“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” Luke 14:26

After St. Francis of Assisi experienced a deep conversion in his life, not only was he surprised by this newfound grace, but all the people of Assisi were surprised as well.  As St. Francis would walk through his town, a town he was very familiar with, he would look around and see people he knew all his life busy about daily activities and seemingly oblivious to God.  They, like most of us, were busy about what they considered their life.  Seeing this caused St. Francis a great deal of sadness, not because people were busy working, but because they appeared unaware of God.

As he would walk through town, various people claimed to have heard St. Francis whispering to himself, “Love is not loved.”  He was referring of course to God, since “God is love (1 John 4:8).  As he would walk by mumbling this phrase people began to think that St. Francis had lost his mind.  Some felt pity for him since they knew his parents and had watched him grow up.  “What happened to this poor boy?” many asked, while others ridiculed him and laughed at him, finding in St. Francis a buffoon in whom they could experience some entertainment and at the very least, a break from the humdrum of daily life.

What exactly did St. Francis mean by saying “Love is not loved?”  He was, I believe, lamenting over the spiritual state of the many townspeople he had known and loved his entire life. Ultimately, what St. Francis saw among his fellow townspeople was that their priorities were out of order and because of this, their love was not disciplined.  Hence, God, for the most part was absent from their minds and hearts.

 Jesus reminds us throughout the Gospel that He must be our first priority.  For this to occur our love for everyone and everything else in life must be disciplined.  Jesus expresses this truth in a very dramatic fashion when he tells us, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26).  Upon hearing such an intense demand from Jesus, we must avoid two extremes when attempting to interpret such a statement.

First, we must not take these words literally and believe that Jesus is calling us to hate our family and our own life.  Such an interpretation would contradict the fourth commandment, to love and honor our parents, and it would also contradict the inherent biblical precept that life is a gift (Genesis 1:31), and therefore is good.  Second, we must not brush off this saying of Jesus as merely a poetic metaphor that He is using simply to get our attention.  The truth, as usual, is somewhere in the middle. What then does Jesus mean when he tells us to “hate” our family and our own life?  What practical consequence could this have for us in our daily life?

 The word hate is defined as having an intense or passionate dislike for someone.  However, when the word hate is used in the Bible, it means “to love less.”[1]  In the book of Genesis, we read that “When the Lord saw that Leah was hated,” i.e., loved less than Rachel, “he opened her womb” (Genesis 29:31).  Similarly, in the prophet Malachi we read, “Yet I have loved Jacob, but I hated Esau (“Malachi 1:3).  Esau was “loved less,” because he sold his birthright to his brother Jacob.

When Jesus tells us to hate our family and our life, He is telling us that nobody and nothing, even our own life and our own family, can be on an equal plane with God.  Though this might sound extreme and even harsh, we are reminded of an important truth: all relationships and therefore all love, are not equal.  We could call this the hierarchy of love.  Imagine if a husband loved his friends in the exact measure in which he loves his wife, or if a teacher loved his students as much as his own children.  All of us would agree that the wife and one’s own children should be loved more than one’s friends or students.  Why?  Because the relationship that the husband and the father possess with his wife and children belongs to a higher category than that of friendship and students.  At the pinnacle of this hierarchy of love is God, which is why Jesus will conclude in the Gospel of Matthew that “He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37). 

Though most of us would agree with this teaching in theory, many of us find this teaching extremely difficult to put into practice.  In listening to many people over the years as a priest, I have noticed that most of the struggles that occur in marriage, religious life, and in friendships happen when we expect, demand, or even hope that another person takes the place of God.  Despite our best intentions “to worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve” (Matthew 4:10), we create idols in other people, relationships, and life in general.  When we live with this sort of hope and expectation, we are going to be endlessly frustrated. Our minds and hearts are never going to be at peace because our priorities are not ordered appropriately, and our love is not disciplined.

When I am preparing a couple for marriage, I always remind them that there is only one Savior, and your spouse is not it.  They always tend to look a bit confused when I say this, however a year or two after they have been married, they tell me that they now understand what I meant by saying that their spouse is not their savior.  The same reality occurs in religious life.  When a young man or woman enters a religious community, they tend to think that their community is perfect.  At least I did.  However, a few years later, and after they experience their own poverty and the poverty of all the members in that community more deeply, they begin to see that even their religious order is not their Savior.

This can be very difficult for some to hear and accept.  The primary reason I believe, is because we live with the illusion that our life is actually ours.  Without realizing it, this is the way we speak.  We say things like, “my life, my vocation, my body, my time, my talents, my money, etc.” Everything is mine, or so we think.  Yet St. Paul offers us this sobering and thoughtful reminder when he asks the Corinthians, “What do you have that you did not receive?  If then you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift” (1 Corinthians 4:7).  The answer quite simply to St. Paul’s question is nothing, there is nothing that I have, even my own life, that I have not received from God.  So then, why do I act as if it is mine?

 St. Paul is alluding to a paradox that lies at the heart of the Gospel.  If we really want to enjoy our life and to love our families and friends, then we must, to put it biblically, “love them less” than God and stop grasping at them in the hopes that they can satisfy us.  It is only in this way that we can come to appreciate them most fully and love them in a way that is appropriate and meaningful.  Without this mindset and disposition that the Gospel calls us to, we will always be forcing them to be someone or something they are not.  It’s not fair to them, ourselves, and God.

 In the Gospel of Luke, the evangelist recounts that after a series of healings Jesus departs to a lonely place while the crowds sought him out.  Jesus could have spent the rest of his earthly life in this one spot, healing, preaching, and drawing thousands of people to him.  Despite the allure this may have for us, Jesus responds very differently.  “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose” (Luke 4:43).  Hence, despite the human affirmation, happiness, and even sense of fulfillment these crowds may have brought to Jesus, there is something and someone greater than all of this: it is the Father and His will.  Everyone else and everything else, Jesus “loves less,” as He reaffirms when He tells us that “my food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work” (John 4:33).

 Because Jesus loves everyone “less” than the Father, i.e., putting the Father first, those crowds that Jesus ministered to, including us, experience healing, forgiveness, and redemption.  In a similar way, when we love everyone in our life “less” than God, i.e., put God first, others can experience the healing, forgiveness, and redemption of Jesus through our humanity because it is not grasping for attention and affirmation, nor is it attempting to manipulate life for one’s own benefit.

 The people of Assisi thought the young Francis was crazy because he went around saying “love is not loved.”  After his conversion, St. Francis realized that there is so much more to life than material gains, earthly satisfactions, and worldly popularity.   It is not that these things are bad necessarily, however, what St. Francis realized is that none of these things deserve the fullness of our love, attention, and desire.  This alone, set St. Francis apart from many of his contemporaries and quite honestly, even though he was looked upon as crazy, he was the sanest person in that town.  He realized, thanks to the grace of God and the teaching of Jesus in the Gospel, that there is nothing and nobody in this world, as good as they are, and as beautiful as this life is, that compares to the goodness, beauty, and love of God.

[1] Ignatius Catholic Study Bible New Testament, Second Edition RSV. Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2010, 136.


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