Bring Him a Sword

Jesus said, “ Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Mt 10:34)

When Solomon became king of Israel, second in David’s line, long before Jesus was born, he prayed to God, and asked for one thing: “Give me,” he asked God, “an understanding mind… that I may discern between good and evil.”  This prayer pleased God no end.  Discerning good from evil, after all, was a gift that Solomon’s father, David, had sometimes lacked.  It also struck God as a good thing that the king of his chosen people had not asked for a long life, or riches, or the defeat of his enemies.  He had asked for wisdom.  So God tells Solomon that he will give him not only wisdom – not only the thing Solomon asked for – but also the things that Solomon had not asked for: riches, and honor and long life, as well.

And within hours of this prayer, (only one verse in the Bible), Solomon is confronted with two harlots fighting over a baby.  How the harlots made it in to see the king I don’t know, but there they stand in his presence.  And you probably remember the story.  One woman’s son died in the night, and the woman with the dead son took the living child from the other woman’s bed and left her with the dead child.  They are screaming at one another in the king’s chamber: “The living child is mine!”  “No, the dead child is yours,” and so on.

And in the inaugural demonstration of his wisdom, Solomon calls to his minions, “Bring me a sword!”  You remember his threat to divide the living child in two, and how one of the harlots shrieks in horror, “Don’t do it!”  But the other woman is willing to accept the compromise.  And Solomon, in his wisdom discerns that the woman who protested the child’s slaughter is the true mother.

Bring me a sword.  This command on the lips of the king, in the presence of two harlots and one bastard child, is terrifying.  The implication of these four words – bring me a sword – is brutal.  What was Solomon going to do with the sword?

You have to wonder if the underling who went to get the heavy sword slowed his steps as he went, wondering, himself, if it was such a good idea to heed the new king’s first command.  Was this how Solomon’s reign would begin – with the blood of a child on his hands, or a prostitute or two, or perhaps all three?  And when it becomes clear that the king is willing to slice this child in two – right down the middle – was there anyone whispering in his ear a word of caution, nervously suggesting a different solution to what is after all, a matter of little importance to the king?

But the wisdom of Solomon is displayed here not so much in discerning whose child the baby was, rather his wisdom is displayed in knowing how to wield the sword.  He knows how to use his power, without drawing a single drop of blood, so that the good prevails.

His father David’s reign had begun in violence – with the defeat of the threatening Goliath – and his years on the throne were soaked with blood.  But Solomon was a different kind of king, until his own weakness for the fairer sex would cause his downfall – but that’s another story.

It is jarring, to say the least, to hear on Jesus’ lips much of what we heard in today’s reading from the gospel.  “A man’s foes will be those of his own household,” he says.  But to my ears, even more so than his anti-family-values stance, nothing is more jarring than Jesus’ statement that he has not come to bring peace on earth (which is after all what the angels sang at his birth – were they wrong?).  Nothing is more upsetting to me than his apparent threat that he has not come to bring peace, but a sword.

It is almost as if Jesus has stood up in our midst and commanded to his minion (which I suppose would be me), “Bring me a sword!”  And yes, it fills me with dread.  There are children here, after all.  Is Jesus really going to have blood on his hands?  I would like to whisper some nervous words of caution in Jesus’ ear.  This cannot be a good idea.  The implications of his words are too brutal for the Lord of love.

The evangelists who wrote down Jesus’ story were at pains to show how Jesus was descended from David’s line, in fulfillment of the prophets’ testimony.  Would he be fighter like David?  And some hoped for a warrior-messiah, the might of whose sword would establish again the hegemony of a unified Israel. Would they get what they wanted?

And here, less than half-way in to the first book of the New Testament do we begin to hear the rattling of sabers on Jesus’ lips?  Bring me a sword!  This qualifies as what scholars have called the “hard sayings” of Jesus.  That is, the words are hard to ratify with our expectations of him, or with the song of the angels who promised peace on earth to the shepherds who were called to his manger.  I suppose it was a hard saying of Solomon, when he called for a sword, too.

And so, it is important for us to see Jesus for who he actually is, and to hear his words for what they actually are, just as Solomon’s potentially terrifying words proved to be a demonstration of wisdom.

It is noteworthy that with the beginning of the Gospels there comes an end to the stories of warfare that so permeate earlier pages of Scripture.  We will not hear of war again until the very last book of the Bible, when St. John has a vision of the war in heaven (a war with, perhaps, more symbolic meaning than historic precedent).  

