I recently read a column by a young Catholic who expressed frustration with the saying, “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” She wrote that this seemed to make sense initially but, she added, “I started to wonder why we need to hate at all. Certainly, Jesus didn’t teach that. Jesus was all about love.”
But if Jesus never expressed hate, what are we to do with today’s Gospel, in which Jesus tells the great crowds traveling with him to Jerusalem, “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple”? As Bible scholar Luke Timothy Johnson notes, “the language here is very strong,” for the Greek word used for hate — misein —“is the opposite of ‘love’ ( agapao ).”
How should we understand this blunt and seemingly “unJesus-like” remark? First, we must work to free ourselves from the common understanding of “love” and “hate” as primarily having to do with feelings. When love is defined as how we feel about someone or something, both love and the object of my “love” are devalued and damaged. How many marriages last when based on a love flowing from strong emotion and romantic euphoria, not rooted in a commitment of will and a mature acceptance of responsibility?
The two terms — love and hate — as used in Luke’s Gospel, “denote attitudes and modes of action,” Johnson explains, “not emotions.” Jesus was not concerned with talking about feelings, but with responding rightly to truth. His are strong and hard words, but they are best understood in light of his own actions. Did Jesus love his disciples? The people of Israel? The world? The answer is emphatically, “Yes!” And yet his love for the Father was so perfect, complete and absolute that Jesus, at different times, spoke harshly to his disciples, denounced the sins of Israel and renounced the ways of the world.
And here we find a paradox within a paradox, for while those actions might appear hateful to some, they are the epitome of love, for love always wills the good of the other despite the emotions involved. The man who truly loves God will never despise, mock or demean his friends or family. But his love for God should be so consuming — so distinct and radical — that his love for other people might seem hateful. When Jesus told Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!” it appears he is being unfair, even hateful. But his next words are essential: “You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do” (Mt 16:23). Anything hindering us from loving God is to be renounced; anyone who insists on taking the place of God in our lives must be rebuffed.
This teaching by Jesus builds upon many of his earlier statements. It amplifies, for instance, his remark, “What profit is there for one to gain the whole world yet lose or forfeit himself?” (Lk 9:25). And it challenged those following him to consider seriously the hard fact of the cross. The journey to Jerusalem was a journey toward suffering and death. Everyone on the journey must take up and carry “his own cross,” for only by the cross do we enter into the Kingdom. Jesus calls us to reject everything and everyone who would keep us from God. That includes sin, of course; it might also include some friendships and relationships. What may seem like hate to others is evidence that Jesus is indeed all about real and lasting love.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.