Q: Did Jesus tell followers to “hate their parents”?

Yes! Here it is in Luke 14:26, so brace yourself: If anyone comes to me [Jesus] and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters – yes, even his own life – he cannot be my disciple. He then added: And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

It takes maturity on our part to sort out what our Lord was really saying in this “hard passage”! Clearly Jesus cannot contradict himself, and all through both Testaments he tells us to love our parents. The Fifth Commandment explicitly commands us to love and honor them. In fact, in Mark 7 he chided people who misused a stewardship concept the Jews called Corban – where they took funds they might have used to support an aging parent and sheltered them by donating them (in a deferred way!) to the temple instead. In Ephesians 5:25 Paul writes: Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.

In a way, this colorful metaphor by Jesus is similar to the passage found in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) where he says: If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. Jesus is not the titular head of an abusive “Taliban” cult religion where self-mutilation is the path to holiness. But what Jesus is saying here, in a most memorable way, is that eternal life must be our highest priority. It is worth leaving behind sinful habits and favorite harmful hobbies. If a friendship or an activity is leading you away from the things of God, Jesus warns, then drop those things!

In the same way, this phrase “hate your father and mother” is actually Jesus’ way of pointing to the reality that loyalty to Him must be our #1 decision. Even loyalty to a spouse comes secondary to our love for Jesus and our determination to please and obey him. The Message paraphrase renders the verse this way: “Anyone who comes to me but refuses to let go of father, mother, spouse, children, brothers, sisters – yes, even one’s own self! – can’t be my disciple. It’s telling that the first tragic fall in our planet was when Adam loved his own wife more than he trusted in God.

We see this matter of prioritization also illustrated in Acts 5, where Peter and the other disciples are commanded by the religious authorities to stop preaching the gospel. Now, in the normal hierarchy of things, we should follow the teachings of our church. We should obey the commands of the government we live under. But with these seven simple words – We must obey God rather than men! – Peter reveals that devotion to Jesus supersedes all other relationships.

One commentary points out that in the culture of Judea, this word “hate” was simply a descriptive way of saying to love LESS. In fact, as Matthew tells this same story in chapter 10, Jesus puts it: Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.

This is why, when I perform wedding ceremonies, I sometimes say right before the couple repeats their vows: “This is the second most important promise you will ever make!”