Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, "Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land." Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labour. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labour. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.
Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, "Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live."
"Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one's foes will be members of one's own household.
Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up he cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
"Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet's reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple — truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward."
Beginning today, the readings from Exodus lead up to the theophany on Mount Sinai (chap. 19), followed by the guidelines for keeping the covenant (chaps. 20-23), and its solemn ratification (chap. 24). Fidelity is the key. Keeping this covenant is to be Israel's way to peace with God and with each other. Today's Gospel text is the conclusion one of Jesus' major sermons, the missionary discourse, for those he sends to continue his work in the world. We are reminded, implicitly by Exodus and explicitly in the gospel, that following the will of God can be hard, even disruptive of peace between people. Jesus sums it up in a dramatic paradox, "My mission is to spread, not peace, but division." The text of Matthew reads even more grimly, "not peace but the sword"; Luke blunted this expression by changing "sword" to "division" (Luke 12:51).
The gospel states the inevitability of suffering and division, quite unsought and undesired. We may remember Simeon's "blessing" and words to Mary as she held the infant Jesus in her arms: "This child is destined to be the downfall and the rise of many in Israel, a sign that will be opposed" (Luke 2:34). The sword of division is raised for nationalistic motives in the Book of Exodus and by family disputes according to Jesus' words. Exodus records how a new king who "did not know Joseph" came to power in Egypt. Archaeology and history have revealed political and social upheavals in support of this. A native Egyptian dynasty had finally driven out the old and hated Asiatic (Hyksos) dynasty from Egypt, and in the backlash of fear and hatred towards all Asiatics, the Israelites were reduced to slave labour. God's people were oppressed because of racial bias and nationalistic envy.
In the gospel it looks as if the problems can come from within our own family circle. Again it is not peace at any price, but only that peace that can coexist with a sincere resolve to follow Jesus. If the sword of discord has to strike within family relationships, it must not be for dominance or personal ambition but only for the sake of conscience. But the sword of violence never brings clear moral solutions, whatever the dispute may be. We are summoned to be sincere and strong, to be willing to suffer and bear the cross, to be humble and lowly, to be men and women of trust in Jesus.