The gospels themselves, are fairly bloodless, except for the spilling of Jesus’ own blood in his un-contested crucifixion.  The one time Jesus seems ready to start a fight – when he overturns the tables of the money-changers – nothing comes of it, which suggests to me that he was not perceived as much of a threat at the moment.  And the only time one of his disciples actually draws a sword, Jesus tells him to put it away (and then heals the injury that it caused).

And so when we hear these hard sayings of Jesus – I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword – we have to stop for a moment and be a little wise ourselves.  We have to be able to discern what amounts to a teaching moment from what might have been a manifesto.  We have to remember that Jesus is a rabbi, raised by a proper Jewish mother, and perhaps prone to a bit of hyperbole.

Jesus is not laying out, in these few paragraphs of discussion, a manifesto for a violent uprising of faith.  He is not, in fact, calling for a sword.  And even if he were, I have no doubt that in his hands it would remain as bloodless as the sword that Solomon called for.

Jesus is talking to his followers about what would be called centuries later, the “cost of discipleship.”  And this cost, he is teaching his disciples, is high.  It could cost you everything.   And if you think that life as Jesus’ follower is going to be a love-in (Woodstock, without the music (which sounds boring anyway)), then you are sadly mistaken.  If you think you are going to “find yourself” as a member of a biblical ashram, then you are wrong.  If you think it will make your parents happy for you to lose your life for his sake – to give up your career and your earning potential, or even just your Sunday mornings  - then you are kidding yourself.  Do you really think your Jewish mothers want you running around preaching the gospel instead of going to medical school?  This is what Jesus is saying.

Remember, he has just told his disciples that he is sending them out as sheep in the midst of wolves to preach his message of hope for the poor, to bring healing to the sick, and to cast out demons, to declare that the kingdom of heaven is at hand.  They will be laughed at and ridiculed, turned away at many doors.  Their faith will be sorely tested, their motives questioned.  They will have cause to shake much dust off their feet as they move from house to house, town to town.

Is this pauper-king really worth it?  Is he really the messiah?  Is he truly a Son of David – anointed to bring about the Lord’s desire for his people and all the nations?  Would he even know how to handle a sword if it were brought to him?  Has he half the wisdom of Solomon?  Or will things end badly, as they did for David, as they did for Solomon, as they did for Israel?

Bring him a sword, if we must.  Put it in his hands.  Ascribe to this carpenter-preacher the power to discern right from wrong, good from evil, life from death.  Put everything on the line: your job, your house, your family, your reputation.

We have read all the stories – learned most of them in Sunday School.  But have we yet given our lives to him?  Have we been willing to hand over the power to him?  To trust him with the sword which we would rather hold ourselves?  Are we ready, willing, and able to be sheep amongst a world of wolves?  This is no way to “find” ourselves!  Will we give up our lives to his service?

It would be easier if he knew how to cut with the sword.  We would find it easier to follow a warrior-messiah, who at least speaks our language.  But see how awkward it is when Jesus even tries – I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.

Thanks be to God that in Jesus’ hands the edges of the sword remain bloodless, that he uses it to point to justice, to right over wrong, good over evil.

Bring him a sword, and by all means keep it out of our own hands.  Let him bend its blade to his will.  Greater than Solomon, greater than David, Jesus will never, in fact, pick up a sword and yet he will wield more power over the destiny of the world than any warrior-king ever did.

And if we are willing to be steeled by his assurance, if we are brave enough to take up his challenge, if we are faithful enough to risk losing our lives by taking up our cross and following him, what victory will be unknown to us?  What corner of heaven will not be opened to us?  What despair will remain un-transformed by hope?  What wrong will not be defeated by right?  What evil will not be conquered by good?  What death will not be re-claimed by life?

Bring him a sword!  For his hand is the only hand that can be trusted to wield the power of life and death.  His wisdom is the only wisdom that trumps our cleverness.  His love is the only love that surpasses all understanding and casts out fear.

Oh, bring him a sword, and let us see him beat it into a plowshare on the anvil of his justice!

And let it cost us everything.  Let us be ready to lose our lives for his sake, let us learn how to take up our crosses and follow him.  Let us be willing to disappoint our families, and our friends, to become aliens in this land of wolves.  And let us follow him for the simple reason that though we have until now been willing to arm almost anyone who asked for a weapon, he is the only One who knows how to use the sword without shedding a single drop of blood…

… except his own; which he has poured out already, for the salvation of the world. In a wonderful mystery of love, shared day by day, and week by week with me, and with you.

Thanks be to God.

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
22 June 2008
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on June 22, 2008 .