Do not think that I have come to bring peace to 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 one's foes will be members of one's own household. 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 10:34-39).The difficulty of this saying lies in the fact that it contradicts so many of the stereotyped images we have in our mind about Jesus. We sing at Christmastime that he comes to bring peace on earth, goodwill towards men, but here he denies that he's come to bring peace! Rather than turning the hearts of parents towards their children and vice versa, as we read (Mal 4:6; Luke 1:17), he seems here to be saying that the exact opposite will happen: families will be split in half because of him, and his followers will find themselves at odds with their parents and children and family members. And it seems to contradict our implicit understanding of the commandment to honor our father and mother -- here he says that if we love father and mother more than we love him, we are not worthy of him! These are certainly hard things to understand!
Everybody has to make this choice at one point or another, and this choice will define us and every aspect of our life. What Jesus is saying in the passage quoted above is this: if you prefer the friendship of your family and close ones to obedience to Jesus, then you are not worthy of Jesus. We pray that it should never happen this way, and that our parents and loved ones would be on the same page as us in this respect. But sometimes they are not, and in those very painful and difficult situations, we have to make a choice about who we will serve. Will we prefer the friendship of Jesus or the friendship of our family?
Joseph Ratzinger makes the point that, in the early history of the Christian church, this new religion had to define itself in a very profound and striking way, in stark contrast to the religious milieu in which it developed. Christians began to believe that Jesus of Nazareth was himself God incarnate, and that the Messiah had to die killed by the Romans in order to make atonement for the sins of the world, something utterly thinkable to the Jewish context in which this faith arose. Likewise, Gentile Christians had to abandon the practice of sacrificing to the gods or to the emperor, despite the fact that these rituals held together their cultures and families for thousands of years. Ratzinger notes that this mean that Christianity, as a religion, was fundamentally defined by its adherence to truth over custom:
[Pagan] Religion did not go the way of the logos but lingered in myths already seen to be devoid of reality. Consequently its decline was inevitable; this followed from its divorce from the truth, a state of affairs that led to its being regarded as a mere institutio vitae, that is, as a mere contrivance and outward form of life. The Christian position, as opposed to this situation, is put emphatically by Tertullian when he says with splendid boldness: "Christ called himself truth, not custom." In my view this is one of the really great assertions of patristic theology. In it the struggle of the early Church, and the abiding task with which the Christian faith is confronted if it is to remain itself, is summed up with the unique conciseness. The idolization of the consuetudo Romana, of the "tradition" of the city of Rome, which had made its own customs into a self-sufficient code of behavior, was challenged by the truth and its claim to uniqueness. Christianity thus put itself resolutely on the side of truth and turned its back on a conception of religion satisfied to be mere outward ceremonial that in the end can be interpreted to mean anything one fancies (Introduction to Christianity, pp. 140-1).What Ratzinger is saying is: Christianity had to make a choice in favor of the truth against the apparent stability of custom. The Christians had to reject what was the custom, what was practiced for so many hundreds of years, because it was false. This meant their rejection as atheists and irreligious by the Romans, and their rejection as blasphemers and heretics by the Jews. But this was the cross they had to bear, in order to follow the truth of Christ.
We may take these remarks and apply them to the context of the saying of Jesus. It may be that a person finds herself at a crossroads between following Christ, on the one hand, and following her parents and family and what it has always known, on the other. A person who prefers custom and familiarity and comfort to the truth in Jesus Christ is not worthy of Christ -- that is what is being asserted. On the other hand, the truth which Christ brings into the world is contrary to many of its customs and its habits; it calls for a fundamental rethinking of much of human life. Therefore a choice in favor of Christ will inevitably put one at odds with her greater culture -- that is why Christ will come to bring a sword, rather than peace. Christ's challenge to every person will require they abandon much, if not all, of what they have known and cherished for so long. Some people are willing to make this choice, or at least to consider it, and others are not: that is why there will inevitably be conflict.
Breaking ties with one's parents and family and community (whether is a religious community or not) is deeply painful experience. It can seem like death, because suddenly one's life is in disarray, and all connections and ties have been cut. Therefore Christ calls it a cross. But -- we are quick to forget this -- becoming a Christian means picking up our cross and following Jesus wherever he may lead us: If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me (Luke 9:23). As for those who have made this choice against family and friends in favor of Jesus, they have to remain steadfast and recall the verse: My soul takes no pleasure in anyone who shrinks back (Heb 10:38).
Of course, it goes without saying that Jesus' suggestion here does not give a person license to mistreat their parents out of feigned obedience to Christ. He denounces the Pharisees who would justify the neglect of one's parents by appeal to some tradition about Corban (Mark 7:5-13). But there will come a time when a decision must be made between one's allegiances to parents and family, and one's allegiance to Christ. At that difficult time, we ought to be reminded of Christ's very difficult words: whoever loves father and mother more than me is not worthy of me.