By Sr. Constance Joanna, SSJD
The passage from St. Matthew’s gospel which Sr. Stella has just read is, on the surface, puzzling. Jesus tells his disciples to expect not peace but war. He tells them that members of a family will be set against one another, that those who care more for their father and mother than for the Lord is not worthy of the Lord. How can Jesus, whom we call the Prince of Peace, send out his disciples with instructions that they must expect conflict instead of peace, family strife instead of harmony?
In order to understand this passage, it is important to realize that it is taken from a longer conversation Jesus had with his disciples, and we need to look at that longer passage, the tenth chapter of Matthew’s gospel, which tells us how Jesus called the first twelve disciples, and the instructions he gave them before he sent them out to preach the good news.
Matthew tells us, at the beginning of this chapter, “Jesus called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to cast out unclean spirits and to cure every kind of ailment and disease.” Then Matthew gives us the names of the twelve: Simon Peter, his brother Andrew, James and his brother John, Philip and Bartholomew, Thomas and Matthew, James, Thaddaeus, Simon, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed Jesus.
So the beginning of this chapter is about Jesus’ commissioning of the disciples. What does commissioning mean? It means giving someone the authority to go out and speak in the name of the one who does the commissioning. Jesus is giving the disciples the authority to go out and speak in his name, and with his divine power and authority to heal those who are sick in mind or body.
Then he goes on to teach them what to expect when they go out, and how to behave in the circumstances they will encounter. He says, don’t take any money or extra clothes with you. In each town you go into, ask some worthy citizen to provide you a place to live and food to eat, in exchange for the preaching you will do. He tells them to be on guard against evil, to be “wise as serpents yet innocent as doves.” Expect to be arrested, he tells them. Expect to be misunderstood. Expect persecution.
But also expect that I will be with you. I will give you the words you need to speak. I will give you courage to stand before evil. I will preserve your soul even if your body is destroyed.
Acknowledge me, speak for me, Jesus tells his disciples, and I will speak for you. After all, he says, even a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without my Father caring for them, and you are worth more than many sparrows, so do not be afraid.
And now we begin to see the context for this morning’s reading. After Jesus has commissioned his disciples to go out, after he has told them to expect a difficult time, and after he has encouraged them to stand by with courage and faith, then he sums up the conditions under which the disciples will be doing their missionary work:
“I have not come to bring peace to the earth but a sword. I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.” What Jesus is telling the disciples is that even the highest values we esteem in our culture are worth little compared to the value of knowing Jesus. God is the origin of all the good values we hold. And yet God, the creator, must always be more important than the creation.
No matter how much we value peace, it is a weak and flabby peace if we win it by ignoring the truth.
If we have someone in the family who is in trouble, if we are in an ethical conflict at work, or if we have a conflict with friends because of serious disagreement on principles, we have a tendency to want to ignore the conflict for the sake of “keeping the peace.”
But real peace will never come without truth. We may have to confront an addict with harsh truth before that person can turn down the road toward healing. We may come into conflict with family values because God may call us to some form of ministry that our families don’t approve of or are afraid of. We may have to confront our children, or our boss, or even our priest or pastor, with the fact that some behaviour of theirs is destructive.
In cases like that, we may not be popular. But keeping the peace in order to promote a false harmony in a group or family is not worthy of our commitment to Christ and his commissioning of us to go out and love and serve in his name.
There is a hymn in the American Episcopal hymn book that expresses this truth very well. It’s called “They Cast Their Nets,” and it is about Jesus’ disciples and this very passage that Sr. Stella just read:
They cast their nets in Galilee,
Just off the hills of brown.
Such happy, peaceful fisherfolk
Before the Lord came down.
Contented, peaceful fishermen
Before they ever knew
The peace of God that filled their hearts
Brimful, and broke them too.
Young John, who trimmed the flapping sail,
Homeless, in Patmos died.
Peter, who hauled the teeming net,
Headdown was crucified.
The peace of God, it is no peace,
But strife closed in the sod,
Yet let us pray for just one thing,
The marvellous peace of God.
The real peace of God will come only when we are following the road we know God wants us on, only when we have the courage to stand up for what we believe in, even when it results in conflict at work or home or in our nation.
It is very tempting, at this point, to say something about acts of destruction and violence that seem totally unnecessary, like yesterday’s attack on Iraq by the United States. I will resist the temptation because none of us knows the whole story. One thing I am sure about, though, is that love, and not violence, is Jesus’ way. He resisted evil, and he made many people angry–angry enough to betray and kill him. But he did not strike back at his enemies, and therefore he died on a cross.
Many heros of justice and peace in our day have followed Jesus’ example, resisting evil honestly and courageously, but without violent attacks on their enemies.
If Jesus had not been willing to die on the cross, where would we be today? If courageous people like Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Tutu had not resisted the evil of apartheid in South Africa, if Martin Luther King had not resisted the evil of segregation in the United States; if Ghandi had not resisted the evil of colonialism in India, if Ovid Mercredi and other native leaders had not resisted the injustice done to the native peoples of Canada–what good would peace have been?
Men and women are resisting evil all over the world today. Without their courage, their reliance on the strength of God, and their willingness to put truth before an easy peace, we would all be less human. Thanks be to God for those who take up their cross and follow their Lord! Blessed be the real peacemakers–not those who avoid conflict out of fear, but those who face it and confront it with the gentleness and love of God. They are the ones who can bring healing and ultimate peace to the world we live in.