In the Gospel of a recent weekday Mass Jesus said he had come not to bring peace but a sword, and to set parents against their children. I have never understood this passage. Can you enlighten me?
The passage to which you refer is in the Gospel of Matthew: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s foes will be those of his own household” (Mt 10:34-36).
These words are indeed disturbing and difficult to understand. If this were the only time Christ spoke of peace, we would be understandably troubled and inclined not to follow him at all. How are we meant to interpret these words?
The first thing to remember is that a troublesome passage like this must interpreted not on its own but in light of the whole of Scripture. Quoting the Second Vatican Council, the Catechism of the Catholic Church gives this as one of three principles for interpreting the Bible: “Be especially attentive ‘to the content and unity of the whole Scripture.’
Different as the books which comprise it may be, Scripture is a unity by reason of the unity of God’s plan, of which Christ Jesus is the centre and heart, open since his Passover” (cf. DV 12 §4; CCC 112).
We should begin then by looking for other passages in which Christ speaks of peace.
Fortunately there are a good number. For example, he says: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you” (Jn 14:27).
“I have said this to you, that in me you may have peace” (Jn 16:33). “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Mt 5:9).
Besides Christ himself, others too say that he came to bring peace. At his birth the angels praise God and say, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!” (Lk 2:14).
St Paul too says that Christ came to bring peace: “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 5:1). He also says that Christ “is our peace” and that “he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near” (Eph 2:14, 17).
So it is clear from the whole of the New Testament that Christ indeed came to bring peace.
This is an example of what a scripture scholar friend of mine likes to say: “If you take the text out of the context, all you are left with is a con.”
Then why does Christ say he has come not to bring peace, but a sword? We see a glimpse of the answer in the Gospel of Luke, where Christ says he has come to bring “division” (cf. Lk 12:51).
He goes on to say in the Gospel passage we have quoted above, as in the other synoptic Gospels, that he has come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother and that a man’s foes will be those of his own household (cf. Mt 10:35-36).
He does not want division but he knows that it may result when one member of a family takes his word seriously and others do not.
For example, a son may tell his father that he wants to follow God’s call to the priesthood or the religious life, and his father rejects him because he wanted him to take over the family business.
Or a Muslim girl tells her parents that she is becoming a Christian and the family rejects her and may even threaten to kill her.
These are not outcomes Christ wants but he knows they may result when someone follows him rather than following the wishes of his or her parents.
For this reason he goes on to say: “He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me, and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Mt 10:37-38).
The apostles followed this exhortation when they were threatened by the Jewish council and told not to preach in the name of Christ anymore.
They replied: “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). We too must be prepared to incur the anger or rejection of our family or friends if God is calling us to follow him more closely.