Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.
Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
It is often hard for many of us Christians to hear Jesus’ words in Luke 14.26 without some sense of pushback, where it seems like Jesus says we have to hate family and even oneself to be His disciple. Of course, Matthew 10.38 is the parallel passage that rephrases Jesus’ saying into loving others more than. More than likely, the Lukan version is more representative of the words Jesus said giving the shocking nature of it, whereas the Matthean version is more of a dynamic translation of it to reach at the thrust of what Jesus said without the initially shocking words. While Matthew’s version is important to help remind us that Jesus is not calling us to literally hate others in the name of Christ, Luke gives us perhaps a deeper insight into the very meaning of Jesus. Jesus’s language seems to be an indirect echo of the story of Abraham being called to offer Isaac as a sacrifice.
The reason to suggest this is that there is no other story in the Bible that so clearly interweaves antagonism towards one’s family and one’s relationship to God/Jesus as does the Abrahamic story. At the core of this narrative is the tension between Abraham’s faith and relationship to God and his love for his son that was promised and given to him by God. To sacrifice his son would, in essence, to act against his love for Isaac and essentially dedicate him to death in favor of His love or God. As the story goes on to make clear, however, God never wanted Isaac to die, but he wanted Abraham’s devotion and loyalty.
This is similar to Jesus with His disciples. Many wanted to follow Him when His ministry seems to be the most well-received publicly. However, many wanted to follow Jesus on their terms, putting Him behind other priorities. Usually, this consisted of priorities to their family (Luke 9.59-62). Various reasons were given in the parable of the Great Banquet, where people refuse invitations to the dinner for other reasons and obligations, including that someone got married (Luke 14.15-24). Various reasons were given for not accepting Jesus’ invitation, and in Jesus milieu, it was most often family that got in the way of authentic discipleship.
We are often prone to refer to use the language of idolatry today to refer to those things that get in the way of our relationship with God. However, for Jesus, he uses the language of social connection and rejection to describe those things that can get in the way of our love for God. When Jesus concludes his statement about disciples in Luke 14.33, the word frequently used for “give up” actually is a relational term that describes the recognition of absence from someone’s life (ἀποτάσσω). Metaphorically, it can be used to deny the relationship we have with someone or something. However, this verse can be poorly translated as “give up all their possessions” is perhaps better translated as “say goodbye to all their present-things,” which makes better sense of in the context of Luke 14.26, as people are not being called possessions. Additionally, this preserves the tension between ἀποτάσσω which relates to absence and ὑπάρχω which relates to presence, although in a subtly objectifying way when used in regards to people that rhetorically diminishes their importance in relation to Jesus. At the core of this language is ultimately a matter of presence and absence, about the nature of the relationship between one’s family and even oneself in one’s life.
Jesus never uses idolatry to refer to the nature of these relationships. Why? He calls wealth idolatry. Why not also one’s family? Perhaps it is because people are made in the image of God and to suggest that one’s love for family is idolatry is to essentially deny the divine reality that comes with our human relationships. They can certainly get in the way, but idols they are not unless we set them up to be an actual deity. Jesus instead uses relational language, ultimately wanting His disciples to love Him above all else by being willing to let go of anyone or anything that it might require to follow Him. In so doing, Jesus puts Himself at essentially top of the family, deserving loyalty before anyone else in the family, which meant that He was implicitly setting Himself as God.
But this is not some concern about the feelings we have for God and for others and making sure God gets priority there that we are prone to make it in our modern-day age of passion. Rather, the concern is the way relationships to our family or to other significant people that can pull against our willingness to follow Jesus. Jesus recognizes that His ministry was bringing division between families (Luke 12.51-53) and how it was these relationships that would cause people to push against giving their submission and devotion to Jesus. Jesus’ words were imminently practical to the real possibility that family ties would prevent truly following Jesus. It is not some mere psychological concern about loving others too much or not loving Him enough. It was a practical question about one’s demonstrable loyalties. However, it should not, for instance, be used to drive wedges between people who deeply and genuinely love the Lord while they also love each other: there are no questions about their loyalties.
Similarly, we never get the suggestion that Abraham may be committing idolatry by his love for Isaac. The narrative never even approaches this question. The only concern is whether Abraham is loyal and fears God more than he loves Isaac. The tension is between the relationships we have and whether God will be the relationship that has our highest loyalty.
The questions are this: Who do you are you ultimately loyal to, Abraham? Who are you ultimately loyal to, you who seek to follow Jesus?