On the first day of my summer holiday in Poland I went to a barber’s shop. Although I wasn’t a regular customer of his, the barber was chatting with me, as usually happens in such places. Due to my curly bushy hair and complicated hairdo, the chat wasn’t particularly long; however, it was long enough for the barber to find out I’d been in Scotland for several years. He was certain I’d left my home country for financial reasons, and was pretty surprised to learn that that aspect hadn’t played the tiniest part in my decision. When I was leaving the shop he didn’t look convinced that I’d gone to Scotland because of its culture and landscape. His presumption was in fact well justified, as most of my compatriots have come to the UK looking for an economically better life. In that respect, many of them have adopted the prevalent culture of possession as the measure of success in life.
In today’s gospel Jesus puts conditions that are extremely harsh; let me recall them again: ‘If any man comes to me without hating his father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters and his own life too, he cannot be my disciple. None of you can be my disciple unless he gives up all his possessions.’ So this loving teacher, talking about his loving Father in heaven, expects us to hate all those close to us. And that final sentence, closing the gospel, causes even greater confusion, when the relatives, the beloved ones, are called possessions, assets. So, the teacher of unconditional love, even of our enemies, demands the hatred of others as the most essential condition to be his follower. This fragment of the gospel, along with a couple of others, can be a useful weapon in the hands of Christian jihadists. But it’s not so.
First of all, Jesus uses a hyperbole to catch his audience’s attention; it’s the same method used by newspapers to increase their sales. A parish priest from Shetland told me that once a local newspaper had a huge headline that read: ‘Priest acquitted of drink-driving!’ Then the story went on about a bus driver, whose name was Charles Priest, and who definitely was not a priest. So, hyperbole exaggerates voiced opinions in order to keep people listening. With this in mind we can understand that ‘hatred’ in Jesus’ mouth does not describe our attitude towards our families. In normal use, hatred makes people totally torn apart. People who hate each other don’t want to keep any form of contact or interaction – sometimes they murder the hated person to secure that. Jesus uses the word ‘to hate’ to emphasize the need for internal freedom to the point of leaving the beloved one in order to follow God’s plan. Think about the four nuns in Elgin that came from the USA, think about foreign priests working in our diocese. They have come to places where God has called them to; they have left their families behind but they still love them greatly.
Let me recall the last sentence from the gospel again: ‘None of you can be my disciple unless he gives up all his possessions.’ As I said before, it might sound confusing to call other people ‘possessions.’ But not so long ago, and in some cultures to this day, the family is an asset. Think about gentry marrying their daughters and sons to secure their own political careers and positions, to keep their power and influence. It’s seemingly long gone in our country, but it’s not completely true. On a larger scale, for banks, supermarket chains or corporate employers their customers or workers are just numbers, faceless and dehumanised entries in their massive databases. On a smaller scale, other people are just important as long as they are useful, dumped as soon as they are not needed any more. It happens between couples, spouses, friends… ‘To give up all possessions’ in that context means replacing the usefulness of people by decent, honest and selfless relationship. It means to possess nobody, and to give ourselves in love to everybody.