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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 members.

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 and age.

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 passage.

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,  p. 112)"

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 p. 67)

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 encouraged them.

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 status quo.

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.


Brown, P. (1989). The world of late antiquity. New York: W.W. Norton.

Faherty, Vincent E. (2006). Social Welfare before the Elizabethan Poor Laws:The Early Christian Tradition, AD 33 to 313 in the Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare