By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal

Have you ever been reading through the Bible and been shocked out of your wits by what you find written there? I know I have. It’s a simple fact that, sometimes, we find that the Bible doesn’t fit in with our refined, twenty-first century expectations of what we think it should say. This is true, especially, of today’s lesson from the Gospel of St. Luke.

Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. (St. Luke 14:25-26 NRSV)

Ouch! That’s not exactly an easy word to hear on Holy Family Sunday, now is it? And, yet, we must deal with it. After all, Jesus said it, didn’t he?

What does the Gospel of St. Luke mean when it reports that Jesus said this? St. Matthew’s Gospel phrases this word of the Lord a little differently: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me....” (St. Matthew 10:37 NRSV) However, those who quickly run to Matthew’s version of this passage because it appears to be a bit more palatable, usually do so by skipping over a bit too quickly the verses that immediately precede it:

For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. (St. Matthew 10:35-36 NRSV)

Double ouch!!!!!! No matter where you go, you discover this this is a difficult word of the Lord! Why, pray -tell, is Jesus being so harsh about families? Does Jesus really mean that we’re to “hate” our families ... with all the emotional baggage that goes along with “hatred”? I don’t think so.

Miseo is the Greek word which is translated “hate” in St. Luke 14:25-26. It has, seated within its roots in Attic Greek, the fundamental sense of "separation" or "exclusion" of one from another — usually out of a fear of physical or spiritual harm. It doesn't, therefore, include the "psychological sense" of anger or emotional "againstness" that modern English generally situates in the word "hate," but rather describes one's relational orientation towards another. With whom does one associate as opposed to whom one avoids? Put simply, if one is impure — if one is spiritually sick -- that one is to be avoided.

This word was adopted by those who first translated the Old Testament into Greek (about 200 years before Jesus was born) for God's attitude towards people who were engaged in certain sinful acts which created ritual impurity. For example, those who ate or prepared unclean food (pork, choked chickens, clams, lobster, meat cooked with milk [cheese burgers] etc.) were to be avoided (miseo) because they were thought of as being unclean, and because they were unclean they could make anyone who came into contact with them unclean as well. This was also true of a woman in her period, a man who is bleeding from any kind of injury, or those who engage in improper sexual activity. Anything that involves either the ingesting of blood or contact with bleeding in general, will make one unclean and is to be avoided at nearly any cost. When understood in its *linguistic* context, this word actually highlights that God requires His people to separate themselves from such out of a fear of ritual impurity. Any issue of blood, any contact with unclean food or with food prepared in an unclean way, can make one ritually unclean. God "hates" (miseo) those who are unclean or who have come into contact with unclean people or practices because they tend to spread their ritual uncleanliness among God’s people. As a result, God's people are required to distance themselves from such. There is no anger, dislike, or any other kind of negative emotional antipathy towards these people — only a concern over ritual impurity.

The meaning of miseo in the Koine Greek of Hellenistic Judaism and the Early Church is informed by this concept of ritual impurity. These authors looked especially to the Greek translations of Hebraic Wisdom Literature (both Biblical and Extra-Biblical) for their understanding of how one was to deal with spiritual "stumbling blocks." Anything that comes between a disciple and the master, between God and God's child, is considered a fit object of miseo.

Informed by the linguistic roots of the word miseo, it seems clear that there is no emotional baggage in it, no anger or malicious disregard — as there is in the English word "hate." Quite the contrary, in this context miseo has a very clear meaning: it means to separate or remove one's self from entangling relationships or circumstances which might come between the disciple and the master.

Sadly, family can come between the disciple and the master. We all know this, even if we don’t want to think about it. Sometimes (I pray, often times) families and loved ones go, hand and hand, with us in following Jesus Christ. That is the ideal ... in such cases, the entire family loves Jesus supremely, and because of this love they then can truly love each other. However, sometimes family stands in our way. I have friends in the ministry whose families have been opposed to their calling to the pastorate. In such cases, the master’s call take precedent.

No, Jesus did not tell us to “hate” our families, but to prefer him over the demands of family.

© 1998, Dr. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved

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The Reverend Dr. Gregory S. Neal is the Senior Pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Commerce, Texas, and an ordained Elder in the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Trinity College, Dr. Neal is a scholar of Systematic Theology, New Testament origins, and Biblical Languages. His areas of specialization include the Theology of the Sacraments, in which he did his doctoral dissertation, and the formation and early transmission of the New Testament. Trained as a Christian educator, he has taught classes in these and related fields while also serving for more than 25 years as the pastor of United Methodist churches in North Texas.

As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including
Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from Amazon.com.