Shudders, because in the hands of those who believe that there is such a thing as “plain meaning” much evil can be wrought from it.
I had no desire to tackle this passage myself, but unfortunately apparently I am supposed to, since I read an article in a theological journal this morning on Christian ethics and integrity and authenticity, and, well, this passage simply makes the point so well.
So you see, I really had no choice. I’m learning that being hit over the head once is sufficient, thanks be to God!
If we are to live an ethical life, the writer argues, then consistency is called for. He claims a couple of ways of looking at it. First there is the “purity” paradigm wherein the person claims a dominate value (loving God) and subsumes all of life’s decisions to it. The other is called the integrity paradigm and reflects a coherence among all life’s capacities and needs coming to unity in a richness of existence. ¹
It is a bit technical but what I think the author gets at is the idea that we can become quite rigid under the purity paradigm. We get caught up defining what constitutes proper “love of God” by how ever we interpret that to mean, and by what means we use to determine it. Biblical literalists would obviously see it differently than a social justice progressive.
Along comes Jesus, telling us that:
Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
We are headed for trouble here. The literalist can easily in his “plain meaning” mode, suggest that Jesus here endorses violence to attain the ends he promotes. Certainly those demented souls who shoot doctors who perform abortions, so read the passage. Loving God means upholding their interpretation of what God wants. They must wield the sword.
But as we say again and again, context is everything here. First of all, read the entire chapter. If you do, you will see that Jesus is telling his disciples what they will encounter in spreading the message. He sends them out to do good words and to preach the message of love, hope and repentence. But he warns them that they will not always be met with friendship and welcoming.
The Word is a sword, calling forth extraordinary effort that some are unwilling to make. To these the disciples are admonished to leave those towns “shaking the dust from your sandals.” They are not told to beat unbelievers into submission or to stone them. Hardly are they told to take up sword against them.
No, Jesus, merely reminds them that the Gospel message, though one of hope and joy is also a difficult one to live by, and there are powers who will find it in opposition to their lives of greed and priviledge.
So difficult is this, that entire households will be split between those that will come unto them and those that won’t. They are not to fear, for God is with them and will protect them.
If indeed families split over his teachings, then let it be so. For love of God does comes first, or should. But indeed, remember, it is following Jesus that is the way to show that love of God. And Jesus message is always about healing, forgiveness, love, and hope. There are simply too many references to Jesus’ admonishment of violence as not the “way” to think otherwise.
When Jesus says at the end,
Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
he does not speak, in my opinion of martyrdom so much as he tells us that we only think we have life. Until we are willing to risk all for love and justice and our neighbor, we have no real life, only a shadow ephemeral life. When we are willing to set that aside, and offer our lives fully to other, then we will finally gain our real life in God.
The cross is not suffering on behalf of Jesus or God. Rather it is the willingness to actuate love in all circumstances, regardless of consequences. We find love at the center of all things. We support and congratulate love. We celebrate it in each other without reference to status, gender, orientation, or any other human thing. For God made all to his good desire.
That is the sword–the sword of radical love-that will one day be beat into a plowshare when all bend the knee of the heart and confess that God is where we each and every one of us move and have our being.