On the last Sunday in June I preached a sermon on Matthew 10:24-39. That passage came to my mind again as I read about the events in Charlottesville last weekend. In part of that passage Jesus says the following:
34 “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; 36 and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. 37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38 and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. (NRSV)
Many people would consider this passage one of Jesus’ “difficult” sayings. It makes many of us uncomfortable to hear Jesus talking about a sword and seeming to advocate divisions in families. Some of us prefer a domesticated Jesus who affirms our quiet, respectable lives. But sometimes things happen to shake us and make us realize that “quiet and respectable” really aren’t the most important values to live by, and certainly not the ones that Jesus advocated. Once we realize that, these words from Jesus may still make us feel uncomfortable, but nevertheless we will be able to hear their truth in a new way. How might we hear the truth of these words when we read them in the context of Charlottesville?
Before going further, it is vital to be clear about the fact that Jesus uses the image of the sword in a symbolic fashion. Sometimes people lift verse 34 out of context and use it to argue that Jesus advocated violence. But when we read verse 34 in the context of Matthew’s Gospel as a whole it becomes clear that this cannot be so. Jesus consistently takes a non-violent stance toward his adversaries. He advocates not just love of neighbor but even love of enemies. He blesses the peacemakers. When struck he doesn’t strike back. Jesus was an advocate of peace and wholeness, so his language about the sword here must be symbolic. In fact, when there’s a chance to benefit from the use of an actual, real sword, Jesus will not use it. Near the end of Matthew’s story, when Jesus is arrested, one of his disciples takes a sword and strikes the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. When this happens, Jesus says, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” Jesus knows that violence begets violence in an unending cycle. He maintains nonviolence to the end.
Thousands of years later there are still people following his example. They include Cornel West, Traci Blackmon, and many other counter-protesters in Charlottesville who stood arm-in-arm in the face of violence and hatred, standing resolutely for love and peace, witnessing to the fact that racism and other forms of hatred must be opposed by those who claim to follow Jesus.
Click here to read about some of the clergy present at the Charlottesville protests.
So if the sword in Matthew 10:34 is symbolic, what does it represent? It represents division. This becomes clear in the next verse: “I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; 36 and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.” Jesus is telling us that his message will be so divisive that it will even divide households.
Again, these words can make many of us uncomfortable. Those of us fortunate enough to have generally harmonious family relationships might wonder why Jesus would say such a thing. After all, many of us take a “family first” approach to life. But then events like Charlottesville can shake us awake and remind us that, as important as family is, there are other things even more important. Jesus didn’t hesitate to shock people out of conventional ways of thinking about family (see, for example, Mark 3:31-35 and Luke 9:58-62). For Jesus, the kingdom of God always came first.
Events like Charlottesville can shock us enough to help us see that standing against racism is something more important than family loyalty. For example, in a story widely shared this week, a man named Pearce Tefft publicly denounced his son after his son was identified as one of those taking part in the white nationalist rally. In Pearce’s letter, he stated that his son was no longer welcome at family gatherings and would not be in the future unless he renounces his hateful views. I have no doubt that Pearce Tefft loves his son, even to this day. But he also knows that there are things more important than family ties.
Click here to read NPR’s story about Pearce Tefft.
The Cross and the Kingdom of God
There is a reason that Jesus believed his message would inevitably cause conflict and division. It’s because Jesus’ ministry was first and foremost about announcing the kingdom of God. This phrase in English (“kingdom of God”) is a little misleading, because the word that we usually translate into English as “kingdom” doesn’t mean an area of land or the territory or a king. It refers, rather, to the rule or reign of a king. So the kingdom of God is not a place, but it is the reign or the rule of God. The kingdom of God is not somewhere you travel to, but it is what happens anytime and anywhere God’s will is done and people live in the way that God intends.
This is why Jesus said his message would inevitably cause conflict and division. Because, while the kingdom of God itself is perfectly peaceful, those who live according to it will inevitably have conflict with the powers of this world who do not welcome this reign of God. God’s kingdom challenges our conventional ways of being in the world and threatens human power structures. Those who seek to keep power for themselves and use it for their own benefit and to oppress others are fighting against the kingdom of God, whether they realize it or not. That’s why Jesus was killed by the Roman authorities—his vision of a world ruled by God, filled with equity and true peace, threatened the power of Rome and the false peace Rome enforced through military might.
Some of us have the luxury of going through our daily lives without an awareness of this conflict between the world as it is and God’s vision for what the world should be. But events like Charlottesville remind the complacent among us about what Jesus meant when he said that his followers must take up the cross to follow him.
When Jesus says we must take up the cross, he’s not talking about bearing our personal burdens and hardships. He’s talking about embarking on the path that he walked. And the road Jesus walked in this world and now calls us to walk is not a road that leads to prosperity, but a road that leads to the cross. That is, it leads to death.
For some people this death is quite literal. It was for Heather Heyer, who lost her life as a consequence of making the decision to stand up for what’s right.
Most of us will not face Heather’s fate. But even for those of us who don’t literally lose our lives in this fight, Jesus still tasks us with taking up our cross daily. Every day is another chance to die. That is, for our old self to die, the part of ourselves that is self-centered, power-seeking, and resource-hoarding. Every day is a chance to die to the ways of being in this world that oppose God’s kingdom. And every day is another chance to be reborn into God’s kingdom, to renew our walk on the path Jesus took through this world. The daily renewal of death and resurrection is what enables us to be disciples of Jesus.
The wake-up call of Charlottesville is the reminder that conflict and struggle will be no strangers to us if we wholly dedicate ourselves to the radical message of Jesus and pursue the kingdom of God in this world. It’s not easy to stand for what’s right when others are doing wrong. It’s not easy to give up what we’ve rightfully earned for the sake of others. It’s not easy to stand with the marginalized, those who face discrimination of any kind. It’s painful to fight prejudice within ourselves and costly to fight it in others. It’s not simple to work towards everyone having the food, shelter, healthcare, and education that they need. These are things we will have to fight for, not with literal swords, but with strength, determination, persistence, and sometimes even self-sacrifice.