the sword and the Word

the sword and the Word

more on NT metaphors of violence

Matthew 10:34-39:

Don’t think that I came to send peace on the earth. I didn’t come to send peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man at odds against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. A man’s foes will be those of his own household.
He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me isn’t worthy of me. He who doesn’t take his cross and follow after me, isn’t worthy of me. He who finds his life will lose it; and he who loses his life for my sake will find it.

Note that while in this place Jesus says, “I come to bring not peace, but a sword,” the passage cannot be used to justify the way violence often happens in the world, where nations, families and tribes are set against each other.

Numerous other references to a sword in the NT use it as a spiritual metaphor, e.g., “the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God” (Ephesians 6); “the word of God is alive and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12), and of course the references to the vision of the risen Christ in Revelation, where “out of his MOUTH proceeds a sharp two-edged sword.”

There were those, then, in the first generation after Jesus, who thought of a spiritual sword that creates a spiritual division between what is holy and unholy, within the individual first of all, separating a sinner from his/her own sin, and separating the Christian community, the new family, from the former way of life in which the members “once walked” —a way of life that demanded loyalty to family and tribe and nation (ethnos) first of all. Turning away from such loyalties to the new loyalty which, as it belongs to the God of all the earth, embraces all mankind and transcends human enmities, no matter how dearly held (as shown in, notably, Ephesians 2), is liable to create friction in those groups, including families, whose demand for first allegiance effectively amounts to idolatry.

This same spiritual sword is also wielded by the Christian community in calling people to the living God who is beyond all such tribal loyalties, such that those who hear the word are, as it says in Acts, either “pierced to the heart” (and thus respond in repentance, Acts 2:37) or “cut to the heart” (and turn violently against the messenger, often in defense of their own tribal loyalties. Acts 5:33, 7:54).

By contrast, with regard to the use by Christ’s followers of a literal sword or the initiation of violence, it just doesn’t appear in the NT after the resurrection (and beforehand only once, only to evoke a rebuke from Jesus). Hence it seems, again, that division is expected to happen as a response to the proclamation of the Gospel of peace, but it is not somehow mandated as part of the program.


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