Today’s Gospel seems in stark contrast with some of Jesus’ other sayings in Scripture. What does he mean when he says, “I have come to bring not peace but the sword.” (v.34) What about all the post-resurrection Gospel accounts where “Peace be with you” are the first words noted in his greeting? Didn’t he reject Peter’s use of the sword during his arrest (John 18:11F), in fact, didn’t he repair the High Priest’s servant’s ear?
I always find it helpful to look at the passages before and after the scripture to see if it gives any clues. Just before these verses in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is preparing his disciples for ministry. Chapter 11 begins with Jesus’ opposition from Israel. So, you might say that today’s Gospel is part of the hinge of Matthew’s narrative where Jesus has taught and prepared his disciples for ministry. From here the story takes on a more serious tone as it moves on to opposition (and ultimate betrayal and crucifixion). The “wolves” out in the world to whom they are being sent (Matt 10:10) are mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters as well as in-laws. All immediate family members. Later in chapter 12, Jesus’ mother and brothers wish to speak to him (12:46-50) and we have a famous statement from Jesus, “For whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is my brother, sister, and mother.”
If we take a moment to reflect on the first audience for this Gospel, we know that it was during a time of great upheaval in the lives of Jesus’ followers. Especially, those who converted to Christianity who were thrown out from their synagogues. This would include immediate family members. If we take this approach to these verses today, they make sense. Jesus’ words are words of consolation and preparation in their changing world. Not for the first time am I reminded of the suffering, conflict, and sacrifices made by the early Church founders.
Is this the sword Jesus is referring to? The one Paul speaks about in his Letter to the Hebrews,
“Indeed, the word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart.” (4:12)
The prophet Isaiah in our first reading highlights the difference between the rites and right relationship with God. True authenticity is what God desires. Isaiah, according to scholars, believed that God was ultimately in charge and that he would judge the Israelite people on the merits of their hearts. How well did they “redress the wronged, hear the orphan’s plea and defend the widow? (v.17)
What I hear in all of this is the call to take care of each other. Sadly, our world today is very polarized, and we struggle to hear and see and understand (Isaiah 6:9-10) how and where to act. Are we stuck as a society, unable to see a path forward? How do these readings inform you, and me, and us? While I often feel powerless to make much change for the good, in the meantime, I will offer a cup of cold water to the little ones in the name of the Lord. I will make every effort to receive the one who sent Jesus into this world. (v.42) I take heart and keep up the hope. Even Jesus could not affect the societal changes he desired. Yet, he kept on preaching and teaching until the end. May your will be done on earth. Amen.
Jean Bowler is a retreatant at Mater Dolorosa Passionist Retreat Center in Sierra Madre, California, and a member of the Office of Mission Effectiveness Board of Holy Cross Province.