Evening Prayer Homily: What Is Your Highest Priority?

November 5th, 2015

Preacher: Judy Naegeli
Gospel: Luke 14:25–33

Is anyone else uncomfortable with this gospel passage? I certainly am. My discomfort, maybe like yours, has to do with this word “hate.” Jesus Christ says, “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.” What?? For someone who speaks so much about love, self-sacrifice, and even the importance of the Ten Commandments, which includes “honor your father and mother,” why is Jesus telling us to hate our families and even life itself? This doesn’t make any sense at all. But unfortunately, we can’t just ignore it.

So let’s assume that while we might associate the word “hate” with anger, bitterness, and violence, Jesus is using it differently. Jesus uses the word “hate” in other passages besides this one, perhaps most famously in Luke 16:

“No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

In this passage, it’s clear that Jesus is talking about conflicting loyalties. If you have two forces that are pulling you in opposite directions, you either have to pick one or be torn apart. “You cannot serve two masters. You cannot be loyal to two masters at once.” It’s a conflict of interest.

To me this changes everything. If we apply this nuance to our Luke 14 passage, then maybe when Jesus says, “Whoever doesn’t hate his family cannot be my disciple,” he means, “To be my disciple, you have to make loyalty to me your highest priority, even higher than your family.” In the Roman world at the time, family was a big deal. One’s primary loyalty was to the pater familias, the male head of the household who was supposed to provide for the needs of wives and children, slaves and servants, and extended relatives in exchange for loyalty and honor—“to the death.” Jesus is asking his disciples to turn their loyalty to himself, above and beyond their loyalty to the pater familias—a radical and rebellious concept.

Perhaps today, family loyalty is a little less valued, but it’s still true that sometimes our families can pull us in the opposite direction from God, be it through expectations or unspoken “family values.” Other things do this too: careers, addictions, possessions, wealth and power, entertainment. In scripture today, Jesus is begging the question: “What is your highest priority? Are you willing to put your loyalty to me above it?”

Let me tell you a little bit of my story: I was baptized when I was 7, but I didn’t actually decide to follow Jesus until eighth grade. And with that decision came a huge shift in priorities.

What’s most important to eighth-graders? Friends. In middle school, it’s all about social circles. Who you’re with determines what you’re worth. The more friends you have and the more people know your name, the cooler you are. Doesn’t even matter what your name is known for; the Cool is what matters.

So when I was 12 and 13, I was actively trying to get in with a popular crowd of girls—the backstabbing, self-destructive kind who wore the right clothes. But the more I hung around them, the meaner I became, until finally I couldn’t even stand myself anymore. I didn’t like at all what I had become, but I didn’t know what to do about it.

And then one day as I was walking through the quad at school, God spoke to me and said, “I will never reject you.”

I can’t describe the wave of relief and joy I felt in that moment. Suddenly I knew that I didn’t have to change myself for those mean, popular girls. Suddenly I felt like I had a constant ally. Suddenly I knew that I was loveable.

God was suddenly so real and present to me that I knew I needed to—and could, with God’s help—start over. Armed with God’s promise to me, I distanced myself from that crowd of girls. I have to admit, though, it was not easy. I didn’t really have a social backup plan, so for a while I had to be alone. And in middle school, being alone is like being a leper. Luckily, God loves lepers.

Eighth grade was a difficult time of life, but with God’s help, my new priority became living into God’s acceptance of me. I didn’t need conditional approval from people I didn’t like anyway. I didn’t have be a person that I wouldn’t have wanted to be friends with myself. I only had to be God’s beloved child.

As I have grown up, my priorities and loyalties have shifted back and forth with the tides of life, and loyalty to Jesus has not always remained at the top of my list. But when I read passages like this, I feel the challenge to reassess, to let go, and to reorganize my priorities again.