To say that this passage from the gospels is a challenging piece would be putting it mildly. Practically every verse has some sort of challenge to our easy life. If we see ourselves as followers of Jesus, we will be called nasty names, we must shout truth from the rooftops, we are to be threatened bodily, we will have our families separated, we are called to take up a cross, and told to lose our lives. To be sure there are plenty of reassurances, phrases that ring down the ages such as all sparrows falling to the ground being seen by God, and all the hairs on our head being counted. I have to say that even these are difficult enough, set in the context of suffering and hardship that they imply. Going back to the earlier story, we are all Hagar and Ishmael – God hears us in our hardship. But in following Jesus, we are called to hardship.
Of course, the gospel of Matthew was written at a time where Jesus’ contemporary followers knew about suffering, doubly so. Scholars believe that Matthew was written after the fall of the temple at Jerusalem, to Jewish followers of Jesus living in exile in Antioch, who in recent years had seen terrible things. But not only were they Jewish, as followers of Jesus they were cut off from the mainstream of Jewish thought and increasingly persecuted by their own people. So talk of not fearing those who could kill the body was a reasonable fear.
And they knew about division, about being families being torn apart. Because to me the toughest thing in this passage isn’t just the challenge of being a disciple – ok, yes that’s a pretty big challenge. But the stuff about division is hard. For me, I’ve spent a lifetime as a pacifist, and dedicated to reconciliation, and to hear from Jesus that he’s come not to bring peace but a sword – that’s a tough message.
And at first sight it feels uncharacteristic. Isn’t this the Jesus who walked through Galilee in his sandals telling people to love their enemies, to turn the other cheek, to forgive seventy-seven times, and that love of neighbour was equivalent to love of God? And isn’t this the Jesus who willingly wen to his death on a cross rather than fighting against the state, who forbade his disciples to lift a sword in his defence? Well yes, it’s that Jesus. But it’s also the Jesus who stood up against the state, who taught his followers ways of resistance, who parodied and undermined Roman power and temple power – and it’s the Jesus who faced with injustice in the temple, threw down the tables of the moneylenders. Yes he was a man of peace. But gentle Jesus meek and mild he most certainly was not.
|Image: James Tissot, Cleansing of the Temple|
But a sword is perhaps an unhelpful image. Jesus doesn’t bring something that does violence, he brings something that splits apart those who need to be divided. The Message bible puts these verses like this: “Don’t think I’ve come to make life cozy. I’ve come to cut—make a sharp knife-cut between son and father, daughter and mother, bride and mother-in-law”. And John Bell of the Iona Community builds on this same idea: “The word and person of Jesus are a sword intended to cut through the lies with which we comfort ourselves and to reveal the truth we avoid at our peril”.
These knife-cuts which reveal the truth are hard. Followers of Jesus throughout history who have stood up to injustice, and sought to bring about the kingdom of God, have experienced the divisions which come to their lives as a result. They have challenged injustice, worked for peace, put themselves on the side of the poor and the oppressed. And they have suffered for it, sometimes at the hands of families who rejected them, sometimes at the hands of the governments and systems which they challenged, sometimes alas at the hands of the church which should have known better.
