These last few months have been a difficult test for many families. Parents have exhausted themselves juggling kids while trying to work at home. Partners have had to adjust to each other’s presence 24-7. Grandparents have suffered at a distance in isolation. This has all been a hard-enough adjustment without the loss of so many lives, the anxiety of not knowing when it will end, and the fear that life will never be the same. As a minister, I can tell you what I have seen: Many marriages have been strengthened as people worked together through adversity. Many adult children and their parents have been brought closer, connecting to each other far more than they did in the former normal of life. But where there were cracks, those have sometimes widened. Where there were differences of opinion, frustration has grown. Already, I read this week, lawyers are reporting more requests for divorce conferences, and mental health experts are expressing a worry for seniors left alone during the pandemic, who – for all sorts of reasons – did not have their adult children for support. Family, as we all know, is a complicated unit at the best of times. And these are not the best of times.
Still, when we hear the words of Jesus today, we might understandably be taken aback: why would Jesus want sons to be set apart from fathers, or daughters from mothers? Why would Jesus seek to create foes within our own households? Isn’t this against the gospel, which preaches tolerance and forgiveness? Certainly, it seems to contradict the commandment: honour thy mother and father. What a text for Father’s Day!
To top it off, Jesus adds this line: “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
Who is this Jesus? Is this the same guy who convinced the disciples to come away with him to fish for people? Who coaches Martha with gentleness when she is left to do the dishes while her sister sits at Jesus’s feet? Who humbly heeds the wisdom of the woman at the well? Who masterminded the feeding of the 5,000? Who heals the sick and comforts the dying? Didn’t we call Jesus the Prince of Peace? And now he speaks of bringing a sword?
Of course, it is the same Jesus we are all trying to know. What I find fascinating about this passage in Matthew is that it speaks to the complexity of Jesus. In our desire to know him, we may make the mistake of simplifying his character – as if he were a kind of soft-spoken Mr. Rogers-type who never lost his cool. We may misunderstand his decision not to fight against his own death as a passive choice, when in fact it was done from a position of strength. In truth, most of what Jesus did and said required choosing what was right over what was expected. And that is what he is reminding the disciples – and us – about this morning. The gospel is not a new normal. It is about doing what is right over what is expected. And the choice to be that way is not always peaceful – because too often keeping the peace means allowing injustice to continue.
Let’s think about what it means to honour someone, like a parent. Does it mean that we are quietly to suffer when we are wronged, when they behave badly? Are we to have no boundaries regarding our own actions and choices? To honour does not make us slaves to the wishes of another; it requires us to hear out those wishes, to consider their feelings and try to understand their perspective. In the case of our parents, we may value all they did for us; but we may also decide not to continue their mistakes. Certainly, as a father, I have wished my sons to have inner strength, to know their own minds, and to challenge me when they think I am wrong. That is the process of differentiation. This is how generations move the world forward. It is not always peaceful. Indeed, sometimes it feels as though that younger generation are wielding swords of their own.
Jesus is not wishing strife on families, but he is reminding the disciples that his way is not the easy way, the complacent way. It will make some people angry and uncomfortable, especially those in positions of influence and authority. The gospel is about achieving a new and better normal, and that never happens easily. The example that Jesus gives sounds harsh, but he is telling the disciples that the time for them to be silent is past. He is speaking to a society that had all sort of rules about who fit where, and who got to be in your group – a society not unlike ours today. He is saying that we must address what we know to be wrong, no matter where that wrongness is coming from – even if it is within our very own family.
This is a powerful message from Jesus, and it teaches us a lot about him. We know, from this, that Jesus would not have been one to sit quietly at the dinner table while racist jokes were told, or at a board room table when someone was shamed or put down for being different from the majority sitting around it. This is Jesus yet again telling us that to get peace in a broken world we might have to be mouthy, we might have to march, we certainly will have to speak up.
Of course, Jesus also demonstrated all kinds of ways for that to happen without having to use a sword at all. He accepted people with diverse opinions into his circle, he tried to understand their side of things – but he did not tolerate actions that harmed others. Then he was not silent, even if it set him apart. The gospel this morning is a reminder to us that above our loyalty to those we love, our loyalty to the gospel must come first. This is how a new and better normal comes about.
Jesus says something more, one of his more famous lines: Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. It is in the act of succumbing to the will of the gospel, or being consumed by it, that we are made whole again.
I urge you to go back and read our gospel again this morning, sit with it for a while, and think about how it speaks to you. How can the lessons of the gospel shape your relationships in a better way? How might we all speak up, rather than keeping a peace that only hides the turmoil underneath it? How might we choose to make every life matter, not only those living in our homes?
After all, even before Jesus gets to the tough part, he leads into it gently: Do not be afraid, he tells the disciples, even the hairs of your head are all counted by God. In other words, it is up to us to lose our lives for the gospel’s sake, because God always knows where we are. But to lose ourselves is not to fight for the sake of a fight. We have purpose. To be outspoken with kindness. Fierce with love. Ferociously generous. To use the sharp edge of the gospel to create a new and better normal.