"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)
It is interesting how we humans so easily put people we adore on a pedestal. We see them as so good, so kind, so perfect, that it becomes hard for us to see any room to grow, no room to gain new insights, no room to progress in the way of peace. When we do this, though, we in truth rob them of their humanity. We take their humanness from them. We make a caricature of them – the perfect man or woman, one who can do no wrong or say something that indicated room for growth.
This is especially true when it comes to religious figures. We declare people saints. Superhuman. We forget to see persons, persons full of complexity with a mix of emotions throughout time. We forget they are more like us than not. In their life they too progressed and matured and got better.
This applies even to Jesus. Like God pictured in the Old Testament, Jesus was influenced by the context and the people around him. He could gain new insight, ponder things, and even change his mind.
I think this is one way to make sense of Jesus’ words in Matthew 10:34 when he says, “I have not come to bring peace but a sword.” Jesus says these words at the very beginning of his ministry. Just a few verse early, in Matthew 10, vs. 1 and 2, Jesus is choosing his 12 disciples. Jesus is just finding his way.
By the time, Matthew 26 comes around, 3 and a half years later, something has changed in Jesus. The same man who said I have come bringing a sword in Matthew 10, now says in Matthew 26:52, “put the sword away. He who lives by the sword shall die by the sword.”
He says this to his closest disciple Peter after he drew his sword and struck the ear of a soldier. Somewhere along the road, between Matthew 10 and Matthew 26, Jesus chose the path of unequivocal nonviolence and put away even talk of weapons or violence.
This recalls Dr. King. Early in his leadership of the Civil Rights Movement, during the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1956, he had guards with guns standing watch in front of his house. But just a few years later after he committed to the path of nonviolence as taught by Gandhi, he had his guards put their guns away.
Jesus seemingly changing his mind also recalls the famous Noah and the Ark story. God went from globally wiping out a world of sinners to promising never to take such drastic and destructive measures again, implying that he regretted such actions.
So there is hope for all of us. It is never too late to gain new insights, ponder things, and experience a change of heart. It is never too late for us to grow into the path of peace.
There’s another way to look at Matthew 10:34 that also can teach us.
When Jesus says I’ve come not to bring peace, Jesus is talking about a specific kind of peace. The kind of peace Jesus says he’s not about, the peace that Jesus says he has not come to bring, is a shallow peace. The peace Jesus could do without was a peace that is simply an absence of conflict.
There are, however, some wrongs in life that make conflict unavoidable. There are some wrongs we must confront, wielding the sword of love. Only by confronting these wrongs can true peace ever be realized in a deep way.
And Jesus is referring to such a wrong in Matthew 10. It is a systemic wrong. The wrong of social inequality and rigid hierarchy where the respected and powerful are way up high secure and comfortable and everyone is well below them unprotected and struggling. A peace built on this, where the powerful maintain a fake peace through fear and intimidation and by pulling the strings of power, this is not the kind of peace Jesus is about or has come to offer. Jesus wants a peace based in justice, equality, and fairness. Jesus called for an egalitarian peace –based in equality – not one based in power. The peace Jesus wants is one built on a social equilibrium where the poor and the weak are lifted up and the rich and the powerful are brought to a more even plain. An unjust peace is no peace at all for Jesus.
But we can also apply Jesus avoidance of quick and easy peace to inner peace. Inner peace – we all want it. It is certainly something we should strive for. However, what if getting at true peace means first confronting some things in our life? What if getting to inner peace requires doing inner battle with our anger, our sadness, our prejudices, our attachments, our hatreds? What if inner peace involves taking the sword of love and felling all the obstacles holding us back?
Yes, sometimes we need to be gentle on ourselves. Sometimes we need to forgive ourselves and look past certain things in ourselves. Sometimes we need to focus on the kingdom of God within us. But not at the expense of staying stuck or ignoring reality. Confronting negative habits, a paralyzing past, destructive tendencies, our social wrongs we are unconsciously part of -- sometimes this is a necessary step to finding real and lasting inner peace. Sometimes internal struggle is part of the process to realizing internal peace.
That is what I think Jesus is trying to say to us by his still very provocative and Jesus counter-intuitive statement. Without the strenuous internal work, peace is an illusion and not worthy of being brought.
For I have come to turn
'a man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—
a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’
Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me." - (Matthew 10:35-38)
Jesus’ take on the family in Matthew 10 seems from an initial reading as rather harsh, doesn’t it? Remember hearing a lot about family values in our politics? Interestingly, you don’t hear as much about it anymore. I wonder why?But Jesus seems to be dismissing family values. In fact, he seems to be condemning family values. He seems out to destroy families. In the least, he seems out to divide families. What is this about?
