by John Wijngaards, Mission Today, Spring 1998

MORE than once I have been asked to comment on Jesus’ cryptic statement, ‘Don’t think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I’ve not come to bring peace, but a sword. I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a wife against her mother-in-law. A person’s enemies will be the members of his or her own family (Matthew 10:34-36).

It is hard to believe that Jesus, who revealed God to be Love and who at the Last Supper promised to give us peace, has come among us in order to bring a sword. The verse not only worries Christians. I recall one fierce argument with a young Muslim in Kenya who quoted this verse to show that Christians, like their Master, are aggressive warmongers who seek conquest, not peace.

The problem with the verse lies in the implied intention. ‘I have come in order to bring a sword, not peace.’ This sounds very much like ‘I don’t want peace, I want war.’ The English phrase is unambiguous. It expresses purpose and intent. But what about Jesus’ own language?

As we have seen in so many other examples, an ambiguity in Aramaic can lead to a frightful misunderstanding in translation. Well, both in Hebrew and Aramaic there is no rigorous distinction between a final clause (which expresses a purpose) and a consecutive clause (which expresses a consequence). As a result, scholars tell us, what is meant to be a mere consequence sounds as if it is an aim or an objective.

What does this mean in practice? If you want to say, ‘I got stuck in a traffic jam so that I came home late’, it sounds in Aramaic as if you say, ‘I got stuck in a traffic jam in order to come home late.’ How would people know the difference? Well, from the circumstances. No one would think you would engineer a traffic jam in order to miss supper!

Your Aramaic friend might tell you: ‘I failed my driving test twice in order to take it a third time.’ Performing a somersault in your mind, you would realise that she means: ‘I failed the test twice so that I have to take it a third time.’ Confusing purpose and outcome jars in English.

This explains such clumsy biblical verses as: ‘Do not lift your eyes to the stars of heaven in order that you be seduced and worship them’ (Deuteronomy 4; 19). It means: ‘Do not lift your eyes to the stars in the sky for the outcome would be that you are seduced and begin to worship them.’ King Jeroboam says literally in the Hebrew: ‘Come to my home in order to refresh yourself and in order for me to give you a present’ (1 Kings 13:7).

The first phrase to refresh yourself expresses purpose and the second phrase to give you a present expresses consequence, the result of his coming, but both aim and consequence stand side by side. The meaning is, ‘Come to my home to refresh yourself, and then I will give youa present.’

A famous example of this ambiguous turn of phrase is the formula ‘in order that prophecy might be fulfilled’. Matthew employs it ten times in his Gospel. But the English translation is misleading. Surely, the Holy Family did not flee to Egypt in order to fulfil prophecy (Matthew 2:15, Hosea 1:11). Neither did Judas betray Jesus in order to fulfil prophecy (Matthew 27:9-10; Zechariah 11:12; Jeremiah 32:6-15,18:1-2).

Rather, in all these cases the evangelist notes that such events did, in actual fact, fulfil a prophecy. The translation should be: ‘and so prophecy was fulfilled’.

All this makes an enormous difference when we apply it to Matthew 10:34-36. The text stands in the context of Jesus’ warning us about future persecutions. And now his word becomes clear. ‘Do not think that my coming will result in peace for you. It will result in a sword. My coming will result in a son disagreeing with his father, a daughter with her mother, a wife with her mother-in-law. You will find enemies in your own families.’

This is the kind of thing Christians have experienced through the ages. If God counts more than human beings (Matthew 10:32-33; Acts 4:19), our loyalty to Christ will at times result in division and fight. This is not Jesus’ aim or objective, but an unavoidable outcome of his mission.

Also other ‘I have come’ statements have been painfully mistranslated. In John 9:39 Jesus says: ‘I have come to make the blind see and to make those who see, blind.’ Did Jesus come in order to make people blind? No. The message states, as is clear from the whole chapter, that Jesus’ coming results in some blind people regaining sight, and others losing their sight.

Jesus taught that those who work for peace are blessed. ‘They shall be called children of God (Matthew 5:9). There is nothing he desires more than bringing about peace (John 14:27). But, he warns us, the opposite will sometimes happen. Our putting God first may result in us making enemies. Did Jesus himself not endure hostility for his message of love?