Bible Q&A: Did Jesus really expect his followers to ‘hate’ their own family in order to be his disciples?

Our Bible Q&A series explores the questions you’ve asked us about the Bible.

This article represents the author’s personal view. It accords with Bible Society’s values, but is not intended to express our position as an organisation.

Question: Did Jesus really expect his followers to ‘hate’ their own family in order to be his disciples?

Answer:

Jesus said, 'If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple' (Luke 14.26).

Jesus' words look absolutely uncompromising, but as ever we need to be careful how we read them. They have been used to justify people turning their backs on their responsibilities to their children or their parents, which is never right. For instance, Jesus also condemns the Pharisees for encouraging people to neglect their parents by telling them that what they would have given them is 'Corban', 'given to God', 'thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down' (Mark 7.13). And terrible damage can be caused to children when parents put what they believe is their ministry first; Jesus is very clear about our responsibility to children in Matthew 18.1–6.

Behind Jesus' words about families, though – which are sometimes couched in an exaggerated way to make his point, typical of Middle Eastern discourse at the time – is a wider point which also links to the question about marginalised people. Loyalties in that context were based on family and tribe or clan, as they are in many parts of the world today. People didn't readily acknowledge that they had a responsibility to people who weren't part of their group. Jesus challenged this, and deliberately reached out to outsiders: sinners, sick people, the poor and the demonised. This wasn't about transferring responsibility from family and clan to outsiders, but about drawing the circle wider so that people who'd been excluded would be included.

One example of this is the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10.25–37), in which the Samaritan helps his hereditary Jewish enemy. Jesus turns all the stereotypes on their heads, and challenges his hearers to think not how narrowly they could draw the limits of their responsibilities, but how far out they could extend them.

So, following Jesus isn't about thinking less of our families. It's about making our families bigger, warmer and more welcoming to everyone. 

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