Is Jesus serious? In today's Gospel (23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C: Luke 14: 25-33) he is quoted as saying "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." I thought Jesus followed the 10 Commandments, one of which is "Honor your father and your mother." I thought Jesus said to love our neighbor and even our enemies. What's this about hating others in order to follow him? How are we to understand this?
Not everything Jesus said is to be taken literally. For example, in the Sermon on the Mount according to Matthew chapter 5, Jesus said that if our right eye causes us to sin, we should pluck it out and if our right hand leads to sin we should cut it off. His point is that it is more important to be in a right relationship with God and other people than it is to have two eyes and two hands. Jesus was exaggerating in order to make this point and the people of his time knew it. They didn't stop following him over this "hard saying" the way they did when he taught about the Eucharist in John 6 where he did indeed want to be taken literally.
This is why it's very important to have the Church with the guarantee of the Holy Spirit for an authentic interpretation of Scripture rather than the many individual interpretations that arise if we depend on just ourselves.
When Jesus speaks of "hate" in today's Gospel he is saying that if we love another person or a thing more than we love God we have become idolaters. We have made that person or possession an idol in our lives and thus more important than our relationship with God. We should hate the idolatry that we are so prone to and commit ourselves to loving God above all.
When Jesus was asked about the greatest commandment he said: "You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind" (Matthew 22: 37). Notice, he said to love God totally and above all else. What follows from that, though, is that if we love God, we will also love what God loves--his other human children. Thus what flows from loving God totally and above all is love of neighbor. This love is an "ordered love." In other words, we don't love others more than we love God. We don't "idolize" them. We love them "in the Lord." We love them because God loves them and we love them as God loves them--unselfishly, sacrificially, willing to even show the "tough love" that desires their ultimate good--salvation.
Jesus also speaks about the importance of planning. He wants us to make sure that we have our priorities right so that we make good choices. There are shelves of books about being successful in business and they include clever slogans like "If you fail to plan, you plan to fail." It's important to plan our lives, our use of time, in such a way that we are loving God above all and our neighbors as God loves them.
That is true wisdom, the subject of our first reading from the book of Wisdom (9: 13-18). Wisdom is not technical knowledge, nor the accumulation of facts and data. Computers may have lots of that but they don't have wisdom. You can know how a GPS or smart phone works, but if you don't know the name of the destination to which you want to go, you will not get there. Wisdom is about knowing the purpose of our lives and where we are headed. We're created not just for life on earth but life forever with God and neighbor in heaven. The Holy Spirit is the source of wisdom. The Spirit knows the purpose of human life and knows our destination. The Spirit is that voice which speaks in our conscience, telling us when we have taken a wrong turn and need to adjust in order to get back on track. The Spirit is not only the power that guides us on this journey through life but also the energy that moves us toward eternal life.
Finally, in today's second reading from St. Paul's Letter to Philemon, we see a concrete example of having the right priorities. Paul is in prison and is writing to a fellow Christian, Philemon, about a runaway slave named Onesimus. Paul met this slave of Philemon's in prison. He catechized and baptized him. Onesimus is about to be let out of prison and Paul encourages him to return to his owner. His letter encourages Philemon to receive Onesimus back not so much as a slave who had broken the law by running away, but as a brother in Christ. Paul is basically telling him: If you love God you will love Onesimus and treat him with charity.
So, back to the original question: does Jesus really want us to hate others? No. But he wants us to really love them. That doesn't mean treating them as something they are not. It doesn't mean making them an idol or treating them as a god that is more important to us than the Living God, Creator of all. Nor does it mean hurting them. As followers of Jesus we are to love God above all and to love our neighbor as God loves them. That means loving them with a love that is willing to sacrifice everything for their good, just as the Son of God did when he took upon himself the punishment for sins that was due to humanity and died on the cross.