There are some passages in the Gospels that are just plain awkward. The first impression of today’s passage from Chapter 10 in the gospel of Matthew is that at the very least this passage hardly fits the traditional artist’s image of Gentle Jesus meek and mild. The puzzle is that the words: “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” seem so very different from Jesus’s words in the Sermon on the Mount.
After Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness and turning the other cheek, surely this not here recorded as an incitement to spread the gospel by violence in some first century equivalent of Jihad.
On the other hand if the passage is more about some real life consequences of standing up for the Gospel message, remembering that this Gospel first appeared some years after Jesus had faced crucifixion, this particular teaching passage would have had real meaning for the early converts. They would have already begun to experience the rejection. What is more, for us too, it is also a timely reminder of how modern prophets and how those who speak up as a public conscience are still likely to be received.
We should feel great sympathy for those early Christians. Converts would have to face their families with the unwelcome news that they were now in effect turning their backs on the confinement of traditional faith, challenging the teaching of powerful religious authorities, and perhaps, even inadvertently making some in the community feel guilty. In so doing the early converts were not exactly setting themselves up for a good reception.
In those first years of the Christian Church, contemporary histories tell of new converts being ostracised, many cast out from family and community, leaders of the new faith being maligned, reputations destroyed and some converts beaten or even killed.
What was it Jesus said? “Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
Relatives will turn against relatives, and friends against friends. Notice this is not so much a declaration of Jesus’ mission, but rather a statement about what will happen for those who join him (and what did happen) –in other words, the backlash.
In the decades following Jesus’ death, as the Christian faith spread, families and communities became divided – sometimes violently. We have local histories, both from Biblical and non-Biblical sources, as to what happened when one member of a family, or one family of a community, became followers of Christ. Because they were taking a radically different approach to life, and an approach informed by their faith, Christians were ostracized, abandoned, rejected and even killed by their families and communities.
All too often, those outraged were family members and former friends – people who had made the decision that the norms of the culture were so important to protect that even close family members would be rejected if they dare questioned traditional views with what the Christians thought was essential gospel teaching.
Given that it is not a phenomenon confined to ancient history, from time to time there is a need for some self reflection. How do we ourselves react when someone close to us advocates tolerance or forgiveness for someone our cultural traditions would normally reject? Could it be that we ourselves join in the rejection of our modern day prophets.
Given that in other places and at other times Jesus taught the principles of forgiveness and peace-making we may well be initially surprised to find him saying “Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” In this instance we might also note that the word being translated as “peace”, here means creating “ order or harmony or acceptance in worldly ways”.
On occasion this particular text about bringing a sword instead of peace has been lifted out of context and used as an excuse for taking up arms against those who rejected Christ.
Although much is made of the early Christians who were martyrs to the faith, it is sometimes (and perhaps conveniently?) forgotten that when Christianity was later adopted as the preferred faith of the Roman Empire with the Emperor’s support, some Church officials interpreted this as compulsory conversion and those reluctant to convert themselves became martyrs. From time to time over the centuries leaders of a variety of State Churches mined such texts to excuse wholesale genocide and also proscribe torture or execution for those daring to set up variations of mainstream faith.
Even today many can find plenty of excuse for rejection of immigrants on the basis of faith differences or in worst case scenarios, taking arms against those who are traditional opponents of Christianity. In practice many modern military incursions, no matter how they are presented, turn out to be hopelessly compromised since target states usually coincidentally have strategic or frankly commercial attractions.
Selling such invasions to a nation’s public sometimes focuses on bad behaviour of self appointed guardians of rival faiths. For example instances of suicide bombers and those who choose to use Sharia law selectively eg honour killings, make it extraordinarily easy for us to demonize our Muslim opponents, yet all too often in practice those who have oil or gas or other natural resources turn out to be disproportionately targeted.
The association between previous foreign incursions and the subsequent suicide bombing is rarely remembered and the notion that somehow the practice of our religion is better than that of our rivals overlooks inconvenient texts which we prefer to overlook such as those when Jesus specifically asked us to treat enemies as neighbours and when he directed his followers not to store up treasures on Earth. This doesn’t somehow match the unequal oil and mineral grab visited on defeated opponents.
I would like to suggest that being true to the teachings of Christ does not include lifting texts out of context. With a little thought we can begin to see why the same Christ who said blessed are the peacemakers is the same Christ who says “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword”. Telling the unvarnished truth is not a recipe for a quiet life. Imagine for a moment the reaction if we were holding our politicians to account and insisting that those attacks on ISIS in Iraq and Syria only be carried out on our behalf, if those doing the bombing took full responsibility for the civilian casualties and were prepared to take full care of the refugees and fund the rebuild of the destroyed cities and towns.
If we think for a moment about divisive issues of recent times, we can see why the message of Jesus will not always bring peace. The role of peacemaker may be good for society as a whole but when the message is taken to those engaged in activities which encourage violence they are unlikely to react well to anyone attempting to change their behaviour. Think for a moment about the policemen who steps into a domestic violence situation to protect a victim. All too often in practice it is common for both the aggressor AND the victim to turn on the policeman.
Peacekeeping forces in a mediating role in a civil war situation are often themselves subject to aggression, and I would have to say from my own observation that the same applies even as far as those attempting peace-making in local Church and family situations.
In this sense even if the warning words from today’s Gospel passage (always assuming they have been accurately reported) namely that Jesus does not come to bring peace but a sword, may have been intended as metaphor, but since we know Jesus’ teaching enraged the self appointed guardians of culture and religion in his own time, those of us less confident that we are following through his directives, have no right to expect more peace that Jesus was offered when we show what his message might mean when interpreted for our own communities.
In this country we saw evidence that this antagonism is close to the surface and when a relatively small number of pacifists tried to challenge this nation’s involvement in both the First and Second World Wars they faced severe backlash at the hands of an angry administration.
In no way does this mean that we should shut our eyes to some future Hitler – but nor should we behave with self interest if there is a moral issue at stake. For example the Holocaust with its wholesale murder of the Jews by the Nazis was indeed an outrage and the six million victims justified a military response. However when our side who were supporters of the war against Hitler are reminded that Stalin, our ally in that war, subsequently killed an estimated 30 million in his acts of genocide, we grow strangely silent.
The start of Matthew chapter 10 begins with Jesus issuing the disciples their challenge to: “proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.” But remember, Jesus also warns them what might happen to them on the way, and in case they are under any misapprehension he tells them to flee to another town when they are persecuted. Jesus reminds the disciples that because the current dominant culture is opposing Him, they should expect no less. In other words they are not above the same treatment that their teacher encounters.
And, lastly, Jesus tells the disciples what they will encounter in families and communities as they deliver the good news. The reaction to the good news of the gospel may not be good news for the messengers. One last time:……..
“Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
I think Jesus’ words might equally apply to us. The modern world offers some values that are not Jesus’ values, and we need to face our own current standards with his alternatives. It is realistic to admit that standing up for Jesus’ values may turn out to be uncomfortable and is unlikely to be trouble free. On the other hand what Jesus offered is a potential way of transforming relationships and bringing love to a loveless world. Now that is a goal worth pursuing.