A common objection to Christian pacifism is the curious passage in the Gospel of Luke where Jesus says, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.” (Luke 22:36)
Brian Pendell voiced just such an objection in a conversation about Christian imperialism early this week, stating, “After all, the same Jesus who tells us to turn the other cheek also tells us to sell our cloaks to buy swords. It’s funny how many people ignore the second verse while trumpeting the first. But both are needed to understand what Jesus was teaching. And if one is not literal, why should the other be?”
That’s a good question and an important challenge, so I would now like to answer Brian and others more fully than I was able to at the time. So, here goes.
The context of betrayal
Firstly, in addressing this challenge I think it is important for readers to familiarise themselves with the whole of Luke 22, a chapter which focuses on the many ways in which the disciples betray Jesus, particularly Judas and Peter. Many misunderstandings of scripture arise from proof texting (aka cherry picking) and the two swords saying is no exception.
Having read Luke 22 observe the following:
1/ A pro national defence stance is the least tenable interpretation of Luke 22 read holistically, because if Jesus was seeking to defend himself against anyone this evening it was against the national leaders – here represented by the chief priests, elders and officers of the temple guard. The guards were the nation defenders here, not Jesus.
2/ A pro insurrection stance is a similarly untenable as an interpretation of Luke 22 read holistically, as Jesus explicitly rejects this, saying, “Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come with swords and clubs? Every day I was with you in the temple courts, and you did not lay a hand on me. But this is your hour—when darkness reigns.”
3/ Two swords would not have been nearly enough for twelve men to defend themselves against a crowd of heavily armed guards. Yet curiously Jesus said, “That is enough.” Enough for what then? Jesus seems to suggest, enough to be “numbered with the transgressors.” Curious indeed.
The story which emerges
So let’s look at the context and narrative arc of the swords saying more carefully. Jesus commences the evening with a prophecy of betrayal and execution, together with instructions about the upside down power structure of the government of God. Jesus then says “if you don’t have a sword … buy one”, which is strange, because it seems very much at odds with the prediction and the instruction. Immediately following this and the prediction of Peter’s betrayal, Peter produces two swords, to which Jesus dismissively suggests, “That is enough,” even though it is clearly not enough for defence against their enemies. No more swords are purchased though, so the disciples are still largely defenceless when the hour comes. Jesus again countermands Peter when he actually uses the swords, and dismisses the idea that swords were necessary to capture him.
Could it be that Peter’s use of the sword, against all the previous teaching of Jesus, and against all the prophecies of Jesus, is the beginning of Peter’s betrayal? Could it be this resorting to swords was symptomatic of Peter’s doubts about the new covenant coming through faithfulness in the face of death. That the seeds of Peter’s betrayal began with the swords? That Jesus’ talk of swords was laced with irony? That it was part of the betrayal prophecy? Maybe Peter needed more faith that God would win the war for him?
It is difficult to be definitive about so enigmatic a saying, but in either case there is a general hermeneutical principle that, when weighing up many clear verses against one confusing verse, the interpretational weight should be placed on the many clear verses over the one confusing verse. The sword saying is just such a verse. It’s confusing, yes, but this very difficulty should prompt us to ask if theologies with vast implications should not be constructed on it without caution.
So how do pro-Christendom Christians co-opt Luke 22:36 as a national defence proof text despite the hermeneutical difficulties and the wider witness of the New Testament? Well for those who actually think about it (and unfortunately in my experience that’s a minority), it is often by switching from a direct to an indirect consideration of political context. Rather than recognising the political location of Jesus as an enemy of the state, Luke 22:36 is extracted out of its political context, and by necessity, its narrative context as well. It is then co-opted into conversations about self defence, which on the surface seem more tenable. Then, with a hat tip to highly emotive family defence scenarios, it is exported to alternative (and often contradictory) political contexts where it may be drafted for military service. It is by these logical contortions that Jesus, an enemy of the state, is morphed into a mascot of the state.
But if we are serious about scripture we cannot ignore the direct political and narrative context of Luke 22:36. We should not shy away from the implications just because they are uncomfortable and countercultural. As with Jesus, I say, “No more of this!”