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Not Peace, but a Sword

 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

This passage of scripture is easy to ignore as improbable to have been said by Jesus. Perhaps it was mistranslated. Perhaps a disgruntled biblical scribe with an unhappy home life snuck it into the Bible in one of its later rewritings. As Jesus describes his “sword” in the verses that follow, he says he will set “a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother…and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household” (Matthew 10:35-36). With the blessings a loving, supportive family brings, one would expect Jesus to teach peace within families, not division.

Unfortunately, family life was not typically healthy or beneficial in Jesus’ day, nor is it in many cases today. Two thousand years ago, families were more like tribes or clans, not unlike the gangs of today or the mafia of the last century. Families were isolated community units with one common purpose – the survival of the clan. Their primary loyalty was to the family. I suspect it was because of the exclusivity of families that Jesus drew people out of them and into a larger, more inclusive community. He called his disciples away from their families and livelihoods in order to unite them around a larger common purpose – the Kingdom of God. This calling to an all-inclusive community must have left the disciples feeling vulnerable and insecure, apart from the group they had identified with since birth. Their safety and security could now only be found in God and in each other. We, particularly in the West, have an aversion to the type of communal life Jesus lived, where resources are shared according to need and not necessarily “earned” according to ability.

Today, we criticize gangs for their often-negative impacts on neighborhoods, including violence against others, drug dealing, sex trafficking, and other atrocities some gangs commit. We forget that people join gangs to satisfy a need to be part of something larger than themselves. They seek security and acceptance they cannot find at home, at work, or at school. The realities of certain socio-economic conditions drive people into gangs, and if we wish to positively impact gang culture we must begin by attacking the underlying conditions that create the need for that type of family. Understanding this may help us understand why Jesus called his disciples away from their families.

It is important, and sometimes counter-intuitive, to realize how our families can stunt our growth. From an early age, many of us attempt to imitate our parents and may set a goal to follow in their footsteps. Carrying on the family business or learning the trade of the parent is not necessarily a bad thing. The prejudices of the parents, however, often become the prejudices of the children, and the sins of one generation pass to the next unchallenged unless and until someone steps out and breaks the cycle. I believe Jesus sought to break that cycle, encouraging people to step out of their comfort zones and into a new life. “Your old life may feel secure,” he seems to say, “but I can show you a life that will open whole new realms of possibility.”  He sought to cut us off from the limitations of our past, including its inherited sins, and lead us in a new way. The “sword” of Jesus is not a physical weapon, but a spiritual tool to free us from the old and set us on a new path.

Jesus concludes this difficult passage by saying, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39). I believe the life we will lose, according to Jesus, is the ungrounded and unchallenged life so often followed without question in families, then and now. Because it is a life not grounded in Truth, because it does not put us on a path to the kingdom of God, it cannot last. Jesus calls us to a different family, one that may or may not include others of our household. Prior to our birth, after our death, and especially during our life on earth, we are children of God. Only by our willing consent to let go of the old, traditional ways will we rediscover our natural life in Christ.

This is the 27th in a series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

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