Recipients of the Instruction (14:25)
The section begins with the statement that “large crowds” were accompanying Jesus as he traveled. As discussed above, this short transition provides a spatial separation between the teaching to the crowds and the dinner with the Pharisees, while also bringing the reader back to the journey motif. The noun “crowd,” with its derivatives, occurs thirty-six times in Luke, and the phrase “large crowd” occurs five times. But, the phrase “large crowds” occurs only one other time besides the present passage. In 5:15, Jesus heals a man of leprosy and the man’s testimony results in the fact that “large crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses.”(1) Another possibly related occurrence of “crowd” is found in 12:1, where “thousands of the crowd” gathered around Jesus, so much so that they were “trampling one another.”
While elsewhere in Luke, “crowds” are portrayed as “pools of neutral persons from whom Jesus might draw disciples,”(2) it is possible that there is an intended difference here. Conceivably, this enthusiastic entourage, a large group distinct from Jesus’ traveling “disciples” (cf. 7:11), is following Jesus with a serious lack of understanding, much like the crowds who flocked to him in 5:15 and 12:1. Perhaps they follow him with the notion that they are accompanying Jesus on his messianic victory march into Jerusalem. Of course, in one sense they are correct, for Jesus is on a “victory march” of sorts. Yet, Jesus’ difficult teaching that follows offers immediate disillusionment to those who misunderstand his mission and the mission of all who go after him.(3)
First Statement on Discipleship (14:26)
The first statement Jesus makes about the nature of discipleship is shocking at best: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even life itself—such a person cannot be my disciple.” Jesus has said previously that his disciples must “love” their enemies, those who hate them (6:27-35); therefore it is puzzling that he now says that his disciples must “hate” their family and themselves.(4) What a peculiar rabbi, who instructs his students to “love” their enemies and “hate” their family!
Yet, the way Jesus is using the word “hate” in his Hebraic context does not have the visceral emotional connotations that the word “hate” has in the Western context. Instead, Jesus is presenting a hyperbolic dichotomy that is intended to show the stark distinction necessary between one’s loyalty to kin and one’s loyalty to Jesus.(5) A parallel usage of this love/hate dichotomy in 16:13 helps to illustrate this point: “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.”(6) This parallel also reveals that Jesus foresees a conflict between the demands of family and the demands of the Kingdom, something that he himself has vividly experienced (see 2:43-50; 8:19-21).
Rather than a call to loathe and despise family, therefore, Jesus is saying that his disciples are characterized by cutting themselves off from their family network in the interest of following him; something that most members of society would still consider tantamount to hatred.(7) At the very least, the call to “hate” one’s family means an intentional rejection of the high cultural value placed on kinship. This is consistent with Jesus’ other teachings in Luke, which show that discipleship relativizes one’s normal and highly valued loyalties to family and other social ties (8:19-21; 9:57-62; 12:51-53; 18:28-30).(8) Moreover, the call to “hate” one’s family may lead to purposed alienation from them.(9) Jesus leads by example in this regard, rejecting the claims of his family upon him for the sake of embracing those who “hear God’s word and put it into practice” (8:21).(10)
It is in light of this understanding of hating one’s family that the reader is to heed the call to hate “life itself,” literally “one’s own soul.” This is not the affective self-loathing that characterizes many people, especially those plagued with depression or other psychological ailments. It is also not the morbid self-hatred of one intentionally seeking vainglorious honor in martyrdom or some other sacrificial death. When viewed in light of the previous call to reject family commitments and their benefits, this command to hate “one’s own soul” is partly a call to “set aside the relationships, the extended family of origin and inner circle of friends, by which one has previously made up one’s identity.”(11)
It may also include the abandonment of all projects, plans, and personal goals one constructs in the course of existence, usually for the purpose of personal honor. Yet, when viewed in light of the charge to “carry one’s cross” that follows (v. 27) and the parallel use of “soul” in 12:20-26, it seems best to understand this use of “soul” or “life” as the sum total of one’s physical existence.(12) One’s commitment to Jesus must be of such intensity that one gives up familial identity, social acceptance, self-actualization, and even the instinctive human drive for self-preservation.
Second Statement on Discipleship (14:27)
While Jesus pictured discipleship in v. 26 as the abandonment of family and life itself, he now casts it in a different, but familiar image—one of cross-bearing: “And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” Jesus has made this statement before following the first prediction of his death and resurrection (9:23). The verb form is the same in both instances, with the demand to “carry” in the present tense, probably stressing the ongoing quality of living in this manner. Although the qualification “daily” is included in 9:23 but absent in 14:27, it appears that the daily nature of the cross-bearing is implicit in the present context. If carrying one’s cross is parallel to repudiating one’s family, social ties, and even life itself, then it is not a one-time experience.
