Many months ago now, my Uncle Bumper (his name is actually Harry) was speaking about the dangers of the "love of self". He referenced this:
My uncle, a Greek Orthodox Theology Professor, was preparing a outline for a discussion with some friends of his. While I believe the context of this conversation was very personal in nature, speaking privately with two or three couples, my mother and I worried about the way this may come out. The difference between "love of self" and "loving yourself" is so small in written and oral language, that it seems undeniable that someone could get confused.
But really now, how on earth does the creator of life say "you can't follow me if you don't hate your life and your family."
What does this really mean? ... As Minnesotan's say "oof dah".
Words are hard, and the bible is full of them. Words are frequently misunderstood, in many different situations, and when thinking about scripture and direct commands recorded to be from the mouth of Christ, it is very important to take extreme care. Especially if teaching other people.
Whenever I run into an "oof dah" moment in scripture I try to remember this: as Christians we must read the bible as pieces of a complete story: the story of God. It's a beautiful book, a supernatural book and it represents the story of a beautiful God. But I would say, that its infallibility isn't in the words on its pages. After all, they were written by human's, in human language, about human characters. But it is the spirit, that the stories in the bible testify to, that is infallible.
So to understand what Christ is talking about in Luke 14:26, we need some context. Without context, anything can get confusing ... or worse. I'm going to go through four different types of context in thinking about this difficult verse:
Greater context: focused on the over arching story of God and His character
Direct context: focused the stories and scriptural elements that lead up to the difficult passage, and how it relates.
Human context: focused on how the human condition relates to this passage.
Present context: focused on what the message of the passage relates to Christians today.
First, in the greater context, I want to remember these passages about God's Love:
If these passages don't make it clear enough, Christians are not called to hate.
We are called to love as God loves us! A God who loves us enough to come down and die for us.
But, seriously, the fact that Christ ever told us to hate, sounds really really weird.
Now the direct context of Chapter 14 is too long for a picture, so I've included a link and summary.
In Luke 14, Christ speaks on humility: not placing your plans ahead of God's plan. He then proceeds to give us advice on how we should act at parties. He says: "Don't recline at the best place, because a more distinguished person than you may have been invited..." (vs. 8). Instead, "go and recline in the lowest place, so that when the one who invited you comes, he will say to you, 'friend move up higher ..." (verse 9).
Verse 11: "For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted."
In the next second of verses, Christ tell a parable about a banquet that a man invited many people to. "But without exception they all began to make excuses" (Verse 18a). They said they'd just bought something, or got married, and would not be able to make it to the banquet. They exulted themselves. These things they were doing, were not even bad things, but because they counted them as more valuable, they missed out on the celebration at the banquet.
This is "Love of Self". As I see It, it is an underlying selfishness with which all humans wrestle. We all have a tendency to think: "I just gotta go about my life and take care of what it mine." Unfortunately, we fall away form God when we do this.
It is widely accepted that this banquet Christ is speaking represents a Heavenly banquet. And who is eventually invited to this banquet? "The poor, maimed, blind and lame!" (verse 21). The people who have not exulted themselves have been exulted.
This is the upside down Kingdom of God. Where the low get seated high. Where the high get seated low. Where it is better to be last than first.
THIS is the direct context of Luke 14:26: Humility ... or, like my uncle said: the danger of the "love of self". Even in this context, Christ's call to hate is difficult to understand.
Now there is the human context. First of all, many times we get tripped up by the headings of our modern bibles. In the original manuscripts there is no huge "The Cost of Following Christ Headline" that proceeds this difficult verse. Unfortunately, these kind of headings actually encourage people to read verses out of context. It makes ya think, even if just for a moment ... wait if I want to follow Christ I have to hate my family and my life. But in order to get a feel for what Christ was saying in Luke 14:26, we need to think of a different human context. The physical context of both Christ himself, and his followers.
At this point of Jesus' ministry, crowds followed him everywhere, and He frequently snuck away to pray. Pressure was mounting on his physical body. Frankly, at times he must have need diversions. Sometimes, Jesus, who was just as human and you and me, needed to thin the crowd. I believe he felt the need to use some hyperbole to make his point. I think it's a really fantastic way to hammer home a point.
