The gospel today (Mt. 10.37-42) has not lost its shock value, no matter how many times we hear it. The parallel passage in Luke 14.26 is even stronger: there Jesus is shown as using the word hate: ‘If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother … he cannot be my disciple.’ I have to be honest: I struggle to make sense of these passages. Yet the very fact that they are there in the gospels shows us the honesty of the early Church. The first Christians loved their parents, their spouses, their children, as much as Christians do today. They could easily have chosen to forget this passage. Yet its inclusion shows their desire to keep the words of the Lord, even if they were hard sayings. So what can we say?
The first point I would make is that sometimes Jesus proceeds by hyperbole. That is, he uses exaggeration to make a point. An example would be Matt. 5.30, where he says, ‘If your hand offends you, cut it off.’ Now, imagine someone who is a shoplifter or a thief in some other way, with a long criminal record. Would you advise them to chop off their hand? You would not. But you might give them bracing advice. You might not mince your words, in telling them to take radical action to turn their life around. Similarly, a drug addict. You would not tell them that cutting off their hand would cure the drug problem. But you might tell them to cut themselves off from everybody and anybody who leads them astray. We understand quite clearly that the language of cutting off hand or plucking out of eye is exaggerated language that makes the point as strongly as possible.
Second, Jesus is talking about challenge, about risk, about letting-go. The whole context is of venturing out into a new way of life. For his first followers, it sometimes did involve wrenching decisions. I doubt if the fisherman Zebedee was charmed when his strapping sons James and John went off to follow the Messiah. We are generally faced with less troubling choices (although ask yourself how you feel about a son who says he is thinking about a possible vocation to the priesthood). So what is the message for us today? I think it is a call quite simply to a life of faith, with all the risk that this entails. Think of the mantra of the Eighties: ‘I want it, I want it all.’ In each of us there is a child who still thinks that we can have it all, indulge ourselves and be indulged by others. But Jesus calls us to choose. Choose to be a Christian and you will know instinctively that some things are ruled out. And it is costly. Hence today we hear Jesus say, ‘Anyone who finds his life will lose it; anyone who loses his life for my sake will find it.’ Notice the balance, though: there is loss and there is gain. To be a Christian is not a grim, joyless thing. It brings its own joys, rewards and even an occasional sense of exhilaration. And yet, reading the gospel passage today, I recall the famous words of the Russian novelist Dostoyevsky in The Brothers Karamazov: ‘Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams. Love in dreams is greedy for immediate action, rapidly performed and in the sight of all….. But active love is labour and fortitude.’