Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Shalom and Sword

For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Isaiah 9:6
                 Certainly Scripture says Jesus is the Prince of Peace and he has come to establish peace. But could the establishment of peace actually call for a period of unrest? In Matthew 10 Jesus says something that disrupts our assumptions about who he is and why he came.  In verse 34, Jesus says: "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
    What are we to make of that? What happened to our Prince of Peace? What happened to "good will toward men"? Jesus says he did not come to bring peace but a sword.  What does he mean?
    First, he's not speaking literally. Jesus is not literally wielding a sword. He never does, at least not anywhere in the Gospels. It's important to put this statement in the context of this chapter. Earlier, starting in verse 5, when Jesus is telling the disciples what they should bring as they go out proclaiming the kingdom, he says don't bring any money, bag to put anything in, don't bring an extra change of clothes, don't bring extra shoes, don't bring a walking stick, don't even bring any food. He certainly doesn't tell them to bring a sword. So Jesus is not speaking literally here. He's using the sword as a metaphor, as a symbol. What does it represent?
    Most of us think of a sword as an instrument of violence. But nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus advocate violence.  Remember, this is also the Jesus who told us to love our enemies, to pray for those who persecute us. He modeled that for us as he hung upon the cross when he prayed to forgive those who were in the process at that very moment of murdering him. This is also the Jesus who told Peter to put away his sword, because those who live by the sword shall die by the sword. Jesus is not advocating violence or war. That's not what this symbol means. So what does it mean?
    The key is in the word peace. Jesus says he has not come to bring peace. The word he uses here is the Hebrew word shalom, a word with nuanced meaning. It doesn't simply mean peace, as in the absence of violence. It's a peace that comes from wholeness, from being complete—completely put together, unified. It's the wholeness that comes when nothing is missing, when everything is one. So what Jesus says is: I have not come to bring wholeness; I've come to bring the opposite. The opposite of wholeness or unity is division. He's using the image of a sword to mean to divide, to cut, to sever in half.  So he’s saying, “I did not come to bring wholeness and unity, but division.”  This fits the context. After all, in the verses immediately before this, Jesus is talking about how the disciples will go throughout the villages and will be persecuted and hated because of him. I've come to bring a sword, division.
    What Jesus is saying is that his mission is to turn the world upside down, and we see him doing that even from the moment of his birth. When King Herod heard that the Messiah, the divine King, had been born in Bethlehem, Herod was greatly disturbed, so he tried to have this child killed.  Also, when Mary and Joseph brought Jesus as an infant to the temple to be dedicated, Simeon held him and said to Mary and Joseph, "This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel." In other words, this child is going to turn the world upside down. He is going to bring division.
    This is the first thing we need to correct about our perception of Jesus during this season. At Christmas we don't celebrate the birth of a passive Savior, a pushover Messiah, somebody who just came to make us feel better. Jesus is the most radical person who has ever walked the earth. He did not come to bring peace; he came to bring a sword, to turn the world upside down, to radically alter this world and to dethrone every illegitimate king. The way he did this was by welcoming all people back into communion with God, back into the kingdom of his Father. He invited people who everyone else thought were completely disqualified from being connected to God: the sinners and tax collectors and prostitutes and thieves and drunkards and all those who were on the outskirts of society. He welcomed them back into communion with God. And he welcomes us back into communion with God.
    He overturned the world by showing God's radical, lavish love for all people and then invited us to love God just as much, with our whole heart, mind, soul, and strength. The reason why this is threatening, the reason why this turns the world upside down, is because to be back in proper relationship with God, to love him with all that we are, means taking something else in our lives out of that place. Every one of us has put something in the place that rightfully belongs to God alone. Just as Herod was threatened by the birth of this rival king, every one of us should be threatened by the birth of Christ, because he has come to dethrone whatever is on the throne of our lives that he alone has authority over. That's why he came to bring a sword; he's here to turn the world and our lives upside down.
Jesus has come to demand our full allegiance, and that will cause division both in us and in our world.           
    Don't be fooled. Don't look at the manger and think only about this innocent, helpless, sweet baby, tender and mild, laying down his sweet head. Jesus is no such thing. He did not come to make us feel better about ourselves, but to demand our allegiance. He came as a threat to every king, ruler, government and nation in this world, including every illegitimate ruler in our own lives, whether that be family or self or career advancement or material gain.  He alone can make such a demand.
    And to him and him alone should we give that allegiance.  For it is then that we find shalom—the true peace that comes from wholeness. 

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