5. Swords

Final Instructions: “Buy a Sword.”
Luke 22:35-39, 47-53

Jesus 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.”….

47 While he was still speaking, suddenly a crowd came, and the one called Judas, one of the twelve, was leading them. He approached Jesus to kiss him; 48 but Jesus said to him, “Judas, is it with a kiss that you are betraying the Son of Man?” 49 When those who were around him saw what was coming, they asked, “Lord, should we strike with the sword?” 50 Then one of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear. 51 But Jesus said, “No more of this!” And he touched his ear and healed him. 52 Then Jesus said to the chief priests, the officers of the temple police, and the elders who had come for him, “Have you come out with swords and clubs as if I were a bandit? 53 When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on me. But this is your hour, and the power of darkness!”

Gethsemane

It was late on Thursday night.  An act of violence was about to be committed.  The mob approached the dozen people gathered in the Garden of Gethsemane.  The approaching crowd was armed to the teeth.  Clubs were clenched in the hands of some.  Swords were gripped by the hands of the military personnel.  Flaming torches with sparks flying into the night cast their lurid light in all directions.  The mob wormed its way through the trees in the orchard of olive trees.  They jostled one another, as they hurried into the garden.  Judas is leading the way.

Before that evening has ended swords will be drawn and blood will be shed and Jesus will have been handcuffed and rushed off into the darkness to stand trial before a kangaroo court.

We expect such behaviour from the crowd.  Mobs are notorious for violence.  But, interestingly, this time the mob only threatens it, but does not do it.  It is the apostles that create the violence.  It is the sword of an apostle that comes swinging through the night, drawing first blood.  They are fortunate that their deed did not spark a much greater conflagration.  One rash act like Peter pulled off can be like using a match to test a gas leak.  Fortunately, Jesus takes charge and the violence goes no further.

The Matter of Swords

But the question comes, what are disciples doing with swords in their hands at all?  They have spent months with the Prince of Peace.  Over and over again they have been warned against violence by Jesus.  He has spoken words such as “turn the other cheek…. love your enemies…. do good to those who persecute you… pray for those who despise you.”  They had heard John the Baptist saying to soldiers, “Do violence to no man.”  Jesus had gotten after James and John when they had wanted him to bring down fire on his foes on an earlier occasion.  Surely they should have caught on that violence was unacceptable.  But that night the saints carried swords!

Three of the Gospels give us no reason for the presence of swords in the hands of the twelve.  But Luke gives us an explanation.   On the night of the betrayal, Jesus speaks words that lead two of the disciples at least to pack a sword on their way to the prayer meeting in Gethsemane. It is a passage of strange significance.  These words have puzzled all of us.  There are a couple of ways they can be understood.

Some think that Jesus was encouraging violence

He was obviously being serious.  He has been speaking of establishing a Kingdom. He has been using words such as “betrayal” and “denial”.  These were not moments to joke with his friends.  He means what he says. But, was he intending the apostles to take his words literally?  Some have said that he was.  There is a time for peace and there is a time for war.   Turning the other cheek is fine, most of the time, but some days, forget it.  The church, these voices tells us, at times must act with political force.

In the year 1302 Pope Boniface the 8th said that God has given to the church the two swords of spiritual and civil authority.  The church has a right to use armies and inquisitions. It has the right to rule in both piety and politics.  And in our world there are some who say that the church is obligated to use violence, if the more peaceful appeals will not work.

So when Jesus said, “That’s enough” he meant to say that two swords are a fine beginning at least for this night.

But if this is the true meaning of this event, then Jesus has reversed all that he has ever said before, and the very reverse of what he says in the garden just a short time later when he tells Peter to put away his sword, and then reverses the damage to a young man’s ear.  I do not think for a moment that Jesus is encouraging violence.  There must be a better explanation.

Others think that Jesus was using a vivid metaphor

Jesus has a fondness for such metaphors.  In Matthew 10:34, he says, “Think not that I have come to bring peace to the earth, but a sword, for I have come to set a man against his father…and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.” Luke adds to those words even stronger words; “I have come to set fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!”

Later Paul the Apostle will use similar language, “Put on the entire armor of God….Take the sword of the spirit…. Be a good soldier of Jesus Christ…. I have fought the good fight.” and so on.

So what do these strange words of Jesus spoken in the upper room that night mean?   He is saying, “Before this day you could go from village to village in safety, but now we are entering into a time of violence, be ready.  There was a day you didn’t need to take money with you, or extra clothing, because you were readily welcomed.  Homes opened up to you. Food was provided.  Those were good days when people were open to you.  And even if they were not open, you could simply walk out of town and knock off the dust from your feet.  But now, you may not get to leave town at all, or you might leave it in tar and feathers.”

