By Clint Wilson
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. —Leo Tolstoy
So begins Tolstoy’s well-known opening to Anna Karenina. In fact, this line has developed into a principle applied across various disciplines of life and learning. The Anna Karenina Principle, as it is now called, holds that it is possible to fail in many ways but to succeed in only one way, by avoiding each of the routes to failure.
Jared Diamond provided an example in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel, discussing why so few animal species have been domesticated. Unless an animal is easy to feed, unless it grows rapidly, unless it breeds readily in captivity, unless it has a benign temperament, unless it does not run away when frightened, and unless it has a stable social hierarchy, domestication is not going to happen. Think horses versus zebras.
Onto the heap of this theory Jesus throws another qualifier: one must hate one’s family to find true happiness. Or maybe we should say joy, for Jesus is not as concerned as about our happiness as we are. We might ask the first martyrs of the Church about this.
Whether we are speaking of our families, or any relationships in which we find ourselves, we must learn to hate them in the right way (as mutual subjects turned toward God), so we don’t learn to hate them in the wrong way (as the other person or thing carrying the weight only God can shoulder).
But before exploring this further, we might start off this morning with a simple question: How on earth are we to make sense of the gospel reading, especially considering the epistle reading? We have Jesus saying to hate our family, and we have Paul telling Philemon to love his slave as family. What gives?
Well, as usual, the story in Luke makes us squirm, precisely to make us look beyond the surface, and the context of the gospel passage clarifies our conundrum. Good hyperbole does this, and Jesus is a master rhetorician. For it is only in the very next chapter that Jesus speaks again of the fatherly love shown toward the prodigal son.
But here he is making a different but complimentary point. He is saying that his peace does not come through the sword of the empire, but through the cross on Calvary, which his disciples must likewise take up. Doing so will force upon them the question of where their true loyalty lies. Will Jesus be their supreme Lord, or something (or someone) else?
They must maintain a thorough-going commitment — not to one’s family alone (although this is important), but to the new family created through Christ, the Church, and the Father of this family who has adopted them, the Father of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It is the way of this Father and the way of the Cross that Jesus is calling people into; he is relativizing the natural family to create a new one, the family of God. The natural family is not dissolved, but rightly ordered within the larger salvific community of our heavenly Father. And this was scandalous, because salvation came down through ethnic and familial lines in Judaism, and Jesus says, “No, my vision is broader than that.”
Of all the things we tend to idolize, family might be one of the easiest and most subtle forms of idolatry. We at least know that sex, drugs, and rock and roll can more easily be seen as vacuous and ultimately dead-end streets. But family? It is, after all, our Christian duty to be family people. It is for the good of culture to love families. And Scripture calls the people of God to be supportive of the family in many ways. Nevertheless, Jesus calls all people to take up the cross, and even family can get in the way of this. Therefore, Jesus says again, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”
Does Jesus call us straightforwardly to hate our family? No, but every good thing — including family — can become an ultimate thing. And if we don’t have family, we can easily insert friends into the mix. They often become our family in the absence of one.
A surefire way to make sure your family is not happy in life is to place them above God, thereby making them shoulder all your hopes, your dreams, your needs, and your aspirations, which they cannot shoulder like God can. How often we have seen parents who are living vicariously through their children, placing all their significance on how well their child performs, or scores on the test, or measures up against the children of our friends.
If we want them to be happy, if we want to love them well, we must learn to hate them in the way Christ commands, which is another way of saying to love them as God intends. We must see them as subjects whom we love in a mutual turn toward our maker, not as objects of our ultimate devotion that only God can fulfill.
We must learn that our children are not what they have, what they do, or what others say about them. Ultimately, they too will be judged on how well they take up their cross. Are we preparing them for this?
There is more to the passage than Jesus’ remarks about hate. We might ask again: aren’t his other commands unrealistic? How can we possibly give up all our possessions? How can we possibly count the cost of following him? There is no way we could ever map this out, any more than we could map out the total cost of committing to a marriage and all that it entails. What is Jesus up to?
I think Jesus is stirring up within the hearts of his hearers a crisis. They are confronted with questions that force them to consider where their loyalties ultimately lie, and to understand that God requires them to give him everything. T.S. Eliot once captured the ideal of religious life: “A condition of complete simplicity / (Costing not less than everything).” This includes our family, our possessions, and our plans.
Christians who give up their possessions, who love their enemy, who walk into the white-hot center of danger for the sake of others — they always do so because their allegiance to Jesus Christ is ultimate, not out of duty, but out of love from having encountered the source of all life and love. When you come to truly know the grandeur, the majesty, and the hope we have as God’s children, then you will be able to give and love as God gives and loves. We will also learn to receive the ones we love back as gifts of grace who spend their lives on others, instead of the biological widgets made from our hands.
In his book The Second Mountain, David Brooks asks, “Why would Mother Teresa have spent those decades in the slums? Why would Thomas Merton have spent those decades in the monastery? Why would Dorothy Day have spent those decades living a life of poverty, giving bread to the poor? Why would Dietrich Bonhoeffer have returned to Germany to resist Hitler — with a good chance that he would get killed in the fight, as indeed he did? Don’t these people know there are beach vacations to be taken and nice restaurants to be experienced?”
Brooks is highlighting that there is so much more to life than what we can consume. It might be that for many of us, to take up our cross, we need to put down our phone. To take up our cross, we need to put down the cocktail glass. And yes, to take up our cross, we need to let go of our children or our friends.