At first glance our reading of the Lukan saying of Jesus does seem to suggest that the cult’s interpretation of the Lord’s command was correct. However, this saying like others imbedded in the Gospels, contains an important Hebrew idiom. On this occasion the idiomatic expression is central to our very understanding of the verse. It is important that we recognize the Hebrew meaning behind the Greek of our Gospels. Fortunately, in this instance the hidden Hebrew meaning can be unmasked even without a good knowledge of Hebrew. One only needs to give time and effort to study the Bible carefully with a good concordance. Let’s briefly trace this unique Hebraic use of the verbs “love” and “hate” in their joint occurrences first in the Old Testament and then their penetration into the Apostle Paul’s writings.
Genesis 29 recounts Jacob’s sojourn in the land of his father. In a moving story of love and commitment Jacob worked for seven years for the hand of Rachel in marriage, but he was deceived by his father-in-law Laban and found himself married to Rachel’s older sister, Leah. Undeterred, Jacob worked for another seven years to be able to marry Rachel. His preference for Rachel is clear in the story. Nothing in the story indicates that Jacob disliked Leah, only that Rachel was his favorite. As a result we read that the Lord saw this preference and compensated Leah by opening her womb. “When the Lord saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb; but Rachel was barren” (Gen. 29:31). In our story the description that she was “hated” simply means that Jacob preferred his beloved Rachel.
The same idea of preference is used by Paul in his example of God’s election, “As it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated’” (Rom. 9:13). Paul’s quotation of Malachi 1:1-2 reinforces the aspect of divine sovereignty in his election. No one who heard this statement in the days of the biblical prophet or even among Paul’s first readers would have suggested that the Lord literally hated Esau. Normally the elder brother would have been the primary beneficiary of Isaac’s inheritance. However, from the scriptural perspective, God sovereignly intervened to determine the “chosen line” of inheritance, which, on this occasion, passed through the younger brother, Jacob. To express this act of preferential selection the writers used the Hebrew expression “to love and hate.”
Having witnessed this unique Hebraic expression, we return to the words of Jesus where we find once again the Lord using the contrast between love and hate to designate preference.
No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon. (Matt 6:24, RSV; cf. Luke 16:13)
Most of us have read this verse countless times, yet never thought of its relevance for the saying concerning hating one’s father and mother. Having seen the idea of preference contained in the Hebraic expression to love and hate, however, now the similarity should be clear. Jesus’ use of the verbs to express the need for choices and total commitment echo a similar usage found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. While Jesus in this saying theoretically could have meant literal hate and love, it is more likely he is speaking of simple allegiance. We cannot serve two masters. The course of life will bring us to the point where we will have to choose what is most dear to us. We necessarily will have to prefer that which holds priority in our lives. In Jesus’ saying the specific warning concerns the allure of worldly wealth. Wealth itself is not evil. It is only that it, as well as other things in our lives, must be kept in their proper perspective. We must never become its slave (see Psalm 45:7; Amos 5:15).
Those whose priorities are in right order have the Lord as the master of their lives. All other areas fall into their proper place—whether it be wealth or relationships. In both of Jesus’ sayings the same idea is expressed: “Consider carefully! One who chooses to follow after me must count the costs and have their priorities reordered.” Our reading of Jesus’ words in Luke is in agreement with Matthew’s understanding of the saying. In his preservation of a parallel statement, the Hebrew idiom is not as prominent, but the notion of preference is clear, “He who loves father and mother more than me….” (Matt 10:37).
The Lord requires preeminence in our lives. Otherwise, there exists the danger of divided allegiance. If a personal relationship or possession depends upon activity that is unpleasant to the Lord, it may be that we will be called upon to sever it. The calling that God places on our lives is not an easy one. In the continuation of Jesus’ saying in Luke concerning “hating” one’s father and mother, Jesus equates the call to discipleship with death: “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27).
We should not read Jesus’ words, as did the cult in the 1970s, to suggest an automatic severing with our previous relationships. Our walk with the Lord need not always lead to a breach in relationships with family and friends, nor to an abandonment of our professions. Whereas it is recorded that Levi left everything (Luke 5:28), Jesus told the Gerasene, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you” (Luke 8:39). More often God chooses to keep us where we are, in those situations where we can be a light, a leavening force to bring others into a right relationship with God.
Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (Matt 5:14-16, RSV)