Well, let’s look a little deeper at what Jesus is really criticizing. It’s something he criticizes a lot in the gospels.
Do you all know what a pyramid scheme is? Basically, it is an illegal but common business scheme where there is one guy at the top who is in control and wealthy. This guy gets people to sell something of his and he takes a big portion of the money they sell. More levels of people selling things follow with the money flowing up through all those above and a lot into the big guy at the tops pocket. It is sort of trickle-down economics in reverse. Most of the money made at the bottom levels through the sale of a product, that money trickles back up, filling the coffers of those above.
This kind of pyramid scheme, but on a society scale, is everywhere in Jesus’ time.
The result is rigid, institutionalized hierarchy. This hierarchy that society’s pyramid scheme has built, it means a huge divide between those at the top and those below. The Big Man is at the top, there is a clear line between the top and the levels below. And whatever power, wealth or betterment there is to be had, a big portion goes to the top.
This structure applies even to the family in Ancient Palestine. In fact, it starts in the family of Jesus’ time. The father ruled the roost. It was a heavily patriarchal society. The father was the king in the family. The mother was well below, followed just a little bit in the order of things by the oldest son. Younger sons follow, then the oldest sister, then younger sisters. At the very bottom are daughter-in-laws, beginning with the one who marries the oldest son and lives with the immediate family.
And Jesus does not like this set-up one bit! He deplores it, in fact. This is the style of family Jesus is referring to in Matthew 10. It was basically a family pyramid scheme. He hated all pyramid schemes even though they defined how things were in his society. He hated this set-up so much that he wanted to topple it, turn things on their head, upend the pyramid. And he calls on his disciples to join him in toppling, in this upending.
Jesus talks over and over again about a new paradigm. One to replace the pyramid schemes everywhere. The new paradigm of the Kingdom of God.
This new paradigm begins with God as Father not above us but with us.
The Father God Jesus shows us is unlike the fathers defined by his culture. In fact, the Father God Jesus shows us is countercultural. This Father God possessed motherly qualities. This Father God, according to Jesus, was as feminine as he was masculine by his culture’s standards. This was revolutionary to those listening to Jesus. It is no wonder the religious authorities were shocked and offended. The way Jesus referred to God as Father and as a father that was so motherly, it was a shock to the religious system.
What’s more, this God comes down to the lowest levels of society and lifts-up the lowest, the least, and last. This God comes down to earth to topple and crush the pyramids everywhere. Crush the pyramids into a road leading to the Kingdom of God, a kingdom marked by equality among all, by justice for all and compassion toward all.
This toppling Jesus calls for must happen from top to bottom. This toppling means the traditional family system is upended. The traditional family system, based on rigid hierarchy and a pyramid scheme like approach, Jesus has come to turn this kind of family on its head.
The aim of this upending is that love itself becomes the center of the home. The aim is family life built on the equilibrium and equalizer of Love. In this new paradigm, Father-Mother comes down to the children’s level and collaborates to create a new way. Children are no longer obliged to adorn the patriarch with honor and respect but instead look to the reality of a loving relationship with their parents for meaning and purpose, and out of relationship honor and respect naturally comes. Mother-in-law and daughter-in-law join hands and throw the letter of the law away for the spirit of Love.
Jesus envisions a beloved community, beginning with a new way of doing family and moving outward, a beloved community where all meet at the center of Love, where God equalizes and evens out all disparities and divisions, where authority is shared and collaboration is a way of life, even between parent and children.
I close with maybe the most difficult verses of Matthew 10, vs. 37-38, where Jesus says if you love your parents or your children more than me, you are not worthy of me.
The love Jesus wants, the one he wants his disciples to have toward their parents and toward him, their teacher, is not a sentimental, attachment sort of love. The kind of love Jesus wants us to show is the love that God shows. Jesus wants us to love others, including our parents or our children, with the same love that God loves us with. The Love that God loves us with is known as Agape Love. It is an eternal, unconditional love, the profoundest love marked by grace and forgiveness, by tenderness and tenacity. It is a love that knows no greater or lesser, no more or less. It is a love that knows no boundaries. If we love our parents and our children with this love and we love Jesus with this kind of love, it is the same love.
So with Agape love there is no loving anyone more than another. With Agape love, there is no loving father or child more than loving our teacher. Love for parent or child, if a godly love, partakes of the same love shown for Christ or for God. There is just one love and the loving another with this one love. That is the goal a disciple of Jesus should have and seek after, a love that makes real equality, justice, and compassion. Will such a love ever be perfected in us? Not in this life. Will we naturally love our parents and especially our children more than we love an abstract idea of God? Of course. But know this: the journey of loving one another with the one Love of God, that is the singular destination. The better we love our parents and our children, the better we love God. For there is One Love and it works through all the universe and in our loving of another.