Shamelessly and with absolute certainty I can say that I am my mother’s favourite son. Or even more, I’m her favourite child. How can I make such a boastful claim? It’s simple: I’m her only child. ‘That’s why he’s such a spoilt brat’ – you might think, and rightly so. But there’s a disadvantage to be an only child – the duty of care for my mother lies solely with me. Spare a thought; I can’t expect my siblings to share that duty, which makes Jesus’ requirement in today’s gospel impossibly harsh: ‘If any man comes to me without hating his father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters, yes and his own life too, he cannot be my disciple.’ In fact, it seems that following Jesus – the essence of the Christian faith – is virtually impossible for anyone who cares for their family. Jesus’ demand looks like it’s been taken straight from the extremists’ handbook.
Wait a minute, before you decide to divorce your spouse, disinherit your children, and break contact with your parents and siblings in order to follow Jesus. Let’s try to square this circle first by looking at the wider context.
The Ten Commandments is the moral framework of Judaism and Christianity. According to the Bible, they were given to the People of Israel through Moses on Mount Horeb as part of the covenant between God and them. In general terms the commandments regulate the most essential aspects of their relationship to God and neighbours, like proper worship and forbidding grave harm. The fourth of them, ‘honour your father and mother’ is a bit of an odd one out. Why legislate for something that ought to be natural and obvious? I guess this kind of relationship must have been so problematic that it made its way into the constitutional moral framework of the Ten Commandments. Thanks to this divinely supported regulation, the Jews developed deeply ingrained respect for the elderly. The Old Testament is full of instructions, directions and proverbs calling for respect and active support of parents, particularly in their old age. Jesus himself incidentally underlined such an attitude when he accused the Pharisees for waiving the fourth commandment in favour of keeping man-made traditions and called them hypocrites (Matthew 15:1-7). Jesus rejected hatred for any reason; in his so-called Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) he called his listeners to reject vengeance and to love their enemies. Throughout the gospel Jesus taught and showed that there’s no acceptable kind of hatred. Except for the passage we read in today’s gospel, it seems.
Actually, Jesus here employed a figure of speech called hyperbole that uses exaggeration for emphasis or effect. We use it very often, such as in the phrase ‘I’ve told you that a thousand times.’ Jesus’ hyperbole got his audience thinking. What about? The clue is in the final line of the hyperbole: ‘If any man comes to me without hating his father, mother […] he cannot be my disciple.’ Jesus repeats that conclusion once again: ‘Whoever doesn’t carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.’
Too often we take our Christian faith as a life insurance policy, subconsciously assuming that God will protect us from troubles, problems and disasters. We assume that God will always rubber-stamp our plans; moreover, that God will actively do everything in his power (He’s almighty, right?) to make those plans happen. If anything doesn’t go according to our plans, we easily blame God or even lose faith. In today’s gospel Jesus calls us to use our brains to consider whether we are ready to accept God’s plans for our lives. And that’s a completely different kettle of fish. Jesus concludes his speech with these words: ‘none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.’ In this context all your possessions represent the illusion of being in control, of the illusory sense of safety and security. The core aspect of the Christian faith is discipleship – absolute and utter trust in Jesus. All other religious, theological and moral aspects of the faith make no sense without us being Jesus’ disciples. When we become his disciples, we can possess everything without being possessed by anything. This is the ultimate form of freedom, it’s the fulfilment of Jesus’ paradoxical words: ‘those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.’ (Matthew 16:25)