This passage from Matthew 10:34-39 (New International Version) is often misunderstood:
34 “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to turn
“‘a man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—
36 a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’[a]
37 “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38 Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.
The passage is often quoted to suggest that Jesus is not peaceful. It has been used to portray Jesus as a cult leader turning disciples against their families. In the context of the teaching of Jesus as a whole, this interpretation is not valid. When Jesus says “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me”, he is talking about the Spirit within him and within all of us, about the Path. Jesus is acknowledging the truth that following a spiritual Path takes you outside the circle of family, tribe, culture. We have a choice between sticking with the social norm or being true to ourselves.
To be true to ourselves is to come into conflict with others who would be happier if we did not challenge the social or familial norm. By following our own path we become unfamiliar.
It may happen that you disagree with a war that your country is waging, that you have a relationship not approved of by your tribe. You are standing for personal honour rather than family honour for your truth rather than society’s. If we are true to ourselves we are necessarily outsiders whether we are in a crowd or alone because the crowd does not matter.
Jesus is for peace, he says “blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God”, but he knows that there is no true peace where there is no justice, honour, love and freedom.
It is difficult to stand for values that stand against the values of our family and culture. This dilemma is addressed in the Bhagavad Gita where the warrior Arjuna expresses dismay to Krishna at being called to arms against family members:
[Arjuna] spoke these words to Lord Krishna: O Lord, (please) stop my chariot between the two armies until I behold those who stand here eager for battle and with whom I must engage in this act of war. (1.21-22)
I wish to see those who are willing to serve the evil-minded son of Dhritaraashtra by assembling here to fight the battle. (1.23)
Sanjaya said: O King, Lord Krishna, as requested by Arjuna, placed the best of all the chariots in the midst of the two armies; (1.24)
Facing Bheeshma, Drona, and all other Kings; and said to Arjuna: Behold these assembled Kurus! (1.25)
There Arjuna saw his uncles, grandfathers, teachers, maternal uncles, brothers, sons, grandsons, and comrades. (1.26)
Seeing fathers-in-law, all those kinsmen, and other dear ones standing in the ranks of the two armies, (1.27)
Arjuna was overcome with great compassion and sorrowfully said: O Krishna, seeing my kinsmen standing with a desire to fight, (1.28)
My limbs fail and my mouth becomes dry. My body quivers and my hairs stand on end. (1.29)
The bow, Gaandeeva, slips from my hand and my skin intensely burns. My head turns, I am unable to stand steady and, O Krishna, I see bad omens. I see no use of killing my kinsmen in battle. (1.30-31)
I desire neither victory nor pleasure nor kingdom, O Krishna. What is the use of the kingdom, or enjoyment, or even life, O Krishna? (1.32)
Because all those, for whom we desire kingdom, enjoyments, and pleasures, are standing here for the battle, giving up their lives and wealth. (1.33)
Teachers, uncles, sons, grandfathers, maternal uncles, fathers-in-law, grandsons, brothers-in-law, and other relatives. (1.34)
I do not wish to kill them, who are also about to kill, even for the sovereignty of the three worlds, let alone for this earthly kingdom, O Krishna. (1.35)
O Lord Krishna, what pleasure shall we find in killing the sons of Dhritaraashtra? Upon killing these felons we shall incur sin only. (1.36)
Therefore, we should not kill our brothers, the sons of Dhritaraashtra. How can we be happy after killing our kinsmen, O Krishna? (1.37)
Though they, blinded by greed, do not see evil in the destruction of the family, or sin in being treacherous to friends. (1.38)
Why shouldn’t we, who clearly see evil in the destruction of the family, think about turning away from this sin, O Krishna? (1.39)
With the destruction of the family, the eternal family traditions are destroyed, and immorality prevails due to the destruction of family traditions. (1.40)
And when immorality prevails, O Krishna, the women of the family become corrupted; when women are corrupted, social problems arise. (1.41)
This brings the family and the slayers of the family to hell, because the spirits of their ancestors are degraded when deprived of ceremonial offerings of rice-ball and water. (1.42)
The everlasting qualities of Varna and family traditions of those who destroy their family are ruined by the sinful act of illegitimacy. (1.43) (Note: Varna means color, or the make up and the hue of mind; a social division or order of society such as caste in India.)
