Why a sword if we are to love our enemies?

Luke 22:35-38  Then Jesus asked them, “When I sent you without purse, bag or sandals, did you lack anything?” “Nothing,” they answered.  He said to them, “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.  It is written: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors’; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment.”  The disciples said, “See, Lord, here are two swords.” “That is enough,” he replied.

As we come to the end of the Gospel of Luke, one of the passages most people would rather skip over quickly is Luke 22:35-38. This is because in it Jesus commands his disciples to buy swords, which are no doubt instruments of violence. This passage is confusing to most modern Christians for a variety of reasons. First, why does Jesus command this? He seems to be something of a pacifist, and within a few hours, he will reproach Peter for actually using a sword on the high priest’s servant—likely one of the same two swords mentioned in this passage. Further, the commentaries on this point are puzzling. Virtually all of them interpret the passage in strange ways that strike me as cop-outs. This modern commentary by Robert Stein (1992) is typical of most that are presently in print:

“And if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one. Even if the exact interpretation of this verse is uncertain, it is clear that a new situation is envisioned. The disciples would soon encounter greater opposition and even persecution (cf. Acts 8:1–3; 9:1–2; 12:1–5). The reference to the purchase of a sword is strange. Attempts to interpret this literally as a Zealot-like call to arms, however, are misguided and come to grief over the saying’s very “strangeness.” Understood as a call to arms, this saying not only does not fit Jesus’ other teachings but radically conflicts with them. Also if two swords are “enough” (22:38), war with the legions of Rome was certainly not envisioned…The “sword” is best understood in some metaphorical sense as indicating being spiritually armed and prepared for battle against the spiritual foes. The desperate need to be “armed” for these future events is evident by the command to sell one’s mantle, for this garment was essential to keep warm at night (see comments on 6:29).”

Or to go further back, this is from John Calvin, who I often find very helpful:

“And yet he does not call them to an outward conflict, but only, under the comparison of fighting, he warns them of the severe struggles of temptations which they must undergo, and of the fierce attacks which they must sustain in spiritual contests. That they might more willingly throw themselves on the providence of God, he first reminded them, as I have said, that God took care to supply them with what was necessary, even when they carried with them no supplies of food and raiment. Having experienced so large and seasonable supplies from God, they ought not, for the future, to entertain any doubt that he would provide for every one of their necessities.”

Over the years, some commentators have even sought to show that when Jesus says “that is enough” in reference to the two swords, he is not saying, “Two will be plenty,” but “Enough talk of swords. Literal swords isn’t what I mean! Quit talking about literal swords.”

I disagree with all these approaches for a number of reasons. Let me list a few, but that is not my main interest. My main interest is how and why we accept certain interpretations of scripture.

You may have surmised that I take this verse to be a literal command. That is not to say that it does not carry with it the metaphorical weight of the comments above. Literal commands often imply spiritual and moral truths, and this one does. However, before interpreting the passage spiritually or as a metaphor, we should ask some questions.  First, is there any indication in this passage that Jesus means these commands metaphorically? I find it conspicuous that I did not find a commentator that made an argument for this. In the modern commentator above, you can see that he only considers one very unlikely literal meaning (conflict with the legions of Rome), and then simply asserts that the passage is to be taken metaphorically. Here is another example of the exact same treatment by a very fine modern commentator:

“Nor again is it likely that the saying is primarily designed to explain why the disciples had the use of a sword in Gethsemane, and to show that in so doing they were disobedient to the will of Jesus…Rather the saying is a call to be ready for hardship and self-sacrifice.” (I. H. Marshall, 1978)

Though the comments are from the 1970s, Marshall’s commentary is still considered a gold standard for Luke. Yet, I’m puzzled how telling them to buy a sword and to take along a purse and bag is a “call to be ready for hardship and sacrifice” with no specific or further significance. Really? This is the moment that Jesus reveals that following him will include hardship and sacrifice? Or is this a sentence that allows the commenter to move on to the next passage? Perhaps, they do not wish to use up much of their word count on these verses. We all have limited time and space.

However, this does not grapple with the details, structure and full context of this passage. First, Jesus tells his disciples many times they will face all kinds of hardships. This saying is in response to Peter, who claims to wish to follow Jesus to prison and to death:

Luke 22:33-34   But he replied, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.”  Jesus answered, “I tell you, Peter, before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know me.”

Sometimes Jesus will answer one person, and then use that as an opportunity to teach his whole group (example: Matt 20:20ff). First he pushes back on Peter; he needs to check his heart. He’s not as ready as he thinks. In fact, he doesn’t even know what he’s getting ready FOR. This is what verse 37 tells us. None of the disciples can follow his in his sufferings; they must prepare for a post-Jesus life as his disciples. So how does one do that? What will be the same and what will change? Jesus made a comparison when he sent them out to preach without him the first time. On that occasion, he told them to take nothing with them:

Luke 9:1-3  When Jesus had called the Twelve together, he gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick.  He told them: “Take nothing for the journeyno staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra tunic.”

On this journey, they would be received, and God would provide protection, shelter, and sustenance along their journey. Jesus was well thought of, and even if they were unknown, there was no negative reason to harm or deny hospitality to his disciples. They would be received, and they were in no danger. They needed to only trust God. The worst that would happen to them is people would reject their message.

But now this was going to change. Jesus literally says, “but now”; he uses the Greek disjunction alla, which represents a strong contrast. Therefore, in the context of their travels without Jesus’ physical presence, what will change? Everything. They will have the same mission. They will have a more complete gospel. But their master will now be more of a lightning rod and his name, as a crucified criminal and traitor, will be radioactive among many. God is going to be with them, but a lot is going to change. In this context, Jesus reverses his expectations of their travel belongings and tells them they will now need to be maximally prepared. They will need money for food. They will need a bag, travel items, and extra clothes. They are not forbidden to take a staff for protection as in the former situation, but are even now told to buy a more effective means of personal defense: a sword. Further, this unexpected commanded is given so forcefully, that Jesus tells them they should rather go without a cloak (an outer garment of warmth used at night) than to not have one. All of these are commands for their life of travel and exposure that will ensue for the rest of their ministries. It is a necessary set of practical and straightforward commands.

In interpreting this passage, we might ask ourselves a question of consistency: How do we interpret Jesus commands in their first outing? What shall we make of his commands NOT to take a bag, a purse, a staff, or anything other than what is needed for the days travel? Should we interpret them as a metaphor? Did the disciples nod at Jesus and then take all of these things on their journey, comforted by the knowledge that God would provide every need, since that was Jesus real message in his commands, not the content of the commands themselves? We know that isn’t the case from the passage before us. Jesus asks his disciples: “Did you [actually] lack anything?” That is, the first experience was not just a training, but a test. And it was only a test if they literally obeyed Jesus’ commