When Jesus’ meaning gets lost for words!

by John Wijngaards, Mission Today, SPRING 1997

Jesus does not always seem consistent . Often he urges us to love even our enemies. But then he says “Unless you hate your father , mother, wife, children, brothers and sisters, you cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). Hate your own family? What on earth does he mean? Before we tackle the word “hatred” itself, we should realise a curious lack in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke. It had no specific words to express “more” or “less”, no comparative form in adjectives, no superlative. To say “Cindy is taller than Delia”, one had to say “Cindy is tall than Delia” or “Cindy is the tall”, meaning she is the tallest.

The angel Gabriel said to Mary, “Blessed are you among women” (Luke 1:42), meaning “You are a most blessed (fortunate) woman.” The scribe asked Jesus, “What is the great commandment in the Law?” (Matthew 22:36). We would have said “What is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Comparing Mary and Martha, Jesus concludes, “Mary has chosen the good part” (Luke 10:42), meaning that Mary had chosen the better (the best) part.

A comparison between two things was at times simply expressed by affirming the one and denying the other. Jesus promised his disciples, “It will not be you who speak but the Spirit of my Father who will speak in you” (Matthew 10:20). Jesus wanted to say that it would be more the Spirit of his Father speaking in them than they speaking themselves. He did not exclude their own need to speak, in spite of what his words seem to say. There is a big difference between “It will not be you who speak” and “It will be less you who speak!”

This lack of comparative expression often leads to serious misunderstandings. Consider the expression “I want mercy and not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13; 12:7). It stands for “I prefer mercy to sacrifice.” It does not say that God rejects sacrifice. It only says that God (who wants sacrifice) prefers mercy to it.

It is in this context that we should study the biblical use of the word “to hate.” It often means simply “to love less.” If a woman has two handbags and she prefers one to the other, in Aramaic she would call them “the bag I love” and “the bag I hate.” Of course, she does not really hate the second one – otherwise it would long ago have gone to the jumble sale!

In the same way when a man had two wives, the favourite wife is often referred to as the “loved” wife, the other as his “hated” wife. We find such expressions applied to Jacob’s wives (Genesis 29:30), Elkanah’s wives (1 Samuel 1:5) and in legal dispositions (Deuteronomy 21:15-17). The Dutch for “thank you” is “dank u.” But “dank u” is also used to politely turn down an offer. It then effectively means “no, thank you.” This has led to a number of amusing incidents involving English visitors to Holland. After being offered a cup of coffee or a lift to the station, they said, “thank you” and then found that the promised favours were totally ignored.

Remember, in language it is not the sound of the words that counts, but what we actually want to say. If you say “hate” but mean “love less”, that is what counts. “You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy” (Matthew 5:43). Actually, the Old Testament never commanded the Jews to hate their enemies, but it allowed them to love their friends more. In the New Testament this is no longer allowed, as Jesus teaches that we have to love our enemies just as much.

When Jesus tells us that we can only be his disciples if we “hate” our closest relations (Luke 14:26), he expresses a preferential option. Even though we should love our family deeply, we should always make God come first. This is stated explicitly in the Greek formulation which we find in St Matthew’s Gospel: “He that loves father and mother more than me is not worthy to be my disciple” (Matthew 10:37). Note also that this verse does not refer to celibacy, nor is it meant only for priests or religious. Jesus addresses anyone who wants to be his disciple. What then is his demand of us? It is simply this – that in our moral decisions, in deciding what is right or wrong, in our life of prayer and worship, in all the major commitments of our life, we give priority to God. God should count more to us than even our closest and dearest relationships.

What are God’s priorities, you might ask? Well, they are expressed beautifully in the beatitudes – poverty in spirit, humbleness, longing for justice, being merciful, purity of intention, bringing about peace, being ready to suffer persecution for God’s sake (Matthew 5:3- 11). Jesus says that people who honour these priorities will be happy.
The Gospel sometimes startles us by its expectations. It presents God’s priorities, not those we normally meet in society. Yes, we must love God more. And when we do, amazingly enough, we will bring them the benefit of God’s priorities – peace, mercy, purity of intention and happiness.