by Michael Maciel
Jesus uses the word “sword” in two instances: once when he says that he came not to bring peace but a sword, and again when he says that he who lives by the sword shall die by the sword. The second instance is directed at Peter, who had just wounded a member of the Sanhedrin’s posse in the Garden of Gethsemane when they came to arrest Jesus.
Now, it seems clear to me that two different types of swords are being referred to: the weapon and the symbol. Why would Jesus say that he came to bring a sword when he so clearly forbade physical violence?
German sociologist, Max Weber, said that any attempt to get at the truth will have the characteristic of doing violence. In other words, our false beliefs don’t die easily—they must be slain. When he said this, he wasn’t talking about physical violence. He was talking about the way that a person sometimes feels attacked when their deeply held assumptions, especially assumptions about themselves, are called into question.
A physical sword has only one purpose—to kill people. So why then is the image of a sword evoked so often in the mystical literature ? I think the answer to this can be found in a more contemporary teaching about guns. Guns also have a singular purpose, that of killing. Every child who grows up in a family that owns guns almost certainly hears (one hopes) that a gun is not a toy. Later on in life, especially if guns are a part of a their job or if he or she carries one for protection, another rule is given: never draw your weapon unless you are prepared to use it.
Both of these maxims are decisive and earnest. They attempt to instill in the novice a certain respect and sobriety in the use of firearms. The lesson is that once a gun is brought into play in a given situation, everything changes. One not only declares a singular intent but also the will to carry it out. If one fails to make his or her intent clear, or if they lack the resolve to follow through should events call upon them to do so, having a gun will almost certainly work against them, possibly costing them their lives.
Now, just imagine the kind of discipline and resolve you have to have in order to keep from flinching in a potentially deadly encounter. And think of how many times you have witnessed or taken part in an interchange that resolved itself solely by a demonstration of superior will power, not requiring the use of force at all, where the gun was cocked and aimed (metaphorically speaking) but not fired?
These examples are not given as a justification for violence or weapons; they are given in an attempt to see past the debilitating effects of current-day political correctness, which tells us which words are okay and which aren’t, not based on the reality of the message but on the hot buttons they push. I’m sure that the word “sword” had the same ominous meaning to people in Jesus’ day as the word “gun” does in ours. Just imagine him saying, “I come not to bring peace, but a gun.”
The word “sword” in mystical literature has a specific meaning, one that has nothing to do with physical power but rather the WILLpower one must possess in order to succeed on the spiritual path.
The willpower that a soldier brings to the battlefield is the same willpower that we must bring when we set foot on the spiritual path. Unless we are willing to “suffer unto death” in our inner struggles, we will never claim victory. The Hindu sage, Ramakrishna, said, “Do not start on the spiritual path unless you are as eager as a man whose hair is on fire to jump into a pond.” And a Zen master once said, referring to a disciple’s cherished beliefs, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!”
When we read the tenth chapter of Matthew, we find Jesus telling his disciples pretty much the same thing. It’s the same spirit. He says, speaking in the first person but really referring to the God Self within them, “For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.” The entire lesson is about resolve. He is saying that when we begin the process of enlightenment, our whole life is going to change, and no one who feels that they have a claim on us is going to be happy about it, neither your family nor your society.
Another aspect implied in the word “sword,” when used in the mystical sense, is that, when drawn, it is a statement of intent. Jesus is telling his disciples that if they intend to go down this path, they must commit to it as though their life depended upon it. They must value their commitment more than they value any other human relationship, including those with their own families. Nothing can be more important than God.
This is nothing new. Every spiritual teacher throughout history has said the same thing. The truth will set you free by cutting away everything that is untrue, especially your self-image. When Jesus said, “A man’s foes will be they of his own household,” he was saying that everything that is familiar is going to increase its hold on you; the more your consciousness rises above the level of commonplace thinking, the more your mind will rebel. And its rebellion is going to manifest not just inwardly but outwardly also. How can it not?
We don’t just slip into mystical enlightenment. It doesn’t come to us meekly, pleading with us to keep it company. No, it has to be taken. Not as in stealing, but in the same way you would set about winning a contest, a serious contest, a contest where not winning isn’t an option. What do you think a free-climber is thinking when he or she is about to scale a thousand-foot rock cliff? Do you think they’re saying to themselves, “Gee, I hope I make this.”? I don’t think so. No one puts their life on the line hoping it’s going to work out. That’s not the proper mindset.
The name of the sword is “Victory!” It’s the only true battle cry. Let it be yours.