Today's Gospel seems utterly contrary to everything we might assume Jesus stands for. It is as if he wants to disabuse us of our notions by stating things in as baldly contradictory a way as possible: "Do you think that I have come to establish peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division." (Some translations put that last word as "sword," heightening the contrast with peace.)
What gives? Didn't the angels sing "Glory to God and peace on earth" when Jesus was born? Isn't he Isaiah's promised "Prince of Peace"?
Of course, Jesus is making a point about what peace really is. Not the wimpy, self-content peace of compromised values; the peace that plays fast and loose with the truth. Jesus is the "sign of contradiction" whose own mother feels "the sword pierce her heart" for the sake of the true peace he came to bring: peace that takes a stand.
Paul writes to the Romans what their very own experience confirms: that the "peace" they had in their former lives of unbridled self-gratification now fills them with shame and embarrassment. It leads only to spiritual death and offers no hope beyond the pleasure of the moment. But if Jesus brings a "sword," it is a sharp and powerful blade, slicing through the bonds of slavery to the flesh and setting the person free to be a full-time servant of God, no longer waiting for mere wages, but confident of the gift of God: "eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord."