. It may be that the Aramaic word we translate as hate had gradations of affection that were indicated by tone or other pronunciation cues, much like the Chinese, Vietnamese or Cambodian name that I can only pronounce as ‘Ng’ can be pronounced in half a dozen different ways by a native speaker of those languages with each variation carrying a different meaning.
The conclusion I draw in the face of the uncertainty that we are left with because of translation issues is to return to the central message of Jesus’ gospel and ask, how does this saying fit together in a way that makes sense with all the rest.
The feast we are about to share around Jesus’ table is the key practice he left with us. It is a lived embodiment of what Jesus longed for, men and women coming together as equals, equal in their commitment to live as brothers and sisters in Christ, loving God and neighbour as they love themselves. It is a commitment that stands above commitments based on status, hierarchy or even family. But the commitment to live into the Commonwealth of God is not a commitment to hate our family or to hate anyone else, it is a commitment to love, without preference, the Christ who came to us in human form so long ago, who continues to stand before us in human form in each person as we gather around the table.
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