This was after all Emmanuel, God in the flesh. Just about anybody would follow him because he was healing people and saying revolutionary and amazing things. He stood up to people who needed a good talking to, and loved the typically rejected people. Then come to the fact that, Christ was on the road to Calvary. God's plans were reaching a feverous pitch and in order to follow through, he literally couldn't keep so many disciples. Not everybody was ready to drop everything and take up their cross (a way more daunting word in Roman times and in Judea than it is in our hyper-spiritualized time). I would mean giving up a lot.
Then think about what happened when these disciples became Apostles. All of them were martyred for what they bought into in Christ. All of them learned to think basically nothing of themselves. I do not think of this as literal self hatered. This is humility. Standing next to selfish my-life-is-mine-and-only-mine "love of self", this humility-thing does look a bit like self-hate, but it's not.
This is what I call, counting the cost. For the Apostles, they saw God in the flesh. The saw Christ's power first hand. They saw the Gospel as a cause to be worthy of giving their life. They recognized themselves as vastly smaller and less significant then their message. They thought of themselves lowly enough to drop their plans for the sake of the gospel.
Now in present context this Jesus in the flesh thing, is a bit complicated. He's not here now, as a man, walking the streets, eating, drinking, preaching, teaching, and healing. Neither have we seen Him in the flesh, so it's not quite as cut and dry who to follow or which way to go. Today, the church is the body of Christ. We are doing the eating, drinking, serving, teaching, preaching, praying and healing. We are called to be like Christ, to follow his example and are called to do this in community. I think their are moments when today's Christians have to hear the voice of the Lord, count the cost, then move and act in big ways. Ways that might be sharp, sudden, seemingly reckless and, at least at some level, potentially destructive, but the call to be a Christian is overwhelmingly a call to unity. A call that has nothing to do with hating anything but the sin that separates us from God. After all, we can't really be the body of Christ if each and every part hates each other.
So, as Christians, we are called to live humbly, as Christ did, living with connection to God the Father. This is making a point to see the world, not simply through the eyes of sinful man, but through the lense of the Holy Spirit.
So, to try to sum this up, as Christians today we must be humble. We must not thrust ourselves in the spotlight. We cannot shoot for celebrity status. We must humbly serve and pray and love the Lord our God, giving thanks for what he has done for us, and what He continues to do. We must love one another. We must pray for each other so that we each may hear Christ's call, and pray for discernment when we are in times of transition.
I believe Christ's words in verse 26-27 remain challenging. They are the kind of words that baffle us and make us think, debate and sometimes make us anxious. But thinking in these types of context, especially the human context, it seems logical that Christ would have used a very human concept: hyperbole.
But somehow for me, it all comes back to this ...
God is good. God is creator. God is sustainer. God is the giver of life. God has given me every good thing. I have nothing to be proud of, no self to love, that is not rooted in the nourishing gracious love of God. I have no family without God. I have no friends without God.
I do seek to see myself as less and serve and receive in humility. Deferring to the spirit, and constantly working to see the world through its lens, is essential to being a fruitful branch. This takes denying oneself.
"Love of self" is taking root in the temporary, the frivolous: consumerism, pleasure pleasing, greed, pride and lusting. It's being a tiny little branch and throwing itself into the dry ground, sucking at sand to try to produce fruit. So, if in myself, every good thing I have has been given to me, I must "deny myself" the right to think prideful thoughts. I must hate these thoughts. I must recognize, in order to be a fruitful branch, the worth of Christ, and working for his kingdom, is greater than whatever my sick in the ground can produce. This hyperbologically sounds a little bit like hating myself.
But if I was a first century Jew and I heard Christ say that He cannot be followed by people who do not hate themselves and their family, I would prolly clear out and go back to my ... sheep herding ... or whatever I would be doing.
Thanks be to God, Christ kept his crowds in check, or the road to Calvary would have been compromised and his defeat on the cross would never have become victory in resurrection.