We have been told, O Krishna, that people whose family traditions are destroyed necessarily dwell in hell for a long time. (1.44)
Alas! We are ready to commit a great sin by striving to slay our kinsmen because of greed for the pleasures of the kingdom. (1.45)
It would be far better for me if the sons of Dhritaraashtra should kill me with their weapons in battle while I am unarmed and unresisting. (1.46)
Sanjaya said: Having said this in the battle field and casting aside his bow and arrow, Arjuna sat down on the seat of the chariot with his mind overwhelmed with sorrow. (1.47)
Source: Exploring Ancient World Cultures
Arjuna says “My limbs fail and my mouth becomes dry. My body quivers and my hairs stand on end. The bow, Gaandeeva, slips from my hand and my skin intensely burns. My head turns, I am unable to stand steady and, O Krishna, I see bad omens. I see no use of killing my kinsmen in battle.” We know exactly how that feels, any conflict raises feelings of apprehension and regret, and all the more when that conflict with those who are close to us.
Krisha’s answer to Arjuna is essentially that the world is transitory and our gaze should be fixed on the spiritual unmanifest world. Like Jesus, Krishna says seek the eternal first:
When your mind becomes fixed on Me, you shall overcome all difficulties by My grace. But, if you do not listen to Me due to ego, you shall perish. (18.58)
If due to ego you think: I shall not fight; this resolve of yours is vain. Your own nature will compel you (to fight). (18.59)
What you do not wish to do out of delusion; you shall do even that against your will, bound by your own nature-born Karma, O Arjuna. (18.60)
The Lord abides in the heart of all beings, O Arjuna, causing all beings to act (or work out their Karma) by His power of Maya as if they are (puppets of Karma) mounted on a machine. (18.61)
Seek refuge in Him alone with all your heart, O Arjuna. By His grace you shall attain supreme peace and the eternal abode. (18.62)
Thus the knowledge that is more secret than the secret has been explained to you by Me. After fully reflecting on this, do as you wish. (18.63)
Hear again My supreme word, the most secret of all. You are very dear to Me, therefore, I shall tell this for your benefit. (18.64)
Fix your mind on Me, be devoted to Me, offer service to Me, bow down to Me, and you shall certainly reach Me. I promise you because you are very dear to Me. (18.65)
Setting aside all noble deeds, just surrender completely to the will of God (with firm faith and loving contemplation). I shall liberate you from all sins (or bonds of Karma). Do not grieve. (18.66)
This (knowledge) should never be spoken by you to one who is devoid of austerity, who is without devotion, who does not desire to listen, or who speaks ill of Me. (18.67)
Krisha and Jesus (Christ) are both speaking as God, as representatives of our own inward and transcendent reality. Because they have attained a particular enlightenment and self-transcendence they can speak in this way. They have the same understanding and authority. Jesus is the Son of God and so is Krishna and so are all of us when we transcend the personal.
When Jesus talks about bringing a sword he is talking about the requirement for total commitment. This is a recurring theme in his teaching, as Krishna says “surrender completely to the will of God” so Jesus says “give up all you have and follow me” (Mark 10:21) and compares attaining the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ (enlightenment) to a merchant wanting to buy the finest pearl and selling all he has to obtain it.’
The bottom line for Jesus, Krishna and the Buddha and all enlightened teachers is that half measures are not acceptable. We may compromise because we are human, and we will be forgiven, time and again, but the truth does not compromise. We may deviate from the Path and return but when we are off the Path we are lost in illusion whether that illusion is pleasurable or painful.
“No man can serve two masters” says Jesus (Matthew 6:24) “for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”
For Jesus and Krishna the sword and the war are metaphors for the struggle to be true to our Inner Light, our Dharma, God, whatever we choose to call it. In order to be true to God and ourselves we come into conflict with the world, with friends, family and most importantly with our own habits and desires, in short with the familiar and the comfortable.
This above all; to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man. Shakespeare.
It is only in facing the conflict, inner and outer, that we become warriors of spirit and are able to gain enlightnment of the Kingdom of Heaven.