Should we hate anyone? Today’s Gospel, Luke 14:25-33, lines up a whole list of people we might hate: “If anyone comes to Me without hating his father and mother, his wife and his children, his brothers and sisters, indeed his very self, he cannot be My disciple” (Lk 14:26).

Are we reading this correctly? Does the Lord want us to break our connections with our relatives?

As with any passage in the Scriptures, we can understand these words better in the context of other passages. For Jesus, the greatest commandment is: “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Luke 10:27). After Jesus described the merciful care of the Good Samaritan for the ambushed man lying by the roadside, Jesus instructs,  “Go and do likewise”(Lk 10:37).

Luke’s Gospel itself teaches us a love beyond any other religious teacher: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you…” (Lk 6:27).  Should we love our enemies but hate our relatives?

Footnotes in Bibles assure us that “hate” should not be taken in the sense of despising, but rather not choosing others before Jesus. This interpretation is reinforced by the “parallels” of this passage in other Gospels. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus declares: “No one who prefers father and mother …son or daughter to Me is worthy of Me” (Mt 10:37-39). Mark records Jesus’ words: “No one who has left house, brothers, sisters, mother, father, children or land for My sake and for the sake of the Gospel, will not receive a hundred times as much” (Mk 10:28-30).

Why does Luke use such strong language? For Jews, a Semitic hyperbole or “Hebraism,” is a forceful or exaggerated way of speaking that communicates in an unforgettable way. Such “hyperboles” are found in the parables.

Strong language produces a vivid message. Many of us intend to follow Jesus, but, in fact, Jesus gets “lost in the crowd” of our many preoccupations and we don’t even realize it. Cooks give more attention to the pots on the front burners and those on the back burner get by with less attention. Jesus and the Gospel may not be on our front burners, until something in our life goes wrong. Jesus wants us to follow Him always.

We give more attention to our families than Jesus. We listen to their voices, their concerns and desires without wondering what Jesus wants, assuming that His message is generic love that involves only a good intention.

St. Thomas Aquinas himself was pressured by his family in a very dramatic way. He was born into a wealthy military family in Southern Italy. They accepted that he had a religious vocation, but assumed that he would become a monk in an established monastery, and even eventually an abbot. When he joined the Dominican friars, the family reacted strongly. The Dominicans were a new order, who supported themselves by begging, which was unacceptable for an “important” family. Thomas’ soldier brothers arranged to have him kidnapped. He was detained under virtual house arrest in the family castle for almost a year until the family realized that he would not change. Thomas does not seem to have resented this treatment, as he always maintained good relationships with his family.

Our families may not kidnap us or physically detain us but we can often be more attentive to them than to Jesus. Jesus calls disciples to follow Him with a total commitment. The Gospel tells us that a half-hearted commitment is like starting a building project but being unable to complete it or a king who starts a war without any resources to finish it.

Love of our families and neighbors is not necessarily an obstacle to following Jesus. Thomas Aquinas assures us: “We love our neighbor that he or she may be in God… It is specifically the same act whereby we love God and whereby we love our neighbor. Consequently, the virtue of charity extends not only to the love of God but also to the love of neighbor” (2a2ae. 25, 1).

Granted that we should love God first, Thomas explains that we should love our parents and relatives:

“We ought out of charity to love those who are more closely united to us more, both because our love for them is more intense, and because there are more reasons for loving them. Now intensity of love arises from the union of lover and beloved: and therefore we should measure the love of different persons according to the different kinds of union … friendship among blood relations is based upon their connection by natural origin … Wherefore in matters pertaining to nature we should love our kindred most” (2a2ae. 26, 8).

However, we may also give some people a priority that belongs to God, which is the issue raised in today’s Gospel. Thomas makes a distinction: “It would be wrong if a person loved his neighbor as though that person were his last end, but not, if he loved the person for God’s sake, and this is what charity does” (2a2ae. 25, 1, ad 3).

The very reason that we love ourselves is because God loves us: “Among these other things which he loves out of charity because they pertain to God, he loves himself out of charity” (2a2ae. 25, 4).

According to Thomas, love for ourselves is the basis for our love for others: “The love with which a person loves himself is the form and root of friendship. For if we have friendship with others, it is because we do to them as we do to ourselves” (2a2ae. 25, 4).

Some religious people have treated their bodies harshly. Thomas recalls the Manicheans who considered only the spiritual aspects of a person as good and the physical parts as evil:

“The nature of our body was created not by an evil principle, as the Manicheans pretend, but by God. Hence we can use it for God’s service, according to Romans, ‘Present … your members as instruments of justice to God’ (Rom 6:13). Consequently, out of love of charity with which we love God, we ought to love our bodies also; but we ought not to love the evil effects of sin … we ought rather, by the desire of charity, to long for the removal of such things” (2a2ae. 25, 5).

Thomas reflects whether we should love “sinners.” He must mean notorious “sinners,” otherwise we wouldn’t love ourselves or anyone else, but his principle applies to loving ourselves: “According to his nature, which he has from God, he has a capacity for happiness, of which the fellowship of which charity is based. Therefore we ought to love sinners, out of charity, in respect to their nature. It is our duty to hate in the sinner, his being a sinner, and to love in him, his being capable of bliss; and this is to love him truly out of charity, for God’s sake (2a.2ae. 25, 6).

Thomas adds: “We love sinners out of charity, not so as to will what they will, or to rejoice in what gives them joy, but so as to make them will what we will, and rejoice in what rejoices us” (2a2ae. 25, 6, ad 4).

Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.

References to the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas give the part of the Summa, the question and the article. If the passage is found in a response to an objection that Thomas has introduced in the first part of the article, the Latin word “ad,” meaning “to,” is added with the number of the objection.