Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:
34 “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.35 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—
36 a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’
37 “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. 38 Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.
I don’t think this passage is many people’s favorite. Or at least, it’s not the favorite of many Americans who have been born and raised in the church. We’re used to thinking of Jesus as “the Prince of Peace,” and we remember him saying, “Let the little children come to me.” We’ve got a picture out by our coffee station of Jesus holding a little ‘lamby.’ We like the Jesus who likes kids. Who likes lambs. “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild.”
And then we read this passage. “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Those closest to us may become enemies to us. So it’s not a passage a lot of people have on their living room wall in needlepoint.
Although, now that I think about it, this might be a passage that’s appreciated a lot more by people who have actually faced persecution for their faith. Because those people would at least recognize that what they’ve been through had all been foretold. Those people would at least read this story and know that Jesus had said that those who faced suffering for his name would be judged worthy of his love.
The point of this passage is that Jesus’ message and the movement that grew out of it would be so threatening to some people that his followers might find even their closest relationships disrupted. And of course, the historians say that many or most of the people who heard Jesus speak these words would experience persecution personally. According to church history, in the four decades between the death and resurrection of Jesus and the publication of the Gospel of Matthew, quite a few of the first generation of disciples would be martyred for their faith.
You might also remember that lots of New Testament scholars say that Matthew compiled his gospel specifically for readers who had been raised as Jews, and it was those Jewish believers who faced persecution first. By the time Matthew’s gospel was published, nearly every Christian in Israel and Judea would either have experienced persecution personally, or would have family and friends who had.
Church historians also say that in the first generation of believers, most of those who were persecuted weren’t fed to lions in big spectacles in Rome. Instead, it was more typically a case that they were thrown out of synagogues, or fired from their jobs, or ostracized from their families and friends. Merchants and craftsmen might lose all their customers because the community turned its back on them. So even those who weren’t ‘martyred,’ as we usually think of the term, could still find their way of life devastated.
And as Jesus warns here, it would be members of their own families who would turn against them, and even ‘turn them in’ to the religious authorities as heretics and blasphemers. Religious obedience and national identity were closely linked in the minds of the Hebrew people back then – just as they are today.
(Actually, if you think about how things work even today in Muslim countries when people convert to the Christian faith, that’s probably not far from what would happen to most Jews who became followers of Jesus in that first generation of believers.)
So as we said, for the first readers of the Gospel of Matthew to be reminded that Jesus had predicted exactly the things they were going through would have been something of a comfort to people who could find themselves wondering whether they were doing something wrong. And what’s more, what Jesus says here would probably have reassured them that he knew and appreciated the sacrifices they were making to follow him.
So what about us? What does this passage have to say to followers of Jesus in the 21st century.
For one thing, it says that Jesus expects our relationship with God in him to become our most important allegiance. Obviously this isn’t something that you can just switch at a moment’s notice. You can’t just say, ‘OK, from now on I’m going to love Jesus more than anything – even more than my family and loved ones.’ Human affections don’t work that way.
But if you’re really serious about growing in your faith, following Jesus more and more closely, living in imitation of him and obeying his teachings, over time that commitment will come to transform your other relationships. Even with those you love the most. You’ll come to see your relationships with your spouse, your kids, your parents and your friends through the lens of Jesus. Eventually your kids won’t just be reflections of your own ego, but rather important responsibilities entrusted to you by God – potential disciples of Jesus you’ve been charged with training. Eventually your spouse will be a person you’re charged to both honor and build up for a role in bringing about God’s kingdom. You’ll love others differently because of your love for Jesus.
Like much of Matthew, this passage tells us about the kind of people Jesus is shaping his true followers to be, not about what he expects us to be right now. (Let’s face it, it’s doubtful that anyone in history has actually been ‘worthy of Jesus?’) Our challenge every single day is to open our hearts to that slow, steady transformation Jesus causes in us through the Holy Spirit. That’s when the peace part comes in — the peace of God that passes all understanding. And that’s a peace that can help us face even the most difficult circumstances in the life of faith.
Let’s pray. Lord, by the power of your Holy Spirit, build us up in faith so that we can stand strong even when the forces of the world stand against us. Empower us to serve as witnesses to your love for the others in our lives, and use us to call them closer to yourself. Amen.
Grace and Peace,
(The other readings for today are Psalms 27 and 36; Jeremiah 38:1-13; and I Corinthians 14:26-33.)