He is not saying that we should take up swords literally, but, we should be armed with a realistic view of the days ahead.  We should be aware that we live in a dangerous time and we should be prepared.  There is a war on, against evil.  But the weapons of our warfare are not swords or acts of violence, but deeds of love and words of truth and lives of virtue.

Of course the disciples took him far too literally, as they often did, and grabbed a couple of swords.   Where would they get such swords from?  They may not have been swords as we picture them.  They may well have been long knives which may have been basic equipment for fishermen or travelers, just like an earlier generation of our own times might carry a pocket knife.  These are long knives about 12 to 18 inches long, usable for many domestic purposes, but also for protection if needed.

The disciples say, “Here are a couple.”  But when Jesus says “that’s enough” he may well have meant, “that’s enough of that guys. Come on, Let’s go.” Dismissing their too literal an approach to the problem.

The Dullness of the Disciples

But perhaps the real question is, “Why does Luke tell us this story at all?”   Matthew, Mark and John, if they knew of this conversation, chose not to include it in their accounts?   It is a story capable of being misunderstood and might do damage to Jesus’ reputation as a man of peace.

But Luke has a reason.  He is telling us not only about Jesus, but about the disciples.  He knows that we know Jesus well enough to know that he did not mean to be taken literally, but he lets us know that the apostles once more, failed to understand their master.  Luke notes that Jesus quotes a strange passage from the Old Testament  “He was reckoned with lawless”  But who are the lawless?  The Mob? perhaps. Maybe the two thieves on the cross?  perhaps. Or could he mean his own disciples?   For these disciples are also among the lawless.

For the disciples also participate in the fallenness of the world, in both a dullness of mind, and a violent streak.  They still dream of the old kind of Kingdom with swords flashing, with conquest and dominance.  They expect a kingdom in which drawn swords are part of the coat of arms.

Luke may tell us this entire story to underscore the deep misunderstanding that separates Jesus from his friends.  When he says, “It is enough” he is not agreeing that two swords will do fine.   His words are meant to be a sad dismissal of the subject.   He will say the same words in the garden of Gethsemane, (Mark 14:41), While he is praying, they are sleeping.  He approaches them with the words, “Are you still sleeping.  Enough! – Enough of that – Let us be going.”   They are the words used to express deep discouragement with the situation.  There is a weariness in Jesus as he faces his own death in just a few hours.

Conclusions

But back to our question, “Why does Luke tell us this about the twelve?”  There may be a crucial reason.   In his day there were those who put too much stock in the leaders of the church.  There was the tendency to make them co-redeemers with Christ.  But Luke wants us to know that these men were both human and faulty, themselves transgressors, who needed to be saved from their own violence and stupidity.  They were not mini-messiah’s, who helped save the world.  They too were among the transgressors that needed God’s help if they were ever to be any different.  The disciples were not at this moment part of the solution, they were part of the problem.

Instead Luke tells us, single handedly, with opposition from without and hindrances from within, Jesus went to the cross by himself. Alone he saved us from our sin.  He alone is the world redeemer.

The saints of God were part of the problem on that very problematic night.  Instead of standing with him, they too, like the rest of the world, stood against him.  Not that they chose to do that.  They were simply unaware of the events that awaited both him and them.  And over the years that followed, as they remembered his arrest and subsequent death, there must have come a new sense of penitence into their lives.

And during this season of Lent, we too need to take penitence seriously.  For we are no different than those first 12 followers.  We too find a violent streak in our own lives and our own culture that continues to maim the relationship of our lives.  Oh I doubt it any of us raise swords, pull knives, or fire guns.  But our love for vicarious violence on the screens and in our sports, and in our speech remind us that there is something violent about all humanity, that needs to be forgiven and cleansed.    We do not pull out our swords to main one another, but we do pull out words that carry sharp-edged criticism, and devastate the reputation or well-being of another.

During this season penitence is certainly in order.  Prayers of confession, are always appropriate, if not always for ourselves as individuals, at least for the nation and world in which we live.

A prayer of confession.

Oh God, in our meeting of Jesus Christ, we met the prince of peace.  A man who lived among us to show us that peace and understanding were to pervade our relationships with each other.  We have heard your words and they have spoken peace to us, and taught us to be peace makers.

Even if we refused to listen to you, we should have learned that lesson from the carnage we have inflicted on one another in this century.  We should have let the last war be the war to end all wars.  But even as we pray to you, violence is done in the homes and cities of Canada and the US.  Violence is perpetrated against children and spouses by people who believe themselves to be civilized.  In our great cities where our greatest creativity is manifest, in those very same places, so is our greatest violence.  And across Europe and Africa and Asia unremitting wars are still being fought over significant and insignificant issues.   As you look downward on our hate, you must grieve beyond all our grieving.

Oh God.  Forgive us our sins. Cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  Create in all of us a deep revulsion to any and all manifestation of violence, so that our children can grow up in a world more greatly influenced by Jesus Christ, our Lord.  These things we pray in his name.  Amen