Love and renunciation


“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.
Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me
cannot be my disciple….

In the same way,
anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions
cannot be my disciple.” Luke 14:25-26; 33)

In today’s gospel reading, we hear about the radical nature of Christian discipleship and especially the centrality of renunciation. Jesus says that we cannot be too attached to family, possessions, or the avoidance of suffering if we are going to follow him. There are many ways, however, that one could understand the nature of this kind of detachment. For example, one could see renunciation as an anti-worldly approach to life that places value only in the life after this human life, the sort of attitude which Nietzsche saw in Christianity as a covert form of nihilism. If our final destination is all that matters, then what value is this life? Some Christians seem to take this point of view. However, Jesus elsewhere also says that the kingdom of God is near, and that those who abide in Jesus already abide in the Father. In such passages, he encourages a sense of the presence of God already in this world. The Incarnation itself reveals to us God’s desire to be with us in the human and created world, and spiritualities such as that developed by St Ignatius of Loyola encourage us to “find God in all things.”

Another way to understand the passage, however, is to understand God as central and foundational to our lives, such that everything else in our lives is secondary. This doesn’t mean that God is excluded from those secondary goods and relationships, but it does mean acknowledging the sometimes hard truth that everything else really does come and go. Material possessions come and go. A person can be wealthy one moment and be poor the next. Moreover, wealth itself does not even bring happiness. To the contrary, we find greater and deeper joy in giving away what we have (past our immediate needs) rather than clinging to it. Radical Christian discipleship means living with fewer possessions, more simply, so that others can also live dignified lives.

We also cannot be too attached to the presence or the absence of suffering. Life includes difficult crosses to bear, whether illness, relational loss, grieving the death of beloved family members, humiliation, or confusion in the direction of our lives. God is present to us, however, both in times of happiness and in times of sorrow . Christian discipleship means clinging to God as our rock and foundation no matter what else is happening. The very nature of love in an imperfect world also often leads to suffering. If we care about justice and peace, we will inevitably suffer when we witness injustices, such as the wound of racism in the United States that is visible on an almost daily basis. We can try to shut out suffering by shutting down love, but it’s better to love with all the heartache that love can produce and to work for change rather than to lose our vision and to lose the love in the process.

Personal relationships, too, can lead to suffering. Although Jesus’ words that one must leave behind father and mother, spouse and child can seem harsh, for some people these same words might also be freeing. Leaving behind a relationship with an abusive parent or spouse might be exactly what a person following Christ is called to do. Often people can struggle to leave such circumstances, but Jesus encourages following him wherever he is leading-perhaps to a place of greater healing and healthier relationships. Even in loving relationships which are ongoing and desirable, we need to have a light, non-possessive touch, respecting that others are different from us in their values, interpersonal dynamics, vocational calls and purposes. Mothers have to let their children grow up and live their own lives. Spouses have to respect one another’s differences in habit and even deep values (e.g., political or spiritual). Friends have to support one another in making their own free choices to live as they see fit, accompanying rather than judging. Each one of us have to follow where the Lord calls us, and let others also follow out their own calls.

Jesus even says that we cannot love our own lives too much. We even have to love our own lives with lightness and non-possessiveness, so that we can be free to live lives of love. No one knows how long he or she will live, or exactly how our lives bear fruit, but we can leave such worries behind and focus instead on where we are now, loving whomever we are with, wherever we are.

3 thoughts on “Love and renunciation

  1. In my SCC meeting yesterday we really struggled with the word “hate”. We reflected and considered much of the same points you mention here… But I wonder sometimes if we ‘domesticate’ Jesus too much or too easily at times.

    Is the hardness of this saying supposed to be what it truly says? I wonder what the word “hate” really meant in its historical context? Is it one of those words, like “boule” in Greek ( βουλή ) that can mean ~ will, wish, play, purpose, or counsel ~ a variety of meanings (guess I have to get some research done.)

    I have found that many of the gospel readings this summer were “domesticated” by our pastor… In some ways it makes me dwell more deeply on the message, but other times I think it lets us ‘get off easy’, if you know what I mean…

    Thanks for the post!

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    1. I actually can help with the Greek since my “real job” is teaching ancient Greek philosophy. Alas, the Greek is μισεῖ which is from μισέω or to hate. It means hate, detest. The same verb is used when Jesus says that the old way is to love your friends and hate your enemies (MT 5:43) where clearly it is what Jesus doesn’t want us to do–we should love all. So for me, the only sense that I can make of it is to find a meaning with respect to a larger context–what can it mean to hate one’s life, family, or possessions if one is called to love more and more widely? Jesus is not a hater, so to speak, and he constantly encourages an ethic of love so he must mean something subtler about discipleship.

      But I agree with you that we have to be careful not to domesticate Jesus too much.

      I personally find it somewhat freeing to know that blood relations of family are not always the highest priority or obligation— as much as I love many of my family members—and that following God in careful discernment of where God is calling me here and now is key.

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