Yeshua warned His disciples that allegiance to Him would incite 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 Biblical 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 he loved Leah (Genesis 29:30-31). Likewise, the Master’s words about hating one’s family 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 conveyed the sense of 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 call for prioritizing discipleship above family reflects rabbinic ideas of His day.
The sages taught that a disciple’s family-loyalties should be first with his teacher (and fellow disciples). A disciple’s allegiance to his teacher outweighs all other loves and passions. 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 rabbis asked 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 teacher’s priorities, those of his teacher take precedence. For his father brought him into this world, but his teacher, who taught him wisdom, brings 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 teacher were both carrying heavy burdens, he removes that of his teacher and carries it for him, and afterward removes that of his father. If his father and his teacher were taken captive, he ransoms his teacher, and afterward he ransoms his father …” (m.Bava Metzia 2:11)
In a similar way, Rabbi Yeshua instructed His disciples to place their priorities first with Him and even to carry His burden: “And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me” (Matthew 10:38).