Taking Up the Sword of Justice
based on Mat 10:24-39
by Rev. Frank Schaefer
Surely, Jesus words take us by surprise this morning, when he says: "Do
not think I have come to bring peace on earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a
sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother . .
. and our enemies will be members of our own household."
Whoa! This does not make for a good passage for Sunday school, does it? Don't these
words of Jesus stand in direct opposition to some of his other words, like: "blessed
are the peace-makers for they shall be called children of God?"
Just a couple of weeks ago in our Sunday school lesson, we talked about the passage
where it says: "if you approach the altar and you remember that a brother has
something against you, go first and make peace with him, and then come and bring your
sacrifices?" So, what about that, what about trying to resolve our conflicts in
a civilized manner? What about being mediators?
In order to resolve this seeming paradox, we need to understand the historic background
of Matthew's community. It seems likely that this controversial saying by Jesus
was included in the Matthean community because a conversion to Christianity
meant that you faced severe persecution, and often at the hands of family
Religious persecution and even extreme punishments are a sad fact even in our
modern world, not just in theocratic nations like Iran, but in democratic
nations like the United States (who boast religious freedom). In some
countries, if you confess faith in Jesus Christ, you will be disinherited,
thrown out, shunned by your family, your community. I was surprised to hear
recently that apparently more Christians have died on account of their faith in this century
than during all previous centuries combined. By the same token, if you confess
faith in Islam in the United States, you may be subject to profiling,
persecution and even incarceration as Islamophobia is growing. In the United
States Homophobia, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism top the list of motivations
for hate crimes. Sadly, religious persecution is far from irrelevant in this day
So how exactly would these belligerent words of Jesus have given
encouragement to the persecuted Matthean community?
For one thing, persecuted Christians, especially those whose family turned
against them would have taken comfort in the fact that their situation was
normal, to be expected. Our modern ears are weary of such a scenario as it has
cultish overtones. We've all heard of cults turning people against their own
family members. And we are aware of the techniques cults use to give legitimacy
to their actions, including the use of Scripture verses just like this
However, some research suggests that the early Christian communities overall
were not self-serving (like cults typically are), but rather constituted a
community that offered not only spiritual benefits, but also social welfare.
Sociologist Faherty put it like this in a relatively
recent article: "Recognizing that Christians were not unique in
their insistence on charity for the less fortunate, Jones (1964)
proposes, however, that they did set a new, higher, standard than
their Greek, Roman and Jewish counterparts
by contributing substantially more resources. (Faherty,
Another scholar writes:
At a time of inflation, the Christians invested
large sums of liquid capital in people; at a time of increased
brutality, the courage of Christian martyrs was impressive; during
public emergencies such as plague or rioting, the Christian clergy
were shown to be the only united group in the town, able to look
after the burial of the dead and to organize food supplies. (Brown
So, let's assume that these new Christian converts were not being taken
advantage of by the early Christian community, but rather helped. In that case,
it is understandable how these words by Jesus would have comforted and
I think it it important to point out that when Jesus is talking about
bringing a sword rather than peace, he is speaking from the vantage point of his
own situation. At the beginning of this teaching, he points to his own
experience of persecution, then warning that the same is likely to happen to
those who follow him:: "If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul,
how much more will they malign those of his household!"
The sword clearly stands in contrast to peace, that much is clear from Jesus'
own words, however, the "sword" may best be understood metaphorically.
There is ample reason to believe that the sword Jesus was talking about is
God's Justice. Why was Jesus criticized by the religious leaders? Because he
healed people? Because he fed the poor? Not likely. The sword he brought was the
work he did in exposing the injustice inherent in the Jewish religious society
which was centered around enforcing the Purity Laws rather than showing
compassion and mercy for the poor, sick and marginalized. Jesus opposed a
corrupted and sick system and, as a result, was perceived as threatening the
And in this way, Jesus' words are still relevant for us today: we, too need
to confront the injustices of our society and the injustices inherent in our
religious communities. As long as people are being profiled and persecuted under
the umbrella of "Religious Freedom" there cannot be true peace.
We are called to take up the fight for those who are marginalized and
discriminated against. Jesus did not idly stand by when beloved children
of God were harmed (often in the name of religion) and neither should we.
We can take comfort in the fact that Jesus went before us. Jesus has personally
experienced how even his own family members turned against him.
I experienced that when I stood by my children who came out as gay. Some of
my closest family members (being members of a conservative church) initially
condemned my children's "lifestyle" and we ended up on limited speaking terms. I
thank God that all of my family members came around, and I realize how fortunate
(and rare?) this is.
The bottom line is, when it comes to justice, we are not supposed to be
silent. We are supposed to follow in our Lord's footsteps who was belligerent
when it came to speaking for the rights and for the acceptance of those who were
persecuted and marginalized.
So, take courage and pick up the sword whenever you see injustice done. This
month is gay pride month and I am sure there are plenty of opportunities for us
to speak up against the discrimination that's happening in our churches in the
name of God's love, grace and justice. Amen.