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Jesus was not a pop psychologist

The Readings for Sunday, September 4th, show that Jesus was not concerned with talking about feelings, but with responding rightly to truth.

• Wis 9:13-18b
• Ps 90:3-4, 5-6, 12-13, 14-17
• Phmn 9-10, 12-17
• Lk 14:25-33

I once read a column by a young Catholic who expressed frustration with the saying, “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” She wrote that this seemed to make sense initially but, she added, “I started to wonder why we need to hate at all. Certainly, Jesus didn’t teach that. Jesus was all about love.” She went a step further, saying, “When we start hating, whether it is a person or an action, we stop recognizing the dignity in the other person, which makes it easy to oppress them.”

This seems rather reasonable at first glance. But if Jesus never expressed hate, what are we to do with today’s Gospel, in which Jesus tells the great crowds traveling with him to Jerusalem, “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” As Luke Timothy Johnson notes in his commentary on the Gospel of Luke, “the language here is very strong,” for the Greek word used for hate—misein—“is the opposite of ‘love’ (agapao)…”

How should we understand this blunt and seemingly “unJesus-like” remark? First, we must work to free ourselves from the common understanding of “love” and “hate” as primarily having to do with feelings and raw emotion. When love, for example, is defined as how we feel about someone or something, both love and the object of my “love” are devalued and damaged. How many marriages last when based on a love flowing from strong emotion and romantic euphoria, not rooted in a commitment of will and a mature acceptance of responsibility?

The two terms—love and hate—as used in Luke’s Gospel, “denote attitudes and modes of action,” Johnson explains, “not emotions.” Jesus was not a pop psychologist; he was not concerned with talking about feelings, but with responding rightly to truth. His are strong and hard words, but they are best understood in light of his own actions. Did Jesus love his disciples? The people of Israel? The world? The answer to all three questions is emphatically, “Yes!” And yet his love for the Father was so perfect, complete, and absolute that Jesus, at different times and in various ways, spoke harshly to his disciples, denounced the sins of Israel, and renounced the ways of the world.

And here we find a paradox within a paradox, for while those actions might appear hateful to some, they are the epitome of love, for love always wills the good of the other despite the emotions involved. The man who truly loves God will never despise, mock, or demean his friends or family. But his love for God should be so consuming—so distinct and radical—that his love for other people might seem hateful. When Jesus told Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!”, it appears he is being unfair, even hateful. But his next words are essential: “You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men” (Matt. 16:23). Anything hindering us from loving God is to be renounced; anyone who insists on taking the place of God in our lives must be rebuffed.

This teaching by Jesus builds upon many of his earlier statements. It amplifies, for instance, his remark, “For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?” (Lk. 9:25). And it challenged those following him to consider seriously the hard fact of the Cross. The journey to Jerusalem was a journey toward suffering and death. Everyone on the journey must take up and carry “his own cross,” for only by the Cross do we enter into the Kingdom, the heavenly family of God.

Jesus calls us to reject everything and everyone who would keep us from God. That includes sin, of course; it might also include some friendships and relationships. What may seem like hate to others is evidence that Jesus is indeed all about real and lasting love.

(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the September 5, 2010, issue of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)

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About Carl E. Olson 1200 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.


  1. Thank you for the very insightful perspective on one of the more difficult Gospel passages.

    It seems Jesus was not actually letting me off the hook for the times I fought with my “father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters,” as I have so often thought.

    Who knew?

  2. Semitic hyperbole or Freudian passive aggression? Or was it the unconstrained nature of divine love? A meaningful query by Olson on what Timothy Johnson calls very strong language. Personally ambivalent on the complete meaning, by complete, alluding to layers of depth of meaning in Christ’s words.
    There is a finality in his message. Let the dead bury their dead, said to a young man wanting to first attend to his family. A persuasive give me your all, less will not suffice.

    • Maybe not “semitic hyperbole” and not even what we find in the Greek (“the Greek word used for hate—misein—”is the opposite of ‘love’ (agapao)…”).

      I recall reading, somewhere, that the early Semitic word for hate does not imply the opposite of love, but rather a love of lesser degree. The original meaning, then, is simply one of choosing one’s greater love, not of “hate” toward all else.

      So, yes, (“a finality in His message,” but that is, to “love [both] God, and our neighbor as ourselves [but not in place of God].”

      A problem of double translation, from Aramaic into Greek and then from Greek into the vernacular (e.g., English; also an argument for the fixed clarity of Latin in central parts of the Mass!). In other examples, the case is noticed that the Semitic word for “rib” is the likely same as for “heart” (a much richer meaning), and that the Aramaic word for “camel” is the same as for “rope”, which makes sense when referring to a camel (?) passing through the “eye of a needle”.

      So, maybe it’s less about “Freudian” psychologies lapsing into “emotionalism” than it is about fully integrating persons knowing and willing how to order our many loves in this life. Even including our love for our natural and close family members, as compared to and leavened by (not versus) our highest love for the supernatural and infinitely close (that is, “jealous”) God.

  3. If only I could enjoy such wisdom at most Sunday Mass homilies. My preferred priest is a long distance away, whom I only see occasionally. Most of the time I endure Oprah Winfrey homilies, that is, pop psychology.

    • Let me add that our modernist Church has little else except pop psychology since it has embraced no fault guilt free moral theology and unlimited insults to Christ Crucified in place of remorse for sin. Did I say remorse for sin? Well, we can’t really have remorse for something that we’re taught (by various buffoons) doesn’t exist anymore.

  4. An incisive, challenging article! Our saviour’s walk cannot be emulated, instead admired and appreciated for all eternity. We try and yet, we can not reach the sinless perfection of Jesus!

    The joy is that Jesus not only saves us, he changes us, conforming us into His image. We notice modification in our attitude and walk. The Holy Spirit enlivens disciples, enabling the follower to make progress in understanding, obedience together with blessing others!

    Scripture enables us to see God’s love for us and how monumental was the walk and talk of Jesus.

  5. Grace AND Truth…Lived out together, they are the mark of Divinity, and only God can make them real in our lives. It uniquely authenticates Christianity when understood and experienced.

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