This Gospel passage comes at the end of Matthew’s chapter ten, which is a lengthy discourse on discipleship, or what it takes to be a missionary. It is the second of Jesus’s great discourses which Matthew has collated and edited. The first one, most familiar to us all, is the ‘Sermon on the Mount’.
Matthew begins his Gospel by presenting Jesus’s teachings on ‘the reign of God’, or how his disciples must have a completely new mindset in their relations to God and to each other. This new attitude is found in the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount.
This set of teachings – on mission and discipleship – continues Jesus’s purpose. He has announced his mission. He now shares it by selecting twelve men from among his many followers. ‘Apostles’ he calls them, and he sends them out to preach and proclaim God’s reign. In this discourse he makes them aware of how their preaching will be received.
In a word, with persecution.
So Matthew’s Gospel mirrors the situation in the early Christian community. When someone accepts the ‘reign of God’ into her life, there is likely to be tension in that someone’s family. Parents and children will be at loggerheads, husbands and wives at variance, and “a man’s enemies will be those of his own household.”
The saying about “bringing peace” and “a sword” is an example of hyperbole: of course God’s word brings peace to our lives, but before this, it challenges us and disrupts our sinful ways of acting, and it is this which brings upset, conflict and tension to our smug and settled ways.
But it’s more than just conflict with one’s family. God’s word challenges us to give up even what we hold most precious (“by losing his life for my sake, a man will gain it”), and to embrace humiliation and suffering. This is the first time Jesus uses the symbol of the “cross”, a painful and degrading punishment familiar to his audience, as a metaphor for his style of life.
The passage closes with the promise of blessings upon all those who receive the disciples with hospitality (“so much as a cup of cold water”). For to listen to the disciples is to listen to Jesus who sent them, and ultimately to the Father who sent Jesus.
The ‘reign of God’ which the disciples announce in the name of Jesus, is God’s plan for all mankind.