An episode of Premier Radio’s Unbelievable show (20th August 2011) featured a thoughtful and civilised discussion between Rebekah Bennetch & Sheridan Voysey. (The show’s host, Justin Brierley, also played a major a role in the conversation).
Rebekah had offered to appear on the show in order to explain her ‘deconversion’ from Christianity to atheism. She had been raised in a strongly Christian family, had attended two Bible colleges, taught in Sunday School, and served with her parents in the mission field.
Halfway through the discussion, Sheridan asked Rebekah the following rather probing question: “Where did Jesus disappoint you?”
Rebekah responded by referring generally to Jesus’ teaching about Hell. Then she referred to two specific passages:-
“The passage where Christ talks about how you have to hate your family and follow me – like, leave everyone behind and follow me.”
“There was this story where this woman was really sick and came to Jesus for healing, and he called her a dog – I think she was a Samaritan woman.”
Her conclusion from such passage was the “maybe Christ was not the most moral example for me to follow.”
I have to say that, given Rebekah’s background and generally thoughtful articulation of her departure from Christian faith, these are extraordinarily inept reasons for being ‘disappointed with Jesus’.
Hating your parents?
Let’s look at the first of her ‘problem passages’:-
Luke 14:26 “If anyone comes to me 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.”
Interestingly, Richard Dawkins also cites this passage as demonstrating that “Jesus’ family values were not such as one might wish to focus on…he encouraged his disciples to abandon their families to follow him. The American comedian Julia Sweeney expressed her bewilderment in her one-woman stage show, Letting Go of God: “Isn’t that what cults do? Get you to reject your family in order to inculcate you?”‘ (The God Delusion, 250)
We must begin by noting that, in both Old and New Testaments, providing for one’s family and relatives was regarded as the norm. Not to do so would have been a violation of the 5th Commandment. Paul makes the point in 1 Tim 5:8. Our parents, children, brothers and sisters are precisely those people we ought to love the most. It is a feature of many cults that they turn their adherents against their nearest and dearest.
So why does Jesus talk here about ‘hating’ one’s family?
The first, and most obvious, thing to note is that in biblical idiom ‘to hate’ can mean ‘to love less’. Other examples occur in Deut 21:15 and Mt 10:37. As a standard scholarly reference work explains, ‘It is evident from Mt 10:37-38 that Luke’s command to “hate one’s parents” (14:26) means that his disciples must love Jesus more.’ (Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels)
The disciples of Jesus must be willing to forsake that which is very dear. Following Christ may bring us into conflict with those we love best in this life. If so, a painful choice may have to be made.
Among Jesus’ followers were those who had indeed forsaken family ties, Mk 10:29f. Yet Peter’s marriage apparently survived his call to discipleship, for 25 years later his wife was still accompanying him on his missionary journeys, 1 Cor 9:5.
The famous commentator Matthew Henry says:- ‘When our duty to our parents comes in competition with our evident duty to Christ, we must give Christ the preference. If we must either deny Christ or be banished from our families and relations (as many of the primitive Christians were), we must rather lose their society than his favour.’
Another old commentator, Albert Barnes, writes: ‘We are not at liberty literally to hate our parents. This would be expressly contrary to the fifth commandment. See also Eph 6:1-3 Col 3:20. But we are to love them less than we love Christ; we are to obey Christ rather than them; we are to be willing to forsake them if he calls us to go and preach his gospel; and we are to submit, without a murmur, to him when he takes them away from us. This is not an uncommon meaning of the word hate in the Scriptures. Comp. Mal 1:2,3; Gen 29:30-31; Deut 21:15-17.’
What Jesus is teaching here is analogous to the marriage bond. In marriage, there is a ‘leaving’ as well as a ‘cleaving’. It is not that the new husband or wife loves his or her parents less than before, but that the pre-eminent place has now been taken by another.
J.O. Sanders observes: ‘In the times when he spoke these words, becoming his disciples often involved discord within the family and ostracism in sociey. In Western lands there is usually little family or social cost involved, but in the East, conversion often meant loss of employment. In the world-wide programme on which he was embarking, he wanted associated with him men and women of quality whose devotion to him and his cause would not waver before opposition and even persecution.’
This saying of Jesus, is, of course, extremely demanding. But it means, in essence, that those who would follow him must be prepared to put him first. And who, given everything else that we know about him, would dare to say that this is an unreasonable demand?
The second ‘problem passage’ cited by Rebekah Bennetch as a reason for questioning Jesus’ moral values is this:-
Matthew 15:22-28 A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession.” Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said. He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” “Yes, Lord,” she said, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.
(Another account of this episode is given in Mark 7:24-30)
France notes that this has indeed been described as ‘an atrocious saying’, expressing ‘incredible insolence’ and based on ‘the worst kind of chauvinism’.
It is certainly true that in referring to Gentiles as ‘dogs’ Jesus was employing a current Jewish term of abuse. But there is nothing in what we know otherwise about Jesus to suggest that he would resort to personal insults of this kind.
But, says, France, ‘written words cannot convey a twinkle in the eye, and it may be that Jesus was almost jocularly presenting her with the sort of language she might expect from a Jew in order to see how she would react.’
The New Bible Commentary simililarly explains: ‘The language seems incredibly harsh, especially when spoken by the same Jesus who had earlier welcomed the faith of the Gentile centurion as a pointer to Gentiles sharing in future in the blessings of Israel. Perhaps cold print conceals an element of irony, even playfulness, in Jesus’ tone. At any rate, he was confronting her with the sort of language a Gentile could expect to hear from a Jew, and her faith rose to the test.’
Consistent with the interpretation just given, the woman’s reply gives no indication that she feels insulted. Her reply, however, does suggest remarkable perception ‘in recognising both the primary scope of Jesus’ mission to Israel and also the fact that that was not to be its ultimate limit. She thus, like the centurian, foreshadows the time when the true Israel will transcend the boundaries of culture and nationality.’ (France)
D.A. Carson says: ‘The woman’s answer is masterly. Those two words “but even” reveal immense wisdom and faith. She does not argue that her needs make her an exception, or that she has a right to Israel’s covenanted mercies, or that the mysterious ways of divine election and justice are unfair. She simply asks for help, hopeful that she may be allowed to receive a crumb from the kindness of the Lord.’
We conclude, then, that Jesus’ words to this woman were not at all intended as an insult, but rather to draw her out and to explore what kind of faith she has in him as ‘Son of David’.
All of this is closely paralleled in the account of the healing of the Centurian’s servant (Mt 8:5-13). It even has parallels in the Old Testament: the Sidonian woman (1 Kings 17:18–19) and the Shunammite woman (2 Kings 4:28) both sought help from a prophet of God, and would not take no for an answer.