Two people in the past century who experiences were well-known wrote about their struggle through the lens of this very passage: Martin Luther King and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
To start with Dr King. On the night before he was on trial in Kentucky in 1956 as part of the segregated bus boycott, he preached a sermon under the title “When peace becomes obnoxious”, about a case at the University of Alabama who had admitted their first black student. She was attacked and threatened in multiple ways, and eventually the university asked her to leave again for her own safety. The local paper printed a headline that “There is peace on the campus of the University of Alabama”. We know the falseness of this kind of peace. It’s the sort of the so-called peace that occurs when people are pushed down and too afraid to respond. It’s the peace of the Roman Empire, the Pax Romana, that happened because anyone who stood out would be crucified. We see this false peace today in all sorts of places around the world. It’s that sort of peace that Jesus came to bring a sword to cut against. Dr King put it in his wonderful eloquent way:
In a very profound passage which has been often misunderstood, Jesus utters this: He says, “Think not that I am come to bring peace. I come not to bring peace but a sword.” Certainly, He is not saying that He comes not to bring peace in the higher sense. What He is saying is: “I come not to bring this peace of escapism, this peace that fails to confront the real issues of life, the peace that makes for stagnant complacency.” Then He says, “I come to bring a sword” not a physical sword. Whenever I come, a conflict is precipitated between the old and the new, between justice and injustice, between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. I come to declare war over injustice. I come to declare war on evil. Peace is not merely the absence of some negative force–war, tension, confusion, but it is the presence of some positive force–justice, goodwill, the power of the kingdom of God.Something of the same spirit ran through the life and witness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who resisted Nazi dictatorship and genocide during the 1930s and 1940s, from a strongly-grounded theological position of discipleship, and despite the willingness of many others in the German churches to support the Nazis. Bonhoeffer’s theology as well as his founding with others of the Confessing Church were very influential during the Nazi period, and in the decades since; and of course he was executed as part of his resistance. He knew well about discipleship – one of his books is entitled The Cost of Discipleship and he wrote much about the subject. He was firmly of the view that a Christian must be engaged with justice in the secular world. Some of his most vivid writing was composed while in prison before his eventual execution for his part in a plot to kill Hitler (though he himself committed no acts of violence). Bonhoeffer also wrote about this part of the gospel of Matthew, as follows:
The peace of Jesus Christ is the cross. The cross is God’s sword on this earth. It creates division. The son against the father, the daughter against the mother, the household against its head, and all that for the sake of God’s kingdom and its peace – that is the work of Christ on earth! No wonder the world accuses him, who brought the love of God to the people, of hatred toward human beings! Who dares to speak about a father’s love and a mother’s love to a son or daughter in such a way, if not either the destroyer of all life or the creator of a new life? God’s love for the people brings the cross and discipleship, but these, in turn mean life and resurrection.King and Bonhoeffer are just two names of those who have followed Christ’s words to live out the gospel in a way and be his disciple, and if it causes division, that is what will happen. Many other names, some famous and some less known, could be mentioned. But what of the impact for us? How does this affect us?
I believe that whenever Jesus speaks in the gospels to his disciples, he speaks to all of us who continue to follow him, who seek to bring about the kingdom of God. He is very clear – in chapter 25 of Mathew’s gospel – if we see others hungry or thirsty or strangers or unclothed or in prison, and do not help them, then we will be rejected. Sometimes division is inevitable, if we are to speak as Jesus did for the downtrodden and the oppressed.
There are plenty of places in our world where oppression happens. To return to the subject of refugees, the way they have been treated and made unwelcome by country after country, including our own, is simply shameful. Then there are people in this country who are treated shockingly by society - those who are homeless, who are forced towards food banks, who receive benefit sanctions, who are disabled and see their benefits cut, and many more. To speak up for these people might be called political, though it may or may not be in the service of a particular political party. And politics causes its own divisions. But to speak the truth of the gospel of hope, whatever its cost, is the nature of discipleship.
We might also be called to speak this truth in our everyday lives. At work, many of us encounter issues of injustice at a big or small scale – standing up to it can be really difficult and might cause division and get us trouble with colleagues or management. And yet this may be the right thing as a form of discipleship. In personal lives, arguing that your family or friends should do what you see as the right thing can cause division. And in church lives, standing up for your understanding of the gospel causes division. Yet in all these cases Jesus commands us to hear things whispered and to proclaim them from the rooftops; and he promises us that even the hairs of our head are counted, and everything we do is watched over by a loving God.
To close, I want to return to peace, and to read a poem by the hymn writer Brian Wren. He wrote:
Say ‘no’ to peaceMay we all be given strength to follow this kind of peace, whatever its cost, as disciples of Jesus. Amen.
If what they mean by peace
Is the quiet misery of hunger
The frozen stillness of fear
The silence of broken spirits
The unborn hopes of the oppressed.
Tell them that peace
Is the shouting of children at play
The babble of tongues set free
The thunder of dancing feet
And a father’s voice singing.
Say ‘no’ to peace
If what they mean by peace
Is a rampart of gleaming missiles
The arming of distant wars
Money at ease in its castle
And grateful poor at the gate.
Tell them that peace
Is the hauling down of flags
The forging of guns into ploughs
The giving of fields to the landless
And hunger a fading dream.