|Sword Talk: Luke 22:38
Two swords are enough. Really? Not!
This enigmatic statement by Jesus in Luke 22:38 has created some stir in the history of Christian thought. Some have even allegorized it to mean that Christians carry two swords—the word of God (Scripture) and the state weaponry (real swords). I’m reminded of the statue of Zwingli in Zurich holding a Bible and a sword. As a result Jesus’ “it is enough” comment has been used to sanction not only self-defense but just war.
To read the text that way is to miss the point as widely as the disciples themselves did, and we are at least in a better narratival position to understand it than they were. After all, in the next few hours when a disciple draws his dagger and cuts off the ear of the high priest’s servant, Jesus rebukes the disciples by redemptively healing the servant. The narrative rejects the use of the sword. The story of Jesus in the Garden returns good for evil and rejects returning evil for evil, which—of course—is consonant with Jesus’ own message in his ministry (cf. Luke 6:27). Jesus practices what he preaches. Amazing stuff, huh?
So, how are two swords “enough”? Enough for what? To defeat those who are coming to arrest Jesus? Jesus refused their use. Enough for the advancement of the kingdom against Rome? Hardly. But the disciples apparently thought it was for either self-defense or for the prosecution of the kingdom since when they saw the threat that Judas brought into the garden they asked, “Should we strike with our swords?” With perhaps some frustration in his voice, Jesus retorted “No more of this!” (Luke 22:51.)
Maybe we are going the wrong direction here. Maybe Jesus did not intend to say that “we have enough swords.” Or, if he did, perhaps there is a strong tinge of sarcasm here or perhaps frustration. Maybe Jesus means something like “Enough of that; no more sword talk” (The Message). Maybe Jesus intends the same meaning that Yahweh had when he said to Moses, “That is enough,” the matter is closed…discussion over (Deut. 3:26).
I feel like that with my teenagers sometimes. As we become more involved in a discussion they miss my meaning or they don’t have the maturity or experience to catch the point. And so I say something like, “discussion over…this is fruitless…let’s move on.”
So, perhaps Jesus was not really talking about swords at all. Perhaps he was using the “sword” to make a larger point. When the disciples took the exhortation to sell their cloaks and buy swords literally, Jesus says, “Enough of that; you guys don’t get it, do you?”
Jesus was contrasting the hospitality of their Galilean ministry with the hostility of their present circumstances. While in Galilee they could depend on the warm reception of the villages, here in Judea—indeed, in the next few moments—the disciples will encounter hostility. The situation has changed. Whereas before they needed neither purse nor sandals, now they need a sword instead of a cloak (a necessity for staying warm at night). The urgency of the contrast is startling. They will need a sword more than they need warmth. The point is not that the disciples need to literally secure a sword, but they need to realize the charged and changed atmosphere in which they now move.
They need to prepare themselves for a trial. Satan is about to test them, just as he is about to test Jesus himself. They should get ready to face the hostility. But Jesus does not mean to literally face it with a sword or a purse or a bag, but to prepare their hearts, to steady their faith and get ready for the trial they are all about to endure. Danger is in the air—secure a sword, be prepared for battle. But not a battle that wields a literal sword, but one that engages the Satanic influences that filled the air that night.
When the disciples took the reference to the “sword” literally, Jesus ends the discussion—perhaps a bit frustrated similar to his experience on the boat in Galilee which Mark narrates (a case where they took “yeast” literally to Jesus’ utter amazement, cf. Mark 8:14-21). One can almost hear Jesus again saying, “Do you still not understand?” as he leads his disciples to the garden where they will be tested…and fail.
Jesus is not interested in swords. He rejects the use of the sword. The one who lives by the sword dies by the sword. Jesus is interested in preparing his disciples for their test, their trial. They fail, but Jesus nevertheless prays for them, pursues them, and expects to again sit at table with them in his kingdom. They fail, but Jesus is gracious. They take up the sword, but Jesus forgives them. They flee, but Jesus still wants them. They ultimately return and Jesus accepts them and gives them a place at his table—not just a place, but a throne at the table. They are royalty at the king’s table.
We, too, misunderstand, and even use the sword. And, no doubt, Jesus is frustrated with us. But he continues to pray for us, pursue us and invite us to his table.
But only if we could learn that we don’t need any swords. When will we learn? Two swords are too many in Jesus’ kingdom.