“Hate is a strong word!” Spoken to me constantly while growing up, these five simple words still vibrate through my mind as I approach my Autumn years. Interestingly enough, I hear children still using the “hate word” today, many years after I first used it! What conclusion do I draw from this? Well, apparently we all seem to embark on our earthly journey with some kind of ghastly “hate gene” lurking in the unfathomable complexity of our DNA! However, I must be honest and confess that even though the exciting years of youth have retreated, and I see the silver threads among the gold, there are still some things in life that I “hate” – cabbage, for example!
I thought about my own usage of the “hate word” as I reflected on the Gospel passage today. Wow! Jesus, the Son of God made flesh, uses the “hate word”! Yes, the word “hate” is a strong word, but when spoken by the very mouth of God himself this word resounds even stronger. Many, of course, will say that the original word used by Jesus actually means “love less than”, but that is a cop-out and it is way too weak. The real meaning is that following Jesus demands the surrender of the whole of one’s life, the cost of discipleship.
In his Confessions, Saint Augustine describes how he once had to grapple with the question: “What do I love when I love my God?” He asked the earth, and it said, “I am not he!” He then asked the sea and the deep and all the living animals and the things that creep, and they answered, “We are not your God! Seek you higher than us!” Then he asked the winds that blow, and they said, “I am not God!” Then he asked the heavens, the sun, the moon, and the stars: “We are not the God whom you seek,” they said. Then Saint Augustine cried out “Tell me of my God! Although you are not he, tell me something of him!” With a mighty voice they cried out, “He made us!”
What Saint Augustine discovered was that everything around him bore witness to the greatness of God and his unfathomable love. However, nothing in this created world could claim to be God. I think this insight from Saint Augustine can help us penetrate the deeper meaning of the Gospel text today.
It is true that the word “hate” in the Bible often expresses priority and preference, not emotional hatred. In the context of the Gospel text today it is indeed a question of “what do we give our priority to”, or “what is the most important thing in my life”. Or, as Saint Augustine would say “What is your God – not in theory but in real life, the lived life?”
However, I would like to suggest that there is a deeper element to this text that is not immediately apparent to a modern reader. What Jesus is saying must also be interpreted with a Jewish mindset. One common view, prevalent at the time of Jesus but even long before that, was that immediately before the time of the Messiah, there would be a period of disharmony in family and social relationships. Consequently, in the Gospel passage today Jesus is announcing the age of the Messiah. In doing so, he is quoting the prophet Micah who spoke of the messianic age in the following terms:
“Put no trust in a neighbour, have no confidence in a friend; guard the doors of your mouth from her who lies in your bosom; for the son treats the father with contempt, the daughter rises up against her mother, the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; a man’s enemies are the men of his own house” (Micah 7:5–6).
Micah is speaking about God’s judgement that would come on Judah because of the nation’s corruption and moral failure. According to Micah, social relationships would fall apart, and even close relatives would no longer trust one another. Social deterioration would be the end result of Judah’s moral failure.
Applying this insight to the Gospel message today, we can understand that Jesus is not encouraging hate. Rather, he is saying that social networks will be torn apart because the time of the Messiah is now – He is the Messiah! People will be divided over Jesus and his call to repentance and faith. In our politically correct world, many Christians no longer see Jesus as the Shepherd, but as a cuddly sheepdog. In so doing they are divorcing Jesus from his Cross and transforming belief into a spineless religion.
Having just celebrated the year of the family, it is worth reflecting deeply on the text today in the context of family. The Congolese people in Africa have a saying, “La ruine d’une nation commence dans les foyers de son peuple” – The ruin of a nation begins in the homes of its people. Only when a nation discovers what Saint Augustine discovered – that nothing in this created world can truly claim to be God – will we understand the hidden depth of the Gospel message today. By embracing the reality of God and allowing the love of God to be first in our lives, we will see that our beloved families come right along with it!