Not peace but a sword
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace but a sword.”(Matthew 10:34) Another hard and confusing saying from Jesus. Words that most of us do not associate with the Jesus we have come to know and love. And yet speak these words he did and still does so we need to take a deep breath and look closer.
I have come to understand this text, like most, as one we need to approach on multiple levels from multiple perspectives. For now and in this limited space I will reflect from three vantage points.
Firstly we need to consider this saying and its intent from within the prophetic tradition. One of the commentators said that whenever Jesus says something difficult, counter intuitive, he is often quoting or referencing the prophets. And so he is in this situation. Jesus seems to be referring to Micah chapter 7. The prophet Micah is describing a time of confusion and disruption that is the consequence of wrong living as a nation, a people, which precedes the day or age of salvation. Like many prophets he describes the woes that are the fruit of wrongdoing and then describes with hope the compassion of God for the people of God. In chapter 7 Micah says: “ ...The day of their sentinels, of their punishment, has come; now their confusion is at hand. Put no trust in a friend, have no confidence in a loved one ... for the son treats the father with contempt, the daughter rises up against her mother, the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law ... but as for me, I will look to the Lord, I will wait for the God of my salvation.” The chapter then ends with a description of God “... pardoning iniquity and passing over the transgression of the remnant of your possession ... He will again have compassion upon us ...” (Do read the whole chapter for yourself). So from within the prophetic tradition the time or age of salvation comes after a time of confusion and division.
Jesus, according to the witness of Matthew, has just been preaching the nearness of the kingdom of heaven and in effect Jesus is saying to his disciples that the good news of God’s gracious love and way of living has always tended to need the warnings of the prophet first and led to disturbance and division before it has heralded a time of peace and prosperity for the chosen people.
Secondly I want to reflect that Jesus was introducing an even more radically inclusive message about the kingdom than the chosen people were used to (including that they were no longer going to remain the exclusively chosen people). The kingdom of heaven as Jesus talked about it was upside down (just think of the Beatitudes) and back to front. The unimportant were of infinite value and those who thought they were important were going to count themselves lucky to be included at all! St Paul understood that in Jesus Christ that the great divides in that society – Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female – were undone, were cut across, as though by a sword. And family was the great institution that passed on those divides. Jesus seems to have understood that if his message was truly heard and adopted then it would disturb and confuse existing relationships including those in the family as priorities, assumptions and allegiances were all stood on their head by the priorities of the kingdom.
Therefore while not comfortable or easy to live through we can understand that Jesus was warning his disciples – and remember that this warning comes as part of the commissioning speech that Jesus gives his disciples just before they go into the world on their first solo flight – that the good news they brought would not be welcomed easily. That there would be a reaction and push back.
Thirdly I want to reflect on the psychological and spiritual truth of this saying. That is we know from our own lives that disturbance is often part of the growth process. Both of growth and change within and growth and change amongst us. Most of us don’t particularly like it, indeed I’m sure that we often think disturbance is a sign of failure – and so it might be but not automatically. Think of the disturbance in nature – the seeds that are only germinated after fire, or frogs and fish that lay dormant in the dried mud until after the thunderstorm and flash flood that brings water to arid parts, the arrival of much longed for babies that none the less bring disturbance as well as joy. And in the spiritual realm we often feel pain and confusion as things that were once certain fall apart and we think nothing of value will be left of our beliefs and life – until after a little while we look back and our feet are once again firmly on the path with a new or renewed knowledge and faith.
Now I wish that we could just sign up for a nice summer school course on the coming of the kingdom and that I and all the rest of us would whole heartedly understand and live out of the kingdom values. But Jesus seems to have understood that even those who knew him in the flesh, that heard him teach most every day, still struggled to get the message, to give over and up their preconceived ideas and values, and therefore that even his followers (including us) needed the disturbance and disruption of old ways of seeing and being human in order to grasp the new and eternal.
If our ideas and behaviours and preferences are exactly the same as our neighbours then we either have truly amazing neighbours or we haven’t yet fully grasped the gospel. I find that I constantly need to take my own pulse, check my own vitals, and ask myself “is this my white middle class feminist view of life from one little self interested perspective or am I looking with gospel eyes?” The answer is not always obvious but if we think we are always right and curiously everyone else is usually wrong then that’s a pretty good clue that we are not looking at things through the gospel lens of Jesus. Because Jesus is always inviting people to the banquet that we would rather not sit next to!
Jesus finishes this portion of his teaching with the words: “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Those who give up the convenience and safety of our way of seeing and being – our self assured life – may just find our truest life, our life in Christ. The process will almost certainly be disruptive and disturbing – many time over for it is not a once only process for most of us – but it might just be how we find our true life.
Take courage, do not be afraid, Jesus the Christ has gone before us and will companion us.