There was a theologian and professor, a Presbyterian minister, named Edward Farley—he died just a few years back—who wrote a book somehow about the enormous subject of good and evil, titled Good & Evil. In it he talks about the contours of the world and human relationships, for better and for worse, and in the opening chapters he outlines what he calls benign alienation, “an intrinsic and tragic element of the interhuman.” This is a term for something really familiar: When accident, circumstance, misunderstanding, and difference cause hurt feelings, suspicion, and resentment in relationships of all kinds. Think of friendships lost over a quarrel, or a work relationship spoiled because one person was promoted, or an engagement broken because there was no compromise that could be reached: These are breaks in human connection that are sad, and in general unavoidable; they cause real pain, even though nobody involved is really bad; they separate us from each other, even though they are not the product of evil per se. That’s what he means by “benign alienation” and it being “intrinsic and tragic.”
I think this is often what we’re talking about when we lament for instance “division” or “divisiveness”: we’re observing and mourning something tragic and painful, bound to arise maybe in the sense that some sad things are bound to happen, but which doesn’t seem to have a particular reason and so seems, maybe sometimes is, technically avoidable. The thing about “division” is this feeling we have in our gut that it doesn’t have to be, if people would, say, listen better or speak more generously or think a little more carefully; that there is a truer sense in which we are connected to one another, and that connection is damaged unnecessarily by carelessness.
This is not what Jesus is talking about. At least not to my reading.
A pastor I know once said that part of God’s call to every Christian is to engage with the world as it is, so that we can help people see the world as it should be. To engage with the world as it is, so that we can help people see the world as it should be. Those two things, the world as it is and the world as it should be, have strong holds on us and are always pulling at us, and we have to have clear views of both of them in order to live well, to “walk in the truth,” as scripture puts it. And to that end, scripture talks incessantly, in history and epistle and prophecy and gospel, about both the world as it is and the world as it should be—how God created it to be, how it will be again through the redemption of the whole cosmos in Christ.
Here in this gospel reading we meet Jesus teaching his disciples about the world as it is. This portion comes immediately after what we heard Bart preach on last week, I am sending you out as sheep among wolves, into persecution and betrayal, and is of a piece with it—we separate it into two weeks, but there’s no division in the text or in Jesus’ speech itself. You will go out and teach, he says, proclaim, heal. Live for the world as it should be, he says, knowing that you do so within the world as it is.
The world as it is—not its potentialities, not the way God’s grace is always transforming it, not as it will be, but as it is—is a world in which there are wolves surrounding the sheep. It is a world in which Jesus himself, the light of the world, the Prince of Peace, the healer, the Lamb, the ultimate testament to God’s love for this world, is maligned, called Beelzebul (the devil), eventually arrested, tortured, and executed. And Jesus tells his disciples the truth about this: That if he, the teacher, the master, the head of household, is so maligned, so will be his followers, those who belong to him. That evil, worked out by individuals and by systems, that killed Jesus, will not think any more kindly of his followers.
And so, Jesus says, I come not to bring peace, but a sword. He says I have come to set family member against family member. He says, you cannot love a family member more than you love me and still be a part of this. He says, who is your truest family?
That’s a question worth asking, who is your truest family. It’s worth asking because Scripture itself admits a tension between “family” and “family”: we are to honor our mother and father and love our siblings; yet God is our Father, and mothers us, and all of God’s oppressed people have familial claims on our lives, and our closest family is those who also follow Christ. It’s worth asking because we know this colloquially too: “Blood is thicker than water,” we say, though hiding within that family-first phrase is the whole saying: “The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb.”
We live in a world that tells us pretty clearly who our family is: It’s people who look like us, for a very particular definition of “look like” which doesn’t mean humanity but rather means first skin color and then grooming. We are taught to trust, to identify with, to provide the benefit of the doubt to, to extend welcome and aid to, our race and our class, over and against people who do not share these markers. Sometimes this is natural preservation and mutual aid, but very often it’s simply empire: It’s white juries acquitting white murderers of Black citizens, it’s the military and administrative apparati of every European power reaching out to grab entire countries and continents, it’s Ma Ingalls’s assertion that the only good Indian is a dead Indian, it’s a border a handful of miles from here made of steel sheets and barbed wire and guards who shoot Mexican teenagers, it’s a war because this country loved slavery more than it loved anything, it’s two and a half years between formal Empancipation and full emancipation, it’s the quick trip from emancipation to sharecropping and prison labor, it’s the hitchless parading of rifles in a state capital but tear gas and rubber-coated bullets against unarmed people.
Do you see all the swords here?
It’s been a little while, of course, since swords were the thing; mostly now they are metaphors. But in Jesus’ time they were what soldiers carried, what civilians might carry for self-protection. Unlike knives, they were not useful for household tasks, and unlike bows, they were not useful for hunting. They were only and exclusively weapons.
I come not to bring peace, but a weapon. A hand gun. An AR-15.
But Jesus! We protest. You are the Prince of Peace!
Yes, he is; and he was killed. He knew, and he told us about, the world as it is, even as he urged us to live for how it can be. How it will be.
Swords surrounded Jesus: Stones in the hands of the people, clubs and literal blades in the hands of those who arrested and executed him. But he did not wield one. In last week’s reading from this same speech, he told his disciples exactly what items they could take with them: almost nothing, not a sword. Do you remember? And cast back to Holy Week: When in Gethsemane the police surrounded and took Jesus, Peter drew his sword and was ordered to put it away. Do you remember?
Jesus brings swords because the world is already full of swords, of guns, of electric chairs, of gas chambers, of solitary confinement chambers. Jesus is not introducing any swords; if we think we live swordlessly, if we think violence and punishment do not feature in our lives until Jesus comes crashing in with this wild preaching, we are not paying attention. Jesus brings a sword that is pointed straight at him, and he is telling us that if we are following him closely it will be pointed at us too, the barrel of a police pistol, the sight of a vigilante’s rifle, the lock of a prison door. Jesus is a sword magnet because until all things are made new in him this world will not tolerate the proclamation of good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, letting the oppressed go free, the year of the Lord’s favor. The question is less how Jesus can talk of the sword and more whether, if we never find one pointed at us, we are doing as he asked.
This is how we live in the world as it is. But the world as it should be is coming. For this reason we are wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Wise and innocent. Jesus has told us openly that persecution will come; certainly some of us seek it out as proof that we are doing his will, and mistake “Christ, what a jerk!” in response to deeply jerky behavior for persecution. Do not mistake me and do not mistake him: Persecution comes when we are living according to the gospel’s radical proclamation of equality in the sight of God, of deep obligation to the well-being of other people, of jubilee.
He warns us truly about the world as it is. But he promises us also that the world as it should be is coming: That nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. That what he says to us in the dark, we have the authority to tell in the light; and what we hear whispered, we proclaim from the housetops. That we are precious to God, deeply known, and that nothing can harm us in this world that can possibly snatch us out of God’s hands; that temporal hostility, even death, are nothing in the face of the life that awaits us, woven with threads of gold into the life we now live, if we live it as Jesus calls us to. He warns us truly that seeking our lives in the limited, often tainted goods of this world—power, riches, temporary safety—is losing them; and he promises us that the temporal lives we lose for his sake will be found in God, greater, more glorious, and more true than we could have imagined. Amen.