Jesus the Divider Part V: When Jesus Doesn't Bring Peace
Remember that time Jesus said, "I haven't come to bring peace but a sword..."
Yeah, weird, isn't it?
Let's talk about it.
(If you need to catch up, here's the rest of series)
Part I - What this series is about. Part II - Who Jesus sent the disciples to and why. Part III - What it was the disciples where sent to do. Part IV - What the disciples could expect on their mission: rejection.
Today we finally arrive at the verses that have stuck in my craw for years.
34 “Don't think that I've come to bring peace to the earth. I haven't come to bring peace but a sword. 35 I've come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.
In my opinion, Jesus was a pacifist. A non-violent resistance fighter.
So saying "I've come to bring a sword," and talking about turning people against each other, feels like a contradiction to the Jesus that is about peace, reconciliation, and bringing people together.
But by now we've discovered that these verses in question do not exist in a vacuum. They come, rather, at the end of a longer entry in Matthew's Gospel where Jesus was sending out his disciples to do some traveling ministry.
Whatever Jesus meant by the whole "sword and not peace" thing must therefore be appropriately placed, applied, and understood within his overall point.
So anyone who wants to argue that Jesus wasn't a pacifist by pointing to this verse ("see, right here! Jesus said he didn't come to bring peace!") is free to do so, as long as they know they are yanking Jesus' words out of context to suit their own agenda.
In these verses, Jesus is expressing his awareness around the reality that the thing he was about--and the thing he was sending his disciples out to do--was inherently a disruptive thing.
Challenging power, exposing injustice, pushing back against long held beliefs,
will absolutely disrupt.
And more often than not disruption leads to division.
It's as though Jesus said, “look, it’s not that we are setting our intention to be disruptive or divisive, that in and of itself is not the goal. But I’m warning you ahead of time that that will be a very possible (if not likely) end result."
Or, as NT Wright put it,
“He didn’t want to bring division within households for the sake of it. But he knew that, if people followed his way, division was bound to follow.”
Jesus was forewarning his friends that this project they were embarking on was going to cause disruption. Their traveling and announcing the Kingdom and performing such liberating deeds would inevitably tear people apart--which would not be described as "peaceful."
Even families will turn on each other: a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter in law against her mother in law.
Because there would those who hear the revolutionary ideas of Jesus, who witness the acts of love and mercy, and decide that they too want to be a part of the Kingdom movement.
But when that happens, inevitably there will be those—even from within their own family and community—who will view it as a betrayal. A betrayal of how they were raised. A betrayal of how things have always been.
Any idea what that is like? Can you relate? Has anyone ever accused you of betraying the family? Turning your back on how you were raised?
What Jesus was saying then (and in my mind, what he still says today) is that his radical (and "progressive") ways of thinking about God and living and loving people will no doubt be too much for some people.
Those who stand to have something to lose, will double down. Those who benefit from the current systems and structures, will not relent easily. Those who have found a certain comfort in how things have always been, will be slow to risk alternatives.
So when Jesus says that he didn't come to bring peace, but rather a sword... and that this sword will even cause people within families to turn on one another... he is attempting to put language to the fact that rejection and ridicule are the inevitable outcomes of "seeking first the justice and the kingdom of God."
Of course Jesus is about peace. But he also knows how disruptive his ideas are.
Of course Jesus is about peace. But he also knows that sometimes peace is not possible.
Of course Jesus wants to bring people together. But he also knows that people can clinch tightly to their beliefs, their rituals, their expectations about how things should be.
Should a sheep attempt to question these things, sometimes the fangs of the wolves will come out.
And so, now when I read these verses from Jesus, about "not coming to bring peace," about "coming to bring a sword" and "turning families against each other," no longer do they challenge or contradict my ideas about Jesus as peace-maker, pacifist, and reconciler.
Instead, they fit right inside the whole range of things to anticipate when you choose to follow Christ.
For this is the Way of Jesus: as you work for peace, as you struggle in your non-violent resistance, as you seek for justice and prioritize those on the margins, disruption is sure to follow.
Next post, I want to talk about the word "divisive."
Have you ever been accused--especially by those from your previous circles of the more conservative christian crowd--of being "divisive?" And this label is used to try and discredit you in some way?
Yeah... we need to talk about that...