“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.
Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
Matthew 10:34-39 (NRSV)
It’s always a little awkward when Jesus says things like, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” It seems to run counter to Jesus’ commitments to loving enemies and not hitting them with swords when they come to arrest you in gardens. What is worse, Jesus specifically says that this conflict will turn family members against each other and offers that anyone who loves their family members more than Jesus is not worthy of him.
It’s like some kind of Hard Sayings of Jesus marathon.
As we try to see how all these things fit into the story, the first thing we need to keep in mind is where we’re at in the story. Jesus is warning his disciples about the persecution they will experience as they announce the coming kingdom, forgive sins, and heal. He encourages them to stay the course in spite of their persecution, however, because a terrible judgement is coming against Jerusalem, and their oppressors will fall in that judgement. It will be better to remain faithful and be saved through the judgement than to give up the work and fall in the judgement.
That is the backdrop for these comments – a judgement is about to fall on “institutional” Israel because of what she has become. This judgement is going to take the form of a war with Rome that is not going to end well for Jerusalem.
We have already seen how Jesus incorporates Jeremiah’s warnings to Israel in his own warning, and it happens again in this passage.
There are numerous places where Jeremiah talks about the sword coming to Israel. Jeremiah 12 uses the image in response to the fact that “the shepherds have destroyed my vineyard,” referring to the fact that Israel’s leaders have ruined her. Thus, the sword is coming.
Only a bit later, in Jeremiah 14, the prophet talks about both a sword and famine coming against the land, and he points out that family members will not even be able to bury the slain. This passage is particularly apt because Jeremiah is contrasting himself with the false prophets who are telling everyone that these are days of peace and prosperity.
Another Old Testament prophet who announced a coming judgement upon Israel was Micah, and it is perhaps Micah 7 that Jesus has in mind in this passage, because Micah speaks of family members turning against each other when the day of punishment is at hand.
So, when Jesus says he has not come to bring peace to the land (gen), but a sword, he is not declaring that he has specifically come to start attacking people or instigate family members to start attacking one another. He is announcing to Israel what the prophets have announced before him – God is bringing the sword against Israel, and it is happening in the form in which it historically happens: assault from another nation’s army. Violence and famine and tribulation are not far off, but rather are very near, and Jesus is the harbinger.
The appropriate response from Israel should have been what it always should have been to the true prophets who announced this: repentance and restoration of the nation’s commitments to pursuing justice and returning to the worship of her God. This is what Jesus is going around trying to get people to do, and in response, he announces God’s forgiveness, an end to the curse, and the dawning of the kingdom.
But this is where the conflict comes in that will turn families against each other. Not everyone wants to do this. In fact, many are fine with the way things are and would like it to stay that way. The conflict does not originate between Israel and another nation; the conflict erupts within Israel herself, and it knows no distinction but those who believe Jesus and those who don’t.
As in the days of Micah, the faithful cannot count on their friends and families to be allies now that the day of judgement is at hand. They must look to the Lord for their salvation.
This is what Jesus is telling his disciples now that this situation is about to take hold. He is not telling them that he has come to be violent. Nor is he asking them to examine their passions and make sure that they feel more love for Jesus than they do for their family members. He is telling them what the prophets have always told them – the sword is about to be brought against Israel, and on that day, only those who follow me and my path will be saved. You cannot count on anything else to carry you through that day – not even your own family members and loved ones – and if you do, you will fall in it.
It is this that Jesus sums up for his disciples in the very pithy statement: if you cling to your life, you will lose it. If you give it up for my sake, you will receive it.
When Jesus talks about taking up the cross, it is important to remember that he had not yet been crucified. He may very well have foreseen that as the inevitable conclusion to what he was doing, but when he tells his disciples to take up their cross, their point of reference is not the crucifixion of Jesus; their point of reference was getting killed by Rome. That’s what crosses are for when Jesus is talking to them. Crosses are how Rome executes her political enemies: rebels, criminals, insurrectionists. Crosses are how Rome shows her power over those she has conquered. In our day, we might say, “Get your blindfold and last cigarette, have your last meal, say your last words, and follow me.” Jesus calls his disciples to experience that now. Now, before you go out into the world, holster up your cross and get ready to walk a path that could cost you your life.
The disciples will experience persecution and even martyrdom if they faithfully follow Jesus to the end. But if they do, they will save their lives, and even if they are killed, they will be restored to life by God. But if they are not willing to do this – if they give it all up to go back to their lives as they knew them – they will not survive.
If they believe Jesus’ announcements and do what he says they will survive it and enjoy a new life in the age to come. There is nothing overly spiritual about this. It’s the hard, historical reality that faces Jesus’ disciples in the first century. Stay the course and live, abandon it and die.
Two options, two paths, two kinds of people. It is dire news for all those who are making the most of Israel’s plight, but it is very, very good news for the broken poor who have longed in their hearts for restoration.
- What sorts of upcoming crises do you think the Church faces, today? In that context, what would it mean to remain faithful to God as opposed to giving up the life He has called you to?
- In what ways are we encouraged to think of ourselves as dead in advance? What things are we dead to, and what things have we been given new life to walk in?