Saturday, June 13, 2020

Matthew 10.24-39: Jesus...and a Sword

It may seem disconcerting to see the Prince of Peace with a sword, but in Matthew's gospel, it is Jesus himself who makes the connection: Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. (Matthew 10:34) The greatest concentration of images showing Christ with a sword are images of the Last Judgment.

In the typical arrangement, shown here in Hans Memling's triptych, Jesus sits on a throne. A stem of lilies extends from one side of his mouth; a sword extends from the other. The lilies symbolize mercy; the sword justice. Jesus' right hand (under the lilies) forms a symbol of blessing; his left hand (under the sword) is palm down, indicating a curse. As the ultimate and final judge, Jesus brings both mercy and justice. Is that what the sword in Matthew's gospel means? Does that sword represent judgment?
Hans Memling. Last Judgment Triptych. 1467-1473. Gdansk, Poland: Muzeum Naradowe w Gdansku.

A second apocalyptic image type pairing Jesus with a sword is based on the opening chapters of Revelation. John hears the command to write down the vision and, turning to see the source of the voice, John sees the Son of Man: In his right hand he held seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining with full force. That two-edged sword is also mentioned in Hebrews (4:12): Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. Is the sword Jesus brings the embodiment of God's word, dividing soul from spirit?
Bamberg Apocalypse (MSC. Bibl. 140, Fol. 3r). c. 1010. Bamberg, Germany, Bamberg State Library.
Jesus...with a sword? He chastised Peter (who is only identified as "one of those with Jesus" in Matthew's gospel) for pulling a sword and cutting off the ear of the servant of the priest in the Garden of Gethsemane: Suddenly, one of those with Jesus put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. 52Then Jesus said to him, ‘Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword...55At that hour Jesus said to the crowds, ‘Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me. 

We may be more comfortable thinking of Jesus who healed the injury created by Peter's sword, but we need to account for the Jesus who came not to bring peace but a sword.

Take a look at a slightly different version of the Last Judgment on Art&Faith Matters on Facebook. How would you characterize the difference?

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