Luke 14:26 – Hate or Hyperbole?
by Leland Ryken
My initiation into the misinterpretation of hyperbole occurred half-a-century ago when I sat listening as an adolescent to a Christian radio program in my family’s farmhouse in Iowa. The speaker’s text was Jesus’ statement that “if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you” (Matt. 17:20).1 The preacher began, “Now let me say right from the start that I believe that the mountains of which Jesus is speaking are spiritual and psychological mountains.”
Anyone who has prayed for something as Jesus describes and not seen it performed knows that the literal interpretation of His statement is faulty. A strained “spiritual” interpretation, however, is not the only alternative. By the time I had completed my literary education, I had learned about a figure of speech called hyperbole that provides another way of understanding such exaggerated statements. The evidence is abundant, however, that critics of Christianity and some Christians do not place much stock in hyperbole.
Should We Hate Our Family? In this article, I want to pay particular attention to Jesus’ statement in Luke 14:26: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”
One way to misinterpret this verse is to take it literally. Cults often operate on the premise that the statement is literally true — that it pits loyalty to the group against love for family. In doing so, they attempt to distance followers from family members who might make them fall away.
Critics of Christianity in turn point to the verse in order to denigrate the Christian faith. An atheist, for example, quotes the verse as “a perfect illustration of how a cult operates. Sort of makes you wonder about all those conservative religionists that preach ‘traditional family values!’”2
A deist scolds Christians who do not interpret the verse literally. After noting that Luke chose the Greek word meaning “hate” and not another word meaning “love less,” this person writes, “All you are attempting here is to explain away an uncomfortable teaching because you cannot live up to it; in effect, you do not really believe it.”3
Someone who calls himself a satanist castigates Christianity on the ground that, in light of Jesus’ statement, “one must question Christ’s idea of the family.”4
One final aberration needs to be added to the mix. A gnostic source asserts that early Assyrian churches took Jesus’ statement to mean that only celibate men could become Christians…
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