Rabbi Yeshua warned His disciples that allegiance to Him would bring family strife and division. He told them, “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” (Luke 14:26).
This is a hard saying—nearly incomprehensible outside of a Hebrew and rabbinic context. Does the Master really require us to harbor contempt for our family before we can follow Him in discipleship? Does He call only hateful and bitter disciples?
In the English language, love and hate are antithetical and absolute opposites. In Hebrew the terms do not always possess the same absolute antithesis, especially when used in contrast against one another. The Bible sometimes uses “love” and “hate” to show an order of preference. For example, the Torah says that Jacob loved Rachel but hated Leah, meaning only that he loved Rachel more than Leah.
In that case, the Master’s words should be translated to English as follows:
If anyone comes to me and does not love his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—less than he loves me, he cannot be my disciple.
This is how Matthew interpreted the saying as well: “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me” (Matthew 10:37).
Yeshua’s attitude about placing discipleship above family reflected the rabbinic ideas of the day.
The sages taught that a disciple’s familial loyalties should be first with his teacher (and fellow disciples). A disciple’s allegiance to his teacher outweighs all other loves and passions. As mentioned above (in Matthew 10:25), a school of disciples referred to their rabbi as the “father” of a household, hence the terms House of Hillel and House of Shammai. Fellow disciples were brothers. Yeshua and the fellowship of His disciples functioned as such a brotherhood.
As with the other schools of the sages, Yeshua’s family of disciples took precedence over the natural family, a common model for teacher-disciple relationships. For example, the Mishnah asks whether one should favor his father or his teacher first. In a surprising parallel to Yeshua’s own words, the Mishnah speaks of a disciple preferring his teacher and even carrying his master’s heavy burden:
If a [disciple] has to choose between his father’s [priorities] and his master’s [priorities], those of his master take precedence. For his father brought him into this world, but his master, who taught him wisdom, will bring him into the life of the World to Come. But if his father is also a sage, that of his father takes precedence. If his father and his master were both carrying heavy burdens, he removes that of his master [and carries it for him], and afterward removes that of his father. If his father and his master were taken captive, he ransoms his master, and afterward he ransoms his father. (Mishnah)
In a similar way, Rabbi Yeshua instructed His disciples to place their priorities first with Him and even to carry His burden: “He who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me” (Matthew 10:38).