The Word Among Us

May 2024 Issue

The “Sword” of Division

We Can Work for Unity

By: Joe Difato

The “Sword” of Division: We Can Work for Unity by Joe Difato

The Gospels tell us that it was relatively early in Jesus’ ministry when he sent out his apostles to preach and to heal. And while Mark and Luke recount some of Jesus’ words to the Twelve, Matthew gives us a more detailed account (10:1-42). This “Missionary Discourse” is filled with practical advice to the disciples about what to preach, how much money and clothing they should pack, and how to respond to persecution and rejection.

But as Jesus was ending his discourse, his focus shifted to teachings that could apply to any one of us in any situation. He predicted that his message would divide families (Matthew 10:34-36). He even warned against placing our family above him (10:37-39). And he promised a reward to those who were open and welcoming (10:40-42).

These challenging statements give us a different view of Jesus than we may be used to. We’re more likely to remember comforting sayings like “Come to me, . . . and I will give you rest” or “I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly” (Matthew 11:28; John 10:10). And who can forget his first words to his disciples on Easter Sunday: “Peace be with you” (20:19)?

If you find these comforting sayings easier to read, you’re not alone. But what about the difficult sayings? That’s what we want to look at this month. In this first article, we’ll focus on Jesus’ prediction about a “sword” dividing parents from children (Matthew 10:34). In the next article, we’ll look at the call to take up the cross (10:38-39). And in the third article, we’ll look at the way Jesus urges us to show hospitality and welcome to everyone (10:40-42).

Three Approaches. Do not think that I have come to bring peace upon the earth. I have come to bring not peace but the sword. For I have come to set a man “against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s enemies will be those of his household.” (Matthew 10:34-36)

Some of our great saints have offered differing views on this passage. For instance, St. Augustine said that these words didn’t really apply to families. Rather, he said, Jesus was using a figure of speech to describe a sort of global battle of “the people of God against the city of the world” (Seventeen Questions on Matthew, 3).

On the other end of the spectrum, St. Hilary of Poitiers said that Jesus was speaking about a believer’s inner life. According to Hilary, the “sword” that Jesus was talking about was the Sacrament of Baptism, which severs us from the “sin” and “unbelief” of our first parents (Commentary on Matthew, 12, 23).

St. John Chrysostom, however, took a more literal approach. According to him, Jesus meant exactly what he said. Looking at the people of Constantinople, where he was bishop, Chrysostom knew that families were struggling with divisions between believing and unbelieving members. He knew families that were divided—father against son or mother against daughter. He also knew how painful these divisions could be. In fact, he said that in some cases, they were “more perilous than a civil war” (Homilies on Matthew, 35, 2).

Following Chrysostom’s lead, let’s look at Jesus’ words and apply them to our own situations. Let’s look at what we can do when a marriage has a believing spouse and an unbelieving spouse or when believing parents have an unbelieving teenager or adult child.

Literally? Did Jesus really say that it was his intention to bring a “sword” of division in our closest relationships? Did he mean that even marriage, with its blessing of two people becoming “one flesh” (Ephesians 5:31), could not work if one spouse believed in Christ but the other didn’t? I don’t think so.

Jesus used these extremely divisive words to startle us. He wants us to step back and consider seriously what he is saying. While it’s a mistake to dismiss his words, it’s also a mistake to take them too literally or to read them in isolation.

Everything Jesus said here should be considered in light of all the Scriptures. This same Jesus who spoke about a sword also called us to be peacemakers (Matthew 5:9). He told us to love one another—even our enemies (5:44). He told us to be merciful and forgiving (5:7; 18:21-22).

Jesus is not telling us to cut off our children if they do not believe. Rather, he is being realistic. He knows that conflict will be a part of our lives until the day when he comes again. He knows that these conflicts will happen on every level, but that some of the most painful ones will arise between family members who believe in him and those who don’t (Romans 12:21; 1 John 4:6).

Finding a Middle Ground. So the question becomes, “How should we relate when we are caught in a conflict about faith with a close friend or family member?” Should we be persistent in arguing our point to our adult children who don’t believe? Should we hold onto a judgmental mindset against someone who doesn’t agree with us? Every situation is different, but as a parent of six, I have found that these kinds of approaches don’t bear much fruit. On the contrary, they can actually deepen divisions.

But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying to share our faith. It doesn’t mean that we should go along with everything someone says or does as if there is no right or wrong. Jesus wants us to “proclaim the gospel” to everyone (Mark 16:15). He doesn’t want us to hide the light of our faith “under a bushel basket” (Matthew 5:15). But how do we do this?

The answer lies in finding middle ground somewhere between remaining silent and relentlessly sharing our views. We can try, peacefully and humbly, to make sure every family member knows what we believe. But at the same time, and without denying our faith, we can find ways to deepen our connection with loved ones who don’t believe or who think differently than we do. We could find activities that we enjoy doing together. We could go out together for coffee once a week. Or we could take an interest in things that interest them.

No matter what we choose to do, there is no greater gift we can give than the gift of our time and attention. Listening to each other is an often underrated gift from God that has the power to soften our hearts and bring us together.

We all have some conflicted relationships in our families, whether about faith or some other important issue. I have found that my deepening relationship with Jesus has gone a long way in helping me change my judgmental disposition. Even when a relationship remains unresolved, I can always draw on the peace of God for comfort and encouragement.

Fruit of the Spirit. A few years ago, I met a couple who had a troubled marriage. The wife attended Mass each week, but her husband rarely joined her. They argued about everything: over issues between them, issues with their children, and issues with their faith. All these disagreements led them to grow further and further apart. Eventually, they decided that after their youngest child left home, they would get a divorce.

One Sunday as the wife sat at Mass, she heard the lector read Paul’s description of the fruit of the Spirit from his Letter to the Galatians (5:22-23). As she heard the words “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness,” and the rest, she was struck to the heart. She realized that she was not displaying any of these attributes at home.

She decided that she needed to change. She asked the Holy Spirit to help her stop quarreling. She went out of her way to be more kind and considerate. She started praying that her new demeanor would have a positive effect on her husband.

It did. After a few weeks, he told her, “I don’t know what’s happened to you, but I really like the way you’re changing.” Together they promised that they would try to resolve their differences. He started joining her at Sunday Mass, and they both tried to be more kind and considerate toward each other. As a result, their arguments gradually began to fade, and the love between them slowly flourished again. Today the children are gone, but the couple is still very much together.

We Can Overcome Divisions. This couple’s story tells us that the witness of our love—and the witness of God’s love in us—has the power to overcome “a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). By practicing kindness and generosity, we can clear a path for the Spirit to flow into our relationships. The same Jesus who “came to bring a sword” wants to bring healing and unity.