Juxtaposed as they are, the two readings which we proclaim in today’s liturgy could be the cause of some cognitive dissonance. St. Paul exhorts us to “owe nothing to anyone but the debt of love.” On the other hand, we hear Jesus telling us that we cannot be his followers unless we hate our mother and father, wife and children, and our brothers and sisters. Are they contradicting one another, if they are not, how do we reconcile the two statements?
In the Letter to the Romans, chapters twelve through sixteen contain the practical applications and the admonitions to remain faithful that are typical of St. Paul’s letters. We began reading from chapter twelve yesterday when we heard a long list of admonitions and exhortations, each of them worthy of consideration and prayer. The exhortation continues today. However, instead of listing many different virtues and ways to remain faithful to the Gospel, St. Paul returns to the commandments of the Law. Referring to the sixth, fifth, seventh, ninth and tenth commandments in that order, he explains that these are all ways to “love our neighbors as ourselves.” However, these particular commandments are also a way of preserving a sense of honor within the community. His first statement about owing nothing to anyone is really another way of saying that we must owe everything to everyone. The debt of love covers all of the commandments that deal with our relationships with others.
Jesus, on the other hand, is speaking of a different relationship. Notice that Jesus is addressing himself to the great crowd which is traveling with him. In other words, St. Luke is telling us that these are people who are following Jesus. Jesus explains that being a followers means joining his family or community. That community or family must be a priority. I am sure that we have heard people say that “family is everything,” or “family is the most important part of our lives.” As important as it is, it is not more important than our relationship to God. Our relationship to Jesus and to His Father and the Holy Spirit must be the priority in our lives if we are truly followers of Jesus.
Jesus uses the word “hate” in describing that priority. This is a typical Middle Eastern way of making a point. In English, we might refer to it as hyperbole. We exaggerate to make a point; for example, a parent might say to a child, “I’ve told you a million times to make your bed in the morning” or “it’s so cold even a polar bear would need a coat.”
God comes first; everything else follows.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator