Some claim that Jesus taught his followers to hate their mother and father. If true, that would obviously make Jesus an immoral and unethical teacher, since one of the Ten Commandments is to honor one’s parents. “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you,” the Torah says in Exodus 20:12.
Yet in apparent contradiction to this commandment, Jesus said this:
Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.
Or, it seems, even worse:
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.
Yet understanding the Jewish background to Jesus’ teaching sheds an entirely different light on his words.
Here are four things to keep in mind that show the real meaning of Jesus’ statements:
Jesus’ statements reflect the Jewish understanding of his time.
A common Jewish view was that the messianic era would be preceded by a time of disharmony in family and social relationships. In other words, things were going to get worse before they got better. In his sayings quoted above, Jesus was announcing the messianic age and his own messiahship. In doing so, he was quoting from the Old Testament prophet Micah who spoke of the messianic age in the following terms:
Put no trust in a neighbor;
have no confidence in a friend;
guard the doors of your mouth
from her who lies in your arms;
for the son treats the father with contempt,
the daughter rises up against her mother,
the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
a man’s enemies are the men of his own house.
Here’s the backstory: Micah had been speaking of God’s judgment that would come on Judah because of the nation’s corruption and moral failure. According to Micah’s words earlier in his book, this judgment would take the form of a military siege by an outside enemy. In this context, social relationships would fall apart and even close relatives would no longer trust one another. Social deterioration would be the end result of Judah’s moral failure.
In much Second Temple and rabbinic Jewish literature, this same passage and similar descriptions characterize the final “day of the Lord.” Before the Messiah arrives, or during that time period, there will be a time of social dislocation. (See the section “Going Deeper” below for citations.)
Jesus is not encouraging hate. Rather, he is saying that social networks will be torn apart because the time of Messiah is now here. People will be divided over Jesus and his call to repentance and faith. Social unrest was not Jesus’ goal. But when God’s kingdom comes, sin stands out in sharp relief.
Jesus in fact reiterated the commandment to honor one’s mother and father.
Jesus affirmed the commandment to honor parents in word and action, known in Judaism as kibud av va’em. Here are four New Testament passages:
[Jesus speaking:] “For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God.”
Similar is this passage:
“For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban”’ (that is, given to God)—then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.”
— Mark 7:10–13
A little background to the two quotations above. Everyone Jesus spoke to would have agreed that the Torah taught honor to parents. Then as now, however, there were some legal loopholes that allowed unscrupulous (or lazy) people a way out. Let’s imagine someone that we’ll call Manny. Manny decides to donate his old bedroom dresser, which otherwise could have been sold or put to use, to the Temple in Jerusalem. The dresser would be physically labeled with the Hebrew word “Korban,” meaning “given to God.” (Think of labeling your boxes on moving day “For the kitchen,” “for the den.” These items were “for the Temple.”) According to one school of thought, now that the dresser was “for the Temple,” no one else could use it, including family members. Maybe Manny just didn’t want his dresser to go his parents. Maybe it was less work to just give it to the Temple. Maybe he wanted to appear “religious” or wanted to be well thought of, like the apocryphal man who stood up one Sabbath service to announce that he was donating $1,000 to the synagogue—anonymously. Or conversely, maybe he made the gift to the Temple, then wanted to reclaim it for his parents’ needs—and was told, sorry, donations aren’t returned. Either way, Jesus calls out such people, whether the donor or the Temple bureaucracy, for neglecting to ensure that parents would be honored.
And two more quotations:
And he [Jesus] said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.”
He said to him, “Which ones?”
And Jesus said, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
...but standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.
In the first quotation above, Jesus speaks of the commandment to honor parents. In the second, he demonstrates honor by providing for his mother in the home of one of his disciples after his death.
Jesus taught, as did the Old Testament and rabbinic writings, that loyalty to God takes precedence over loyalty to family.
In the Bible we find a story about Moses and the tribe of Levi. It was from Levi that the priests came, those who taught the Law and led in worship. After the incident of the Golden Calf—in which the people made a golden idol when Moses was delayed coming back down Mount Sinai—the tribe of Levi especially showed their loyalty to God over family members who had engaged in idolatry. Moses praises this tribe using language that reminds us of Jesus’ statements about family:
[The tribe of Levi] said of his father and mother,
“I regard them not”;
he disowned his brothers
and ignored his children.
For they observed your word
and kept your covenant.