This image of discipleship is common to the Synoptic Gospels (see Mark 8:34; Matt. 10:38; 16:24), but it disappears after the end of Luke’s gospel.(13) Perhaps the metaphor was just as challenging to Jesus’ early disciples as it is for those reading his words today. What does it mean to “carry” one’s own “cross”? Unlike the images of decorative and gold-adorned crosses in today’s popular culture, the cross of Jesus’ day could only refer to a humiliating and cruel instrument of torturous death. It is likely that many members of the crowd had witnessed a crucifixion in their lifetime, hence the startling nature of Jesus’ requirement. It would be virtually impossible for these listeners to imagine a person willingly taking up the heavy cross-beam and voluntarily marching toward certain death. Yet, this is exactly what Jesus requires of those who would follow him.
Jesus expects nothing that he has not already accepted for himself, however, for this is the same one who has “resolutely set out for Jerusalem” (9:51).
For Jesus, life in the Kingdom of God has been characterized by the repudiation of his former sources of self-identity and the willful acceptance of the cross as his new source of self-identity. It is reasonable that his disciples are called to nothing less.(14) The deliberate and willful nature of the cruciform life must be emphasized, for Jesus’ calling is often mistaken as the passive suffering of the daily trials of life. Even the way this image is used in today’s vernacular suggests this false understanding: “Oh well, I guess this is just my cross to bear!” But, the cross-bearing of Jesus is not the endurance of life’s burdens with stoic compliance. Instead, in the words of one theologian,
Jesus did not suffer passively from the world in which he lived, but incited it against himself by his message and the life he lived. Nor did his crucifixion in Jerusalem come upon him as the act of an evil destiny...According to the gospels, Jesus himself set out for Jerusalem and actively took the expected suffering upon himself.(15)
It is this purposeful life of self-denial in the Kingdom of God that Jesus calls the crowds to take up and “carry.” To “carry one’s own cross” means to embrace daily the humiliation, degradation, and suffering, that come from a life devoted to the priorities of God’s Kingdom and not the priorities of self or the kingdoms of this world. Like Jesus, cross-bearing disciples will live in such a way that they provoke the powers of the world against them, by welcoming the unwelcome, loving the unlovely, and declaring the presence of God among the godforsaken. Both the requirements to abandon one’s family ties and to carry one’s cross are addressed to “whoever,” which serves as a reminder that the invitation is open to any who would respond in obedience.
(1) This represents my own translation of the text, for the TNIV strangely leaves out the adjective “large,” in their translation of Lk. 5:15.
(2) Green, 564.
(3) G. B. Caird, The Gospel of St. Luke, Pelican Gospel Commentaries (New York: Seabury Press, 1963), 178.
(4) The severity of this saying in Luke suggests that his is the closest to the original and that it was Matthew who chose to tone down the language with an accurate, perhaps more intelligible, paraphrase in his gospel: “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves a son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matt. 10:37). If Matthew’s version is indeed a later paraphrase, then it reveals the way in which Jesus’ followers understood the meaning of this difficult teaching.
(5) James Denney, “The Word ‘Hate’ in Luke 14:26,” ExpTim 21 (1909-10): 41.
(6) In the Old Testament as well, the word “hate” is used in a comparative way, meaning “love less.” See, for example, Gen. 29:31 and Deut. 21:15, where most translations find a need to moderate the verb “to hate” in favor of “to love less” or “to not love.”
(7) Frederick W. Danker, Jesus and the New Age: A Commentary on St. Luke’s Gospel, Revised Ed. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988), 272.
(8) Green, 565.
(9) It appears that for the Twelve, this took the form of literal separation from family (Lk. 18:28) for at least three years. It is likely that they were reunited with their families following the ascension of Jesus, however, as evidenced by the testimony of Paul that the apostles, the brothers of the Lord, and Peter all traveled with a “believing wife” (1 Cor. 9:5). For a helpful discussion of the relationship between the early disciples and their wives and children, see Hendrickx, 88-92.
(10) It is also interesting to consider this injunction in comparison to the prophecy pronounced to Zechariah regarding John the Baptist in Lk. 1:17, which says, “And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous.” Jesus harshly rejects this expectation of “peace on earth” in 12:51, expecting “division” among family members instead.
(11) Green, 565.
(12) Luke 12:20-26 uses the same noun, “soul,” in two complementary ways in close proximity to one another. In the parable of the rich fool, Jesus says, “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your soul will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?” Here, there clear meaning is simple physical existence. Then, in teaching against worry, Jesus says to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life [lit., soul], what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. Life is more than food, and the body more than clothes.” Here, the meaning is broader than simple physical existence, including the many tasks and concerns associated with physical life. In light of the flexible meaning of the word, therefore, it does not seem necessary to limit the meaning of “soul” in 14:26 to one or the other.
(13) Throughout Acts and the epistles, the cross, or cross-bearing, is never used as an image for discipleship, but remains inextricably tied to the sacrificial death of Jesus: Acts 2:23; 5:30; 10:39; 13:29; 1 Cor. 1:17, 18; Gal. 5:11; 6:12, 14; Eph. 2:16; Php. 2:8; 3:18; Col. 1:20; 2:14; Heb. 12:2; 1 Pet. 2:24.
(14) Hendrickx, The Third Gospel for the Third World, 82.
(15) Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1993), 51.