There are some statements of Jesus that, on the surface, seem completely out of character. They do not jibe, fit in, or seem consistent with either his spirit or his teaching. As casual readers of the Bible, stumbling onto these passages, we do a kind of intellectual gymnastic which results in our own personal censorship of the New Testament. Not grasping the inherent truth or taking the time to reason, explore, or understand, we skip such passages by making a personal value judgment to the effect that what is written is incomprehensible, unimportant, or was recorded by mistake.
Such a passage is found in the 10th chapter of Matthew, “Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household” (34-36).
In seeking insight to this passage, I referred to every translation of the New Testament I could find. They all read essentially the same except one, The Living Oracles, a 19th century translation, with a preface by Alexander Campbell. Here, 35th verse reads: “For I came to cause dissentions . . .” Surely the translators were justified in this interpretation, for to set one person against another is to create tension which can only end in “dissension.”
In what sense is Jesus expressing his purpose as being deliberately disruptive – this One who, throughout most of his life, avoided and abhorred violence, who stood silent before his accusers and went to the cross without a struggle? How do you explain it? This idea of setting son against father, daughter against mother, how does this fit into his attitude of sanctity of the home, the elevation of the dignity of women – this One who, as he hung on the cross, thought to give instructions for the care of his mother? What means this One, whom we call the Prince of Peace, when he says explicitly he has “not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Is there a deeper meaning than we see on the surface or is this another of those passages that we ought to skip over completely or pass by quickly?
I believe if, in some sense, we have not known the truth of what Jesus is saying, we have either misunderstood our calling as Christians or have not responded fully to his challenge to take up our cross and follow him.
Before I look more closely, let me make it crystal clear I do not believe Jesus was either suggesting or condoning the kind of belligerence or stubbornness or bigotry or prejudice or littleness or jealousy or greed that often sets man against man, and causes dissension and division. I do not believe any one of us can point to this teaching as a Magna Charta for our anti-social, disruptive, irresponsible behavior that ends in the kind of dissension where harm, hurt, and havoc result because we have persisted in our opinionated behavior and activity. This is far too easy an interpretation and one that provides salve for our consciences and strength for our perverse pursuits, to be sure, mistaking our selfish motives for God’s mission is a constant temptation to us all, and one to which we all fail prey from time to time.
Jesus had something else in mind – and we dare not miss it, lest we “save our lives,” only to lose them in the eyes of God.
Let me look at the implication of this teaching for our individual lives. When any one of us is confronted personally with the historical Jesus and the resurrected Christ, our heart, mind, and soul immediately become battlefields for internal struggle and dissension. We may avoid the inner war by immediate rejection of Jesus and his claims. We may delay this battle by indifference, postpone it by shallow response, call a quick truce by compromise. Or we may enter into the struggle of internal dissension until the lordship of Christ displaces our own pride, independence, and self-seeking.
Multitudes of people heard Jesus preach, listened to his teaching and immediately turned their back. Others followed for a while, but ultimately drifted away. So severe was this in Jesus’ own experience he poignantly said to his disciples: “Will you also go away?” Only a handful fought the battle long enough to come out on the other side: their lives wholly dedicated to the lordship of Jesus Christ – no matter what the cost!
What are we saying? Simply this: when Christ is let into any life, he immediately sets our passions of hate against love, selfishness struggling with sacrifice, enmity fighting forgiveness, greed against generosity, vengeance opposed to mercy, anxiety for tomorrow pitted against security for today. It can be no other way! Christ asks for, claims, and requires complete obedience. Obedience to Christ demands death to self.
The poet, Edward Sanford Martin, captured the struggle, in “My Name is Legion,” when he wrote:
Within my earthly temple there’s a crowd;
There’s one of us that’s humble, one
There’s one that’s broken-hearted for his
There’s one that unrepentant sits and
There’s one that loves his neighbor as
And one that cares for naught but fame
From much corroding care I should be
If I could determine which is me.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German minister and theologian who was put to death in a Nazi concentration camp, described the inner battle – when it is won – in this way:
“When a man really gives up trying to make something out of himself – a saint, or a converted sinner, or a churchman (a so-called clerical somebody), a righteous or unrighteous man … when, in the fullness of tasks, questions, successes or ill-hap, experiences and perplexities, a man throws himself into the arms of God, then he wakes with Christ in Gethsemane. That is faith … and it is thus that he becomes a man and a Christian.
If you think you know the complete serenity of surrender to Christ, claim to follow him in total obedience, boast of your absolute truth in him, be careful! For, if you know no prick of conscience, no questioning of thought and action, no sense of needing to quest and search and grow, you may have missed the mark. The presence of Christ in the life of a man sets his passion at war with one another, and there can be no peace until the battle is won. It may not be pleasant – far from it – but it is true. Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
Part 2 next week"