They shall teach Jacob your rules
and Israel your law;
they shall put incense before you
and whole burnt offerings on your altar.
Bless, O Lord, his substance,
and accept the work of his hands;
crush the loins of his adversaries,
of those who hate him, that they rise not again.”
What is Moses saying? Not that the Levites literally had no concern for their own parents, nor that they literally cast off their siblings. After all, honor for parents was part of the Torah and Moses would not be offering praises of Levi for violating a Torah commandment. Yet when all was said and done, family bonds did not take precedence over God’s requirements. So Moses praises the tribe in hyperbolic terms.
The late Samuel Tobias Lachs, who was Professor of History of Religion at Bryn Mawr College, wrote the following concerning Matthew 10:37 (quoted above). Lachs speak of a case from the Talmud in which a teacher takes precedence over a father, similar to Jesus’ role as a teacher vis-à-vis family members:
On the greater duty to serve the teacher over a parent, note: “If a man went to seek his own lost property and that of his father, his own has priority; if his own and that of his teacher, his own has priority; if that of his father and that of his teacher, his teacher’s has priority, for his father brought him into this world, but his teacher, who has taught him wisdom, brings him into the world-to-come.”
—A Rabbinic Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Hoboken: Ktav; New York: Anti-Defamation League, 1987), p. 188, citing Mishnah Baba Metzia 2:11.
The word “hate” in the Bible often expresses priority and preference, not emotional hatred.
In the following, for example, “unloved” or “hated” refers to a preference rather than an emotional hatred.
If a man has two wives, the one loved and the other unloved [literally in Hebrew, “hated”], and both the loved and the unloved have borne him children, and if the firstborn son belongs to the unloved, then on the day when he assigns his possessions as an inheritance to his sons, he may not treat the son of the loved as the firstborn in preference to the son of the unloved, who is the firstborn, but he shall acknowledge the firstborn, the son of the unloved, by giving him a double portion of all that he has, for he is the firstfruits of his strength. The right of the firstborn is his.
The same is true in the following, where the reader is reminded that when brothers Jacob and Esau were born, God chose Jacob to be the one through whom the Jewish people would come and God’s promises be fulfilled. It was a matter of choice and preference, not emotional hatred.
“I have loved you,” says the Lord. But you say, “How have you loved us?” “Is not Esau Jacob’s brother?” declares the Lord. “Yet I have loved Jacob but Esau I have hated. I have laid waste his hill country and left his heritage to jackals of the desert.”
Similar ideas about family strife and the same sense of the word “hate” occurs in rabbinic literature. If you want to explore further, see the following:
Sayings concerning family strife in the messianic age:
In the Mishnah (Sotah ix.15) our verse is embodied in a passage descriptive of the conditions which are to obtain in the period immediately preceding the advent of the Messiah (comp. also Matthew x. 35f.; Luke xii.53). Similar thoughts and phraseology occur in the apocalyptic writings (Baruch lxx.3 ff.; IV Ezra v.9; vi.24; Enoch ii) and in the Midrashim (Sifre on Deut. xxxii.36; Pesikta rabbeti, p. 4b: 75a, and elsewhere; Derek eres zutta, ch. x; Cant. rabba, ch. ii; comp. also Sanhedrin 97a ff.). The idea underlying these expectations is that evil must have run its course before the good can come. The hope in the triumphant advent of the Kingdom of God is intensified by the very contemplation of the evil as it exists. When the moral corruption is greatest, salvation is surest; or, as the rabbis says, “out of distress cometh relief” (Midrash Shoher Tob on Ps. xxii; Jer. xxx.7 is appositely quoted).
—Margolis, Max L. The Holy Scriptures with Commentary: Micah (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1908).
Family problems were to be characteristic of the Last Days... It is a very common motif in the apocalyptic literature. E.g., “In that generation the sons will convict their fathers and their elders of sin and unrighteousness... and they will strive one with another, the young with the old, the old with the young.” “And they shall hate one another, and provoke one another to fight, and the mean shall rule over the honorable, and those of low degree shall be extolled above the famous.”
—Samuel Tobias Lachs, A Rabbinic Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Hoboken: Ktav; New York: Anti-Defamation League, 1987), p. 183, citing Jubilees 23:19 and 2 Baruch 70:3.
