Editor’s note: Throughout the month of May we will explore hard/weird/confusing/hilarious passages or verses in the Bible and try to make sense of them (or try to model how you make sense of them) to better understand God and the stories contained in scripture.
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
Matthew 10 is an interesting read. I’ve always felt that Jesus comes across as…a bit standoffish in the text. He is gathering his disciples together to kick off their earthly ministry, and the Son of God is not short on instructions. In fact, the first half of the chapter is chock-full of them: Stay away from Gentiles and Samaritans. Don’t take bribes. Shake the dust off your feet at any house you don’t deem worthy of staying in. I wonder if the disciples were glancing around at each other like I imagine I would have, all rolled eyes and mutters of “Who brought the jerk?” or “Gah, JC! Lighten up!”
This is the problem of reading the Bible without context or commentary, which I’m sad to say is the way I tackled it for most of my life. Yes, I was one of those “close my eyes, open the book to a random page, point to that page, and that’s the verse for the day.” Geez. Would we approach any other influential work of literature this way? I mean, would Dostoevsky experts put up with that crap? Would Tolstoy fanatics dare display such willful ignorance?
So many people sustain negative feelings about the Bible by citing (admittedly) weird-ass verses that sound–at best–unusual on their own and–at worst–well, take your pick: xenophobic. Pro-slavery. Intolerant. Anti-woman. Don’t worry, I’m not planning to take all that on with one post. But suffice it to say that context matters, and cherry-picking random lines out of a book full of verses doesn’t do any of us favors. To wit, the people who read 1 Corinthians 10:13 as “God will never give you more than you can handle” are just as wrong as the people saying God supports polygamy. As believers in the Bible as the Word of God, we could all be approaching it with more intellectual honesty.
So let’s hash out this verse, Matthew 10:34, when Jesus tells his disciples that he didn’t show up to bring peace, but a sword. Specifically, one that can be used against family members, which–depending on the day–I am totally on board with. But in another gospel, Jesus says what sounds like the opposite: that he brings a peace the world doesn’t provide (John 14:27). So what gives? Why does Jesus sound all Old-Testament-y in this section of Matthew, and so kumbaya-at-a-compound in John?
Again and always, context matters. The verses preceding the sword comment, at the beginning of the chapter, are, yes, full of rules. And I don’t know about you, but ever since I got my honorary degree in Grace 101, I prefer my Jesus to be short on rules and long on acceptance. But what he’s telling the disciples in those verses reminds me of things I’ve said to my children for their own protection; those subjects that fall in the non-emergent camp (ie, “don’t play in traffic, dummy”) but that will help them forge their way in the world (consideration, social niceties…”travel light and bring a snack” type of stuff).
Then he moves on to warnings. Despite the serious tone here, I think it an act of great mercy that Jesus gives his closest friends a detailed picture of what they can expect to experience by following him–and it ain’t sunshine and roses. “You’re going to be flogged and persecuted,” he warns before mentioning even death. Given what we know now about all the disciples faced in the aftermath of Jesus’ resurrection, and the type of deaths they experienced, Jesus was telling them the truth: no sugar-coating, no false advertising, no soft sell. Pretty decent of him.
The next passage is one of comfort. Jesus tells his disciples not to be afraid. Again, the parent undertones strike me: he’s just delivered rules, and now he dispenses hope. “They can’t kill your soul. I’ve numbered the hairs on your head.” This is love talking. And good thing, because then we hit the mother lode.
Why, Jesus? Why? Why you gotta talk about pitting people against each other? Why can’t we just pass the Kool-Aid and sing more songs about teaching the world to live in perfect harmony? The one thing I can say is that the deeper I dive into God’s word, the more I can appreciate the layers that exist there: the profound simplicity as well as the beautiful nuance. To me, these verses are consistent with the protection, warnings, and comfort dispensed in the previous verses. Jesus is telling his disciples–and us–that he has come to put a sword through anything in our lives that doesn’t have him as its foundation. Any relationship, any clamoring, any effort on our part to secure peace without him is doomed to fail, because he is peace. He’s the source of all peace. It’s the same reason his Father dispensed 10 laws to Moses hundreds of years before: to provide the framework within which we thrive and experience shalom. Except, now? He is the framework. He is the embodiment of everything we need, everything that amounts to our true fulfillment. And he’s not letting us get away with settling for poor substitutes.
Jesus closes the talk by referring to his disciples as “little ones”–and again, I believe, he speaks to us across the centuries and into the present. We are his beloved. How do we know? Well, because he says so, duh. But also because of a moment a few years later, when he’s hanging from a tree after a wrongful (yet perfectly ordained) sentence. A Roman centurion pierces his side with a sword, and now we know: he brought the sword, but he also chose to be the one to experience it.