IN OUR Gospel, Jesus declares that he comes to bring not “peace to the earth”, but “a sword”. Yet, only a few verses earlier, he tells his disciples to pronounce a greeting of peace on each house they enter. St John Chrysostom explains this apparent contradiction, observing that true peace comes only when sin is confronted: “This more than anything else is peace: when the disease is removed. . . Only with such radical surgery is it possible for heaven to be reunited with earth.”
True peace involves facing the truth about what is amiss in both our interior life and our common life, acknowledging, and repenting of, the injustices and evasions on which they are both built. “A great deal needs to be transformed, purified, put to death and brought to life again, before the peace that comes from God can reign supreme. Any cheaper ‘peace’ would be one based on compromises concerning the truth, infidelity, self-deception and wishful thinking — all of which would launch us on the path to eventual spiritual catastrophe” (Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word: Meditations on the Gospel according to St Matthew).
This searing process of transformation and purification, of being “put to death and brought to life again”, is described by Paul in our epistle. The apostle is addressing the spiritual complacency that comes when we take for granted the grace of God and thereby underestimate the gravity of sin. God’s grace is, indeed, freely offered to all: it is not something we receive as a reward for virtuous living. But the act of receiving divine grace is incompatible with continuing collusion with sin.
This has a particular relevance as we consider our complicity in social, economic, and racial injustice. Paul is warning us away from two spiritual temptations: the complacency that relies on our forgiveness in Christ as an excuse for failing to confront wrongdoing, and also the anxious activism that is about self-justification rather than love.
Both complacency and anxious self-justification are aiming for an illusory peace, in which can say we are beyond reproach. In fact, genuine growth in holiness leads to a deeper sense of sorrow for our sin, and a more ardent desire to be transformed.
Ida B. Wells (a central figure in the anti-lynching crusade in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries) condemned the false gospel of white Christians who remained silent in the face of injustice. She declared that “our nation cannot profess Christianity” if it denied freedom — and even life itself — to black Americans.
Wells’s words echo down the generations, and across the nations; for they bear witness to the words of Christ in our Gospel reading, in his rejection of a false peace in favour of the interior and social conflict involved in confronting sin. There is an interior disturbance, because we must face up to our own entanglement in sin. And there is a social disturbance because, as Jesus explains, an honest reckoning with sin will divide families and communities.
In our first reading, Jeremiah cries out in pain at the cost of confronting injustice. He accuses the Lord of “enticing” him; the Hebrew root pth suggests either “seduction” or “deception” (Pauline Viviano, New Collegeville Bible Commentary: Jeremiah, Baruch). He has become a “laughing-stock” and an object of “derision” precisely because he fails to collude with what Leiva-Merikakis called the “cheaper peace” of “infidelity, self-deception and wishful thinking”.
Jeremiah confronts his society with the uncomfortable truths that it would rather evade. Echoing his lament, our Psalm articulates the sense of loss and bewilderment of one who has “suffered reproach” for God’s sake, and is now in a “mire” where he fears he will sink.
While both passages are searingly honest about the cost of faithful witness, both also contain a message of hope. The Psalmist speaks of the “abundance” of God’s mercy, and of his salvation as being “sure”, while Jeremiah’s lament is transformed into a song of praise, declaring that the Lord “has delivered the life of the needy from the hands of evildoers”.
Interwoven into Jesus’s teaching on the cost of faithful witness is this same assurance. While the Father’s care will not render the disciples immune to suffering, Jesus promises that those who lose their lives for his sake will receive eternal life — the true and lasting peace that flows from his paschal triumph.