“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword;” Thus begins the Eucharistic Gospel for today, Matthew 10:34-11:1. The writer of the Gospel’s community was basically made up of observant Jews, but those who accepted Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah. Some attitudes had shifted, as the legends of Jesus’ sayings were passed around. But basically most were Law-abiding Jewish people living in a wave of diaspora after the destruction of the Temple. What was all the fuss about?
Let me tell you a story. My grandfather’s father was the mean old rabbi, a feared and strict Pharisee if there ever was one. When Max married Julia, who was a Cohen, that is, the descendent of the priestly Aaron, Max’s father put ashes on his head and declared his son dead. Why? Because Julia’s father opened his store on Saturday. He was, in the eyes of Julia’s father-in-law, not a Jew. Max might have just as well have married a girl named Mary O’Toole! Now, set that back to about 90 CE. Father against son. Mother-in-law against daughter-in-law. Jesus brought real pain to many families.
And then the reading turns to love. Whoever loves any other than Jesus, their Bridegroom, are not worthy of him, or the marriage bond which forged them in baptism into the Body of the Church. And that is so important that unless one takes up their Cross and bears abuse as one of those new kind of not-quite Jews, Jesus won’t know you. Die, if you must, literally or in the internal pain of family dysfunction, in order to win a greater life, a life in God. A righteous life. A prophetic life. When Jesus sends his disciples out to carry his word, when they enter a house, in that culture they come not as individuals, but as a member of a tribe, clan, or family. For example, no longer is Saul a man of a well-known family in Tarsus, and of the tribe of Benjamin, but Paul, of the family of Jesus of Nazareth. And what reward is there in that?
Prophet and righteous may refer to two categories, or more likely, through a poetic device where a repetition strengthens the argument, one category of people. The righteous have been promised a seat in heaven with the Father, or in older terms, with Abraham. But a prophet? Most of the prophets were rewarded with death. Nobody likes to be told things they don’t want to hear, especially kings. But prophets are called by God, and serve God as faithful servants, and do not count the cost. So their reward comes from a place where no perishable thing exists, but in eternity. Still, as suggested elsewhere, no servant is above his master. Jesus is spat on, pelted with rocks, insulted, killed. Expect the same. And since all actions by any disciple reflect the actions, in honor or shame, of the entire family, whomever does even a little thing, offering water to the vulnerable, is doing it in the name of the Jesus family. Water. The water of life. The water with which you will never again thirst. The water of baptism. And from there Jesus and his own fanned out to preach the Gospel. We are also charged to do the same.
So far, we have a narrative of pretty typical life in any era. Families break up over differing choices. An LGBTQ+ son or daughter in a conservative home. A family member who changes faith or gives up on God altogether. A thousand reasons why we turn on those whom we should love and respect. Some are independence-seeking youths, some independence-seeking elderly who wish to maintain their dignity. Some, like my great grandfather, are suborn and resistant to new choices or change. And sometimes rifts are so deep that they never heal in this life. And a parish family isn’t immune (ask St. Paul!).
But there is something else that is unsettling in this reading. It reads like the prophetic warnings of the Old Testament. The Lord told me to say or that, is the form we usually read. And Jesus often says that he says nothing that his Father hasn’t told him to say. But then the twist. Not repent, offer sacrifice to the Temple through the priests according to the Law. We hear that in today’s reading from Isaiah (Isa 1:10-17), “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” What Jesus says is, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me” (Matt 10:40). Even stronger is, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matt 10:37-38). Here, and in other places throughout the Gospels, Jesus’ personhood and authority are made clear, even if the fine points of the Second Person of the Trinity took another few centuries. And what he is saying is, in fact, blasphemy to all those who don’t believe in him. And deserving of the death penalty. The Pharisees and Sadducees and Herodians and the Sanhedrin aren’t just mean, disgusted with this rough looking tradesman who doesn’t know his place. Yes, he is bringing a sword. Yes, he is demanding extraordinary faith in him, and in his Father if his claim is true. And that is blasphemy, for a man to equate himself with God. Not a prophet, but God.
Jesus says something even more outrageous when he goes on to say that even a drink of water in the name not of himself or of his Father, but in the name of a disciple, a servant of a servant of his, is enough to be called righteous, even a prophet. Not that offering water is a trivial gift for a culture that identifies its origin with the desert, and one where tribal or family ownership of wells is central to the bonds of society. And here we are back at baptism.
Perhaps the radical simplicity of Jesus’ message was shocking to the elite, powerful, and pious. The reading in Isaiah is a diatribe, not only of the perpetually disobedient Israel, but the observant Jewish society. Those sacrifices enumerated, and which disgust God so much that he turns from them, were expensive. They were paid for on the backs of the poor, directly through Temple taxes and through secular taxes which were funneled through the king to the priests. And who suffers, the prophet points out, but the orphan, widow, oppressed. This is not God’s justice. This is not God’s mercy. When Jesus, in the fullness of time, teaches that he, as the Word, expects us, as individuals and as a society, to suffer unto death if that is what it costs to follow his commandments, even as simple an act as offering the life-giving hospitality of a cup of water is enough for God. And yes, it may be as if Jesus brought a sword cleaving apart those who are willing to embrace the traditional way, as it always had been, with timidity and smiles and nods to the power elite, from those who stand up for those in need in Jesus’ name. We, too, have that choice every day. Choose death thinking it the safe way. Don’t make waves. Or choose life in Jesus, whose water is thirst-quenching peace, and who is the only unchangeable support in these chaotic and confusing times.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is at Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, CA. She earned her master’s degree in systematic theology from the Jesuit School of Theology/GTU and PhD in church history and spirituality from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California. She lives with her cats, books, and garden.