I recently preached a sermon based on John 2:13-22 (Jesus cleansing the temple) and the Ten Commandments according to Exodus 20:1-17. Jesus is obviously annoyed, angered even, by the rather blasphemous and unfaithful practices of Herod’s Temple.
Since a preacher’s job is to make the biblical story connect with our lives, I wondered what we do that might evoke the anger of our Lord when it comes to our use of God’s name. I wondered whether selling things with a Bible verse on the package was witness or perhaps, manipulation – and so, something Jesus would clean up. I also talked about a recent speech from an NRA official which stated that the right to bear arms was not “bestowed by man, but granted by God to all Americans as our American birthright…” Since I (and not just I) find no biblical or traditional basis for such a statement, I wondered if it was an example of how we all can bend God for our own purposes.
A few folks asked me about what I made of a passage in Luke that seemed to justify, and maybe even direct, the disciples to carry weapons. The verse offered is Luke 22:35-38:
He said to them, “When I sent you out without a purse, bag, or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “No, not a thing.” 36 He said to them, “But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one. 37 For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was counted among the lawless’; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled.” 38 They said, “Lord, look, here are two swords.” He replied, “It is enough.” (NRSV)
So, I dusted off my commentaries, brushed the rust off my Greek a bit, and dug into this passage in the same way I would prepare a sermon. (You’ll find a bibliography of sources below if you need to explore for yourself). This is what I found:
First, the context of the passage, as with all passages of scripture, must guide interpretation. This scene takes place on the night Jesus will be handed over for crucifixion. Supper is over. The conversation between Master and disciples has been full of misunderstanding – the disciples just don’t get anything.
Now, the great and final conflict between God’s reign, revealed in Jesus, and the reign of the earthly powers that deal in death is at hand. Up to this point, Jesus has kept those death-dealing powers at arm’s length. He reminds his disciples of his vision by reminding them of how he sent them out into the world. They needed nothing. All was provided, even their safety was under the aegis of God. Then he warns them that, in order to fulfill his mission, he – and so they – will be handed over to the powers of death; the folks who carry swords. The kingdom of death will have one final move against Jesus and his vision this very night.
Some scholars posit that the carrying of a sword as Jesus is handed over to death would make him even more “lawless,” fulfilling the prophecy about him. But the theme of misunderstanding seems more likely. Jesus is speaking metaphorically. As “sword” is so often used in scripture, it refers to the powers of death. Sadly, the disciples, for the third time in this one evening, will fail to understand and interpret his words literally. They do this all the time in the gospels. And that means they get it wrong.
When the boys respond that they possess, literally, two actual swords, Jesus responds, “It is enough!” Does this mean that two actual swords is all that they need? That seems doubtful given the host they will encounter soon. It is certainly a recipe for being “outgunned” (pardon the pun). Jesus response, however, can be read in another manner – one that makes more sense within the narrative of misunderstanding and within Greek usage. Eugene Peterson, in The Message, renders the passage this way:
“They said, “Look, Master, two swords!” But he said, “Enough of that; no more sword talk.” (Luke 22:38, The Message)
Frederick Danker, a towering scholar on Luke, says that when Jesus says “It is enough!” He means “Case closed! They mean well, but there is no getting through their skulls this night.” (353)
Finally, you have to keep reading the narrative. Just 15 verses after this passage, with no break in the action, one of the swords appears as Jesus is arrested.
When those who were around him saw what was coming, they asked, “Lord, should we strike with the sword?” Then one of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus said, “No more of this!” And he touched his ear and healed him. (Luke 22:49-51, NRSV)
If Jesus really wanted the disciples to carry a sword AND to act in self-defense, why then does Jesus put a stop to the violence? Why command the carrying of swords if you can’t use them? Well, it is because Jesus doesn’t command carrying weapons. He acknowledges that on the night of his betrayal, swords will still be a power in the kingdom of death. After his death and resurrection – nope. Sorry. Jesus blesses the peacemakers and commands love of enemies (Luke 6:27-36); he shuns self-defense in death on the cross sparing the life of, well, all of us. Does he expect that of us? I think so. You’ll have to decide for yourself. But don’t look to Jesus to bless violence in any shape or size.
Marshall, I. Howard, The Gospel of Luke: A Commentary on the Greek Text, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B Eerdmans Publishing) 1978, 823-27
Tiede, David L., Luke, (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House) 1988, 388-90
Craddock, Fred B., Luke, (Louisville: John Knox Press) 1990, 260-66
Danker, Frederick W., Jesus and the New Age: A Commentary on Luke’s Gospel, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press) 1988, 352-53
Wright, Tom, Luke for Everyone, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press) 2004, 266-67
Ringe, Sharon H., Luke (Louiville: Westminster John Knox Press) 1995, 264-65
copyright © Timothy V. Olson, 2018