The spirit of this deterioration of family relationships is reflected in rabbinic treatment of Micah 7:6, where it is explained as prelude to the messianic coming: “With the footprints of the Messiah presumption shall increase and death reach its height... children shall shame the elders and the elders shall rise up before the children, for the son treats the father with contempt, the daughter rises up against her mother, the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, a man’s enemies are the men of his own house. The face of this generation is as the face of a dog, and the son will not be put to shame by his father.” Similarly, “And in that generation the sons will convict their fathers and their elders of sin and unrighteousness... and they will strive with one another, the young with the old and the old with the young.”
— Samuel Tobias Lachs, A Rabbinic Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Hoboken: Ktav; New York: Anti-Defamation League, 1987), p. 186
The context of Micah 7:6, cited here, describes the awful evils in the land and the untrustworthiness of even the closest relatives and friends that would continue until the Lord would come to vindicate those who hoped in him. Given the belief held by many Jewish people that a time of sufferings would preceded the end, the disciples would probably have understood this saying as suggesting that they were already experiencing the sufferings of that time.
—Craig Keener [Professor of Biblical Studies, Asbury Theological Seminary], The IVP Bible Background Commentary (Downers Grove IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), p. 75.], on Matthew 10:35-36.
The word “hate”:
We know that in biblical idiom to hate can mean to love less. When, for example, regulations are laid down in the Old Testament law for a man who has two wives, “one beloved and the other hated” (Deut. 21:15), it is not necessary to suppose that he positively hates the latter wife; all that need be meant is that he loves her less than the other and must be prevented from showing favoritism to the other’s son when he allocates his property among his heirs. The RSV [Revised Standard Version of the Bible] indicates that positive hatred is not intended by speaking of the one wife as “the loved” and the other as “the disliked,” but the Hebrew word used is that which regularly means “hated,” and it is so rendered in the AV [Authorized Version].
That hating in this saying of Jesus means loving less is shown by the parallel saying in Matthew 10:37: “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.” In Matthew’s Gospel these words are followed by the saying about taking up the cross and following Jesus: the implication of this sequence is that giving one’s family second place to the kingdom of God is one way of taking up the cross.”
— F. F. Bruce [late Rylands Professor of biblical criticism and exegesis, University of Manchester, England], The Hard Sayings of Jesus (Downers Grove IL: InterVarsity Press, 1983), p. 120.
By three names is this mount known: The mountain of God, ‘Mount Horeb’ and Mount Sinai... Why ‘The mountain of God’? (Exod. 18:5). Because it was there that God manifested His Godhead. And Sinai? Because [it was on that mount] that God showed that He hates (sane) the angels and loves mankind.
In Hebrew there is a play on words between Sinai and the word for “hate” which is sane’. The footnote in the Soncino edition explains the saying that God hates the angels and loves mankind: “By giving them His Torah, though the angels desired it.—‘Hates’ is not meant literally, but simply implies that He showed greater love for man.”
—Soncino Exodus Rabbah, p. 571, on the midrash Exodus Rabbah 51:8
But these antonyms, ahavah (“love”) and sin’ah (“hate”), are also used with a special flavor in Deuteronomy 21:15-17 as meaning the loved one and the hated, that is, the less-loved one. In Greek, the same Semitisms are carried over in the antonymic use of agapan/misein with the same special flavor in Matthew 6:24 and Luke 16:13 “where, in dependence on Dt. 21:15-17 and Ex. r., 51 they mean ‘to prefer’ (‘to be faithful to’) and ‘to slight’ (‘to despise’). We have here a Hebraism, as in the requirement for discipleship.” This last reference is to the two parallel lists of requirements for discipleship; Matthew 10:37 uses the formula ho philon huper eme, “He who loves... more than me,” while Luke 14:26 simply parallels it by saying kai ou misei “If any one comes to me and does not hate...”
The reference to Esau, father, mother, wife, children, brothers, or sisters is not one of psychological hatred, but one of preference, temporary disregard for higher purposes, and exclusive separation.
In the case of Jacob and Esau, the love of God signaled an election and call for service (“To be a blessing to all the nations”) that had not come to Esau. But Esau was not hated as God held evil in contempt, for Esau was the object of deliverance in the end times in Amos 9:12 and Obadiah 19-21.
—Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. [President Emeritus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts], Toward Old Testament Ethics (Grand Rapids MI: Zondervan, 1983), p. 252. The original Hebrew and Greek fonts have been transliterated on this page for the web.