The opening phrase of today’s Gospel is rather puzzling. Can Jesus really be telling us to hate our very closest relatives? And can he who came to give us life insist that we hate our own lives? Many scholars suggest that what we are dealing with is a difficulty of translation. They suggest that Jesus does not actually mean that we should hate our lives or those close to us. They tell us that the idiom used in Hebrew actually means ‘love less’ and not literally ‘hate’. This then leaves us with the idea that we should love Jesus even more than we love our own close family or even our own lives.
That’s the trouble with translation; taking things literally word by word can often lead to a confusing picture. What we need to do is to look at a whole expression and at what the speaker really intends to say. Occasionally we come across words that are quite impossible to translate. In these cases, translators might have to use several words to try to convey the meaning.
It is reckoned that Jesus spoke Aramaic since that was the language of the people of the area in which he grew up; but he would also have used Hebrew since that was the language spoken by the Rabbis and was used for religious texts. He may also have known Greek since that language was widely spoken by the more cosmopolitan elite.
Another reason it is presumed that Jesus spoke Aramaic is because it was the language of the ordinary people and it was these ordinary people who were the focus for Jesus’ teaching. But when it comes to the scriptures, we know that the Gospels were written in Greek even though many of the stories about Jesus and accounts of his teaching would have been communicated to the Evangelists in Aramaic. So, you can see that right from the start there is scope for misunderstanding and confusion.
Also, we must understand that when speaking to an audience a persuasive orator doesn’t always speak literally or logically. Often, they use exaggeration for effect or in order to hold your attention. The phrase about a camel passing through the eye of a needle is an example of this. Jesus says that it is as difficult for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle as it is for a rich man to reach the Kingdom of Heaven. The image is at the same time grotesque and impossible; but, of course, it is also unforgettable and that is why Jesus used it. Scholars call this sort of thing Biblical Hyperbole.
What we have to do is to take Jesus teaching as a whole; to look at the whole body of his teaching and realise what are the essential elements. Where we discover that there are apparent contradictions, we need to examine the text closely and ask ourselves if Jesus means certain words in a literal way or whether this is to achieve an oratorical effect.
Here in the phrase at the beginning of our text today I think that Jesus is trying to catch our attention. Clearly, he does not want us to hate our fathers and mothers; what he wants us to do is simply not to prefer them above him. Looking at everything he said we see that Jesus’ whole thrust is to get us to love more and not less; and he most certainly does not want us to adopt feelings of hate.
We are faced with a similar problem in the last words of today’s Gospel text. He says, ‘In the same way, none of you can be my disciple unless he gives up all his possessions.’ Does Jesus really want us to give up all of our possessions? If so, then how would we live? It would be very hard to survive without clothing or housing or food.
Of course, Jesus has quite a lot to say about poverty. And while we know that Jesus was not attached to material possessions he was certainly not as strict as John the Baptist who lived on locusts and wild honey. We know that Jesus was wearing a seamless robe at the time of the crucifixion which was perceived to be valuable by the soldiers who decided that the best thing to do would be to cast lots to see who would get it.
Also, we know that Jesus also took part in lavish meals laid on by local worthies who wanted to question him. We know too about the woman who Jesus permitted to anoint his feet with precious oil. We can think of other occasions when Jesus was not particularly attached to poverty. As we did before we have to see his teaching as a whole and when we do so we realise that what he really means is that we should not put attachment to possessions above love of him or the demands of discipleship.
Jesus sees material possessions as useful but transitory. He also realises that a superabundance of material things can bind a person. He realises that it is easy to be greedy and avaricious and that these things blind us to the importance of the spiritual life.
In the middle of the text given today we find two parables; one about the man who underestimated the cost of building a tower and so couldn’t finish it and the other about a king marching to war against an adversary with double the number of soldiers. It is not at first clear what these two parables have to do with the rest of the text which is essentially about putting love of Jesus above everything else.
Probably St Luke had heard these parables and thought they were important and so had to find a place to insert them into his Gospel and he probably thought that this place was as good as any. The parables are about preparedness and the importance of making sure that you have the wherewithal to achieve your goals. Maybe this is the connection that Luke saw; that if our goal in life is to love Jesus above all things then we must think in a practical way about what this really means. If we want to love Jesus over everything and everybody then we have to make some real concrete decisions about how to achieve this goal. And it is useless to attempt to love Jesus in a half-hearted way or to put things or people above loving him because, if we do this, we are sure to fail.
Loving Jesus then is the goal; placing love of him higher than anything else in our lives. We can do nothing more worthy in life than making the love of Jesus our wholehearted objective.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket