Fr Martin Henry: The radical demands of Christianity

When Jesus says that his disciples should hate their families and even life itself, should we take him literally? Fr Martin Henry explores the radical language of Christianity

A depiction of martyrs Maximus and Theodotus of Adrianopolis, from around 980
A depiction of martyrs Maximus and Theodotus of Adrianopolis, from around 980

USUALLY Christianity is regarded, in principle at least, as a religion of peace and love.

"Blessed are the peacemakers," Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, "for they will be called children of God" (Matthew 5:9).

And the First Letter of John goes so far as to define God as love (1 John 4:8).

Yet one can also find passages in the Gospels that seem to fly in the face of such sublime teachings.

In the Gospel of Matthew, for instance, Jesus is recorded as saying: "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword" (Matthew 10:34).

Similarly, one finds in the Gospel of Luke the even more disconcerting statement: "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:26).

In both sets of passages from which these extracts come, conflict and hatred rather than peace and love are ostensibly presented as 'par for the course' for those who would follow Jesus.

And shortly after the demand to hate family and even life itself, a further startling condition is laid down in Luke's Gospel for would-be followers of Jesus: "None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions" (Luke 14:33).

The radical nature of such language has puzzled people long before today and many have wondered how or even whether it can possibly be taken literally.

It is tempting perhaps to say that the violent nature of Jesus' language is simply geared to making people sit up and take notice.

But take notice of what? What underlies the radical demands Jesus makes of his potential disciples?

The perennial distinction between illusion and reality might indicate a possible answer to this question.

This distinction is surely fundamental to the way we try to live our lives.

To state the obvious: it's not enough to be a daydreamer, attractive though daydreaming certainly can be.

Or to put it slightly differently: it's not enough to find a certain way of life appealing - what is required to follow it, also needs to be considered.

To will the end, in other words, also entails willing the means.

That is a fairly uncontroversial, even banal contention. But where following Jesus is concerned, the snag is that those means seem well beyond the reach of most people, and may even cast doubt on the desirability of the end itself.

In some ways, the last condition mentioned by Jesus, the renunciation of all one's possessions - which no doubt sounds as extreme to us today as it must have sounded to Jesus' first hearers - might even be the easiest one to fulfil.

For the martyrs, there was a higher good still, belief in which motivated their willingness to stand up for goodness and truth in a world marked by corruption and lies

For as is well known, many followers of Jesus down through the age - like the great mendicant orders in the Middle Ages - did precisely that with their vow of poverty. They did in fact renounce all their possessions.

But, if we consider the other apparent conditions for being a follower of Jesus, who could seriously contemplate hating "father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters and even his own life", in order to be a disciple of Jesus?

Is this not an inhuman demand, if taken at face value? Does it not seem to imply that life is somehow hateful? Must it not give rise to grave misgivings about the very nature of Christianity?

An answer to this pressing question can be found, I think, in the lesson that the Christian martyrs over the centuries have provided.

The martyrs didn't see life in this world as evil or hateful and death as a welcome release from an intolerable burden.

Rather, they saw life in this world as intrinsically good, because it is willed and created by God.

However, they didn't see life in this world as the highest good.

For the martyrs, there was a higher good still, belief in which motivated, for example, their willingness to stand up for goodness and truth in a world marked by corruption and lies, even at the cost of their own lives, or to go to the aid of those in need, again also frequently at the risk of their own lives.

The Book of Revelation puts it this way: "They did not cling to life even in the face of death" (Revelation 12:11).

And the telling phrase "to love someone more than life itself" points in the same direction.

Thus the term "hate" in the Gospel passage highlighted must surely be seen as a dramatic reminder of the difference between even the most precious of human treasures and the more inscrutable mystery of God's relationship to us, without which there would be no treasures to begin with.

What is at issue is the incomparable fact of human existence itself. That our very existence is identical with our connection with God is hinted at by the Church's traditional understanding of Christ as both God and man, an understanding which sharpens this identification and binds humanity and its destiny irrevocably to God.

It's imperative, therefore, to see that the radical demands of Christianity don't spring from a hatred of life or from any sense that the world is evil and should be discarded or renounced.

They spring, rather, from a belief in, and a loyalty to, the reality of God who can be perceived in this life as its creator and sustainer and the source of its moral seriousness, but who is always other than this life itself.

Martin Henry, former lecturer in theology at St Patrick's College, Maynooth, is a priest of the diocese of Down and Connor.

Fr Martin Henry
Fr Martin Henry