From time to time, you will hear us at Old South say that we believe in taking the Bible seriously, but not always literally. Passages like this one go a long way toward getting at the why of that. Let me say, straight out of the shoot: Jesus does not want you to hate Mom or Dad. After all, the One he called Dad – and understood himself as obedient to in all things – that One had carved into stone Thou shall honor thy father and mother. Did Jesus intend to just do away with the fourth commandment, decide it is only going to be nine from now on? And did the guy who taught turn the other cheek, pray for those who persecute you, love your enemies (for Pete’s sake!), and do good to those who despise you, did he suggest we should be sticking it to those who changed our diapers? If Mary were anything like my Mom, she would have responded to her son here with something like: You peed on me on more than one occasion; so, easy with that lip, pal. Luckily for Jesus, Mary had not also paid his college tuition, or else the Messiah might have met his end then and there!
Evidently, it was a convention of speech in Jesus’ day, when comparing two things, to rank your preference for one or the other by saying this I love and that I hate. Like, I love chocolate ice cream, and I hate vanilla. Now, there has never been a half-pint of, well, you name it, that I wouldn’t smile over with satisfaction when my spoon hits the bottom of the carton. I don’t actually hate vanilla, I simply like it a little less than chocolate. So, to say you love Jesus but hate Mom does not really mean you hate Mom, only that Jesus has pride of place in your heart. All the same, it would be nice had Jesus vetted this with the marketing team at Hallmark; perhaps they could have convinced him to do without the hyperbole, oh, but then think of the fun you and I wouldn’t be able to have when we hear someone holding forth about “traditional family values.”
Even so, this is a hard teaching. Jesus’ words still sting. They may not offend to the degree they might were we really supposed to keep a voodoo doll of mommy dearest near at hand, but the idea – and this, I think, is the point of the passage – the idea that for Christians, following Jesus comes first, comes before even putting food on the table, the idea that serving God must be a higher priority than serving not only ourselves but the worthiest of others, the idea that the debt of gratitude and obedience we owe to God outstrips what we owe to those who have given us so, so much, the idea that in a head to head matchup, love for God should win out over love for family, the idea that we are to love God more than we love Mom, more than we love Dad, that we are to love God more than we love our children, that we are to love God more than we love our spouse, that we are to love God more than life itself – this counsel is not easy to embrace. But there it is. Love God more than anything, more than everything else. Love God more even than what you love the most.
At some level, what I want to say is: Yeah, good luck living that out. I know as well as anyone: it ain’t gonna happen. If I loved God like that, if I actually loved God like that, loved God more than what, more than who I love the most, my life would look very different, would look, no doubt, almost unrecognizably different. If I followed Jesus instead of following – and I’m not talking even about my baser appetites which, if followed, would obviously lead me into a death-spiral of self-indulgence, but if I followed Jesus instead of following the wisdom of the day, following the good advice of people I respect and admire, instead of following my heart, following my dreams (which sometimes do but sometimes don’t align with what God wants for me), if I followed Jesus, if I walked after the ways of Jesus with the purity of vision and the fervency of purpose this passage lifts up, literally, Lord knows where I’d land. It is terrifying to think of where true, uncompromising faithfulness would take me. And I’m not game for that, not now. (You know, ministers aren’t any holier; we just happen to be hiding from God in plain sight.) St. Augustine’s famously cheeky prayer comes to mind: ‘God, make me pure, but not yet.’ As does the crazily devout Kierkegaard’s little quip: when asked whether he was a Christian, he would respond with – ‘No, I’m trying to become one.’ That about gets at the gist of it. God asks more of us than we are willing, than we are able to give, and we feel the tug of that as strongly as we do the guilt and the grief that comes when inevitably, we turn away.
Blessedly, all is not lost. Becoming who we, who God wants us to be is not a zero-to-sixty but a baby-step-by-baby-step sort of thing. We don’t get from hot mess to having-it-all-together overnight. On the one hand, spirituality as a kind of crash diet, as one of those Paleo or whole30 purges or whatever, spirituality as a shock to the system seems always to prove either a danger or a disappointment. It is the same reason why New Year’s resolutions so rarely take: going all-in all of a sudden is not something unpracticed spirits can reasonably sustain. To put it crudely: it is possible to bite off more God than you can chew. But on the other hand, it should be said that spirituality does not work if you only ever dabble in it. I don’t mean to be uncharitable, but religion as a hobby, as something you squeeze in when you have spare time, that’s not really religion. Any religion worth its salt aims at the reordering or the conversion of our loyalties and our commitments and our loves; religion provides for the organizing of all our lives; it is a framework for thought and for discernment that clarifies what is worth saying yes to, and when, instead, we should say no. Being too stressed and out-of-whack and busy for religion is a sign that we need more of it, not less. Easy for me to say, right? Anyway, where our souls are concerned, best, as Jesus said, best to be crafty as serpents and gentle as doves, that is, to be intentional and smart, but also to be careful and patient. To strive and to stretch ourselves spiritually, to push ourselves, but not past the breaking point. To ask neither too much of ourselves nor too little – the both of which make for a sickly faith.
Asking of ourselves, for Jesus’ sake, what is right and good to ask, this, in my mind, is the work of adult Christians. Practicing our faith, practicing the way we would a sport or an instrument, practicing our faith so we might get good at it, get better and better and better so that we come to experience it less as practice and more as play, this is our work. And like one who would build a tower, like one who would march an army into battle – we do well to know what we are in for. Jesus demands everything of us. That is just the way it is. But we can break down that ‘everything’, we can scale it into baby-step-sized spiritual milestones, the crossing of which we can celebrate as the small triumphs they are. Because a lifetime of baby steps adds up to one heck of a spiritual journey. The only way we will ever get to where we want to go is to start from where we’re starting, and then to set soul-challenging goals for ourselves that will, over time, move us closer to loving God with all we are. Like, I want to sit in silence for twenty minutes a day, every day. Currently, I’m clocking in at… zero minutes, because I’ve let the perfect be the enemy of the good, I’ve let the big twenty make the one and then the two and then the three minutes I can actually pull off seem too trivial to bother with. I want to memorize all the psalms. I’ve done a bit better there, but would do better still if I tried to do one a month and not one a week. In the hope of being a more and ever more generous person, I want to give away 7% of my income by the time I turn 40, so that by 50, I will be in a position to shoot for a full, round 10%. I’ve been hovering between 1% and 2% for years, which is one of the reasons, selfishly, I’m excited about the capital campaign: because it gives me an excuse to turn up the heat here and scoot a little closer to who it is I want to be. I want to do one secret, random act of kindness every month. I want to be less quick to speak, want to be able to count to fifty before I say something and not feel like my head is going to explode. I want to write a list 10,000 lines long of things I’m thankful for. I want to forgive a few people. I want to ask forgiveness of a few people. I want to do things for God and for myself that I am in no shape spiritually to do, to do now, to do yet, but which, in the course of the decades I have ahead me, seem within reason and within reach. I don’t want to dodge the toughness of Jesus’ teaching. I don’t want to downplay the sting of Jesus’ words. I want to aspire to an ideal worth falling short of – loving God more than I love everything, more than I love anything else – an impossible ideal that nevertheless, in striving toward, in taking one step forward to and two steps back from, lends my life color and contour. But that’s me. That’s my set of soul goals. What about you? What are yours? Who are you going to be for God? How are you going to get there?