Phew. We certainly have had a run of difficult Gospel readings of late. Our reading for this morning is so difficult that it is at the top of a list of passages known as “the difficult sayings of Jesus.” I can remember when I began studying Greek in seminary that this is one of the passages that I hoped would be revealed as having an alternative translation that would soften its words. But alas it was not. The Greek word “miseo” means “hate.” There is no getting around the harshness of the word.
But does this mean that Jesus wants us to hate our family members in the same way that we might hate someone we considered to be our enemy? I don’t think so. I don’t think Jesus is expecting us to take him literally. But I do think Jesus is trying to get our attention. He is trying to get us to understand that the call to the Kingdom of God is the strongest call there is. He is trying to get us to understand that being his disciple means putting God and God’s kingdom first before absolutely anything else. In the words of Amy-Jill Levine in her book, The Difficult Words of Jesus, “Jesus’ demand for loyalty is that strong, that singular in focus, that the best way he can express it is to speak of the unnatural, unethical idea of hating one’s parents, siblings, and children” (Levine, p. 37).
Or perhaps thinking of these words from another perspective might help you. Jesus is saying, “Think about how much you love your mother, father, sister, brother, children, spouse. Feel that love. Now, love God and God’s kingdom more.”
These difficult words from Jesus also remind us that familial love can keep us from kingdom of God love. Kingdom of God love is about loving our neighbor as ourselves with our neighbor being every person on the face of the earth. How often do we make choices to protect our family, tribe, or nation, that harm other people? More often than we would like to admit. “America first,” “God-bless America,” or “Make America Great Again” are all examples of protecting our own national family without any thought for our neighbors around the world. Our country has repeatedly supported regimes that have oppressed and harmed their citizens, in an attempt to protect ourselves and to fulfill our own need to feel secure.
Or I think about our insatiable need to own more and more stuff for less and less money. In outsourcing our manufacturing to other countries, we have cheaper goods, and we have also outsourced our pollution, our greenhouse gas emissions, and slave-labor like conditions. We don’t need slavery or Jim-Crow any longer because we have other countries producing the goods we consume in near-slavery like conditions for us.
Though this doesn’t mean that we don’t still try to protect our own racial tribe and privilege. For racial identity is also a form of family identity. We find it much easier to love our racial family and hate those who do not belong to our racial family than we find loving all no matter the amount of pigmentation in their skin. Jim Wallis, the founder of Sojourners, a Christian organization focused on social justice, remembers something an old black man once said to him during a protest against nuclear weapons. The man said, “White people have always gotten organized when their survival was at stake. When will they ever get organized for the sake of our survival?” That gets your attention, doesn’t it?
Or maybe we could consider our socio-economic tribe or family. We live among people of roughly our same socio-economic status and do roughly what they do. The higher up you go in the socio-economic scale the more you own, do, and use, and therefore the more carbon you emit. The wealthier you are the larger your carbon-foot print is, no matter how eco-conscious you consider yourself to be. Recycling and buying canvas tote bags full of organic foods does little to reduce that carbon footprint. They aren’t bad things to do, but they don’t impact climate change very much.
As a person moves up the socio-economic ladder they would have to choose to almost never fly, favor biking and walking over driving, give up eating meat, own fewer things, and live in a small dwelling in order to keep their carbon footprint at a reasonable size and closer to those at the bottom of the socio-economic scale.
And the larger carbon footprint of those who have more income directly impacts those who have less. The poor are much more effected by climate change than the middle and upper classes. They tend to live in more dense residential neighborhoods and closer to pollution emitting manufacturing plants. Their neighborhoods are hotter, and the air-quality is poorer. As a result, their health is worsened, and their lives are shortened.
And yet even the most eco-conscious middle- and upper-class people find it really difficult to give anything up. There is a social cost to diverging so sharply from your family and your peer groups. It is really hard to think of the needs of our whole global family before our own wants. We rationalize away the impact our tribe or family has on the rest of the world. We love our tribe or family at the expense of everyone who is not in our tribe.
And yet, we sitting here today are followers of Jesus. And Jesus is calling us to embrace the Kingdom of God, a kingdom in which everyone has what they need for health, life, and love. A kingdom in which everyone is part of the same family, no matter their race, religion, ethnicity, nationality, gender-identity, sexual-identity, and age. There is a cost to embracing the kingdom of God, particularly for those of us who have more than we need for an abundant life. To embrace the kingdom of God, to put the kingdom of God first, to make being a follower of Jesus our primary identity above all other identities we could claim, is to let go of anything and everything that keeps any other human being from living an abundant life. There is a cost. There is also a huge gain. For in letting go and embracing the kingdom we gain a freedom we never knew we could have. We gain the understanding that all the things we let go of never really mattered in the first place, and the people who are now able to live because we have chosen to live differently matter more than anything else.
You might be thinking right now, “Suzannah that is all lovely, but what you are talking about is impossible for me to do.” And I would agree with you. I have not sold my house and moved into a tiny home. I have not become vegan. I still buy stuff made in China and buy more stuff than I need. This process of putting the kingdom of God before my own family and tribe is a life-long process. It is a process of waking up everyday and trying in some small way to get a little closer to the call. And over time these small steps will lead to a big leap or maybe more than one big leap, and we will find ourselves changing in ways we never thought we could. As the saying goes, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” so we better start walking. Amen.