Historical Cultural Context
On the face of it, Jesus seems to propose three devastating and inhuman requirements for becoming his disciple: hate one’s family (Lk 14:25); carry the cross (Lk 14:26); give up all possessions (Lk 14:33) – even though “half” sufficed for Zacchaeus in Lk 19:8).
As usual, the literary context and a culturally appropriate reading scenario help us “foreigners” to better understand our strange-sounding ancestors in the faith.
Jesus has been invited for a meal at the home of a leading Pharisee (Lk 24:1). The cultural world of Jesus required that people—especially the elite—“eat with their own kind, within their own class.”
The fact that Jesus is often a guest of Pharisees has led some scholars to suggest that Jesus himself was a Pharisee. Whatever the case, he never failed to challenge their beliefs and practices in the interest of offering better alternatives.
Hating One’s Family
It is this Middle-Eastern understanding of “meals” that helps a “foreigner” to understand Jesus’ comments on discipleship in today’s reading,
A follower of Jesus who ceased “networking” by means of meals would jeopardize a family’s very existence. The disciple must then choose between allegiance to the family and allegiance to Jesus.
Choosing Jesus is thus equivalent to letting one’s family go, “hating” the family. Hate is more suitably translated “prefer,” that is, one who “hates” family actually prefers another group to the family.
Recall the tight-knit nature of the Middle-Eastern family. The ideal marriage partner is a first cousin. Sons, married and single, remain with the father. Everyone “controls” one another.
Life in these circumstances can be very stifling, very suffocating. Following Jesus and joining a new, fictive family would be very liberating and exhilarating.
Carrying The Cross
There is, of course, a price to pay for such freedom. In the Middle East, the main rule of behavior is: family first! A disciple who deliberately cuts ties with family and social network will lose the ordinary means of making a living. This is the “economic cross” the disciple has chosen to carry.
True, by joining a new, fictive family consisting of other disciples of Jesus, a “family-hating” person presumably has a new source of livelihood.
No longer able to make claims to a livelihood based on blood ties and advantageous social network, members of this new fictive family have to rely on “hospitality,” which in the Middle East is extended exclusively by strangers to strangers (see Lk 9:4-5; 10:3-12). This risk-filled option is quite a cross to carry.
Give Up All Possessions
Clearly, a disciple who has accepted these challenging exhortations will effectively have given up everything. Therefore, a would-be disciple must seriously calculate the costs.
Two brief parables (about construction and waging war) drive this point home. Anyone who weakens and abandons this determination will become the butt of ridicule and shame. A disciple must remain firmly committed.
The behavior Jesus proposes is liberating and heroic but costly. Jesus’ attitude toward family values give his followers much to think about.
Contemporary believers are challenged to reflect upon the meaning of “family values” in the ancient Mediterranean world and whether it is possible to import them into other contemporary cultures.
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible
**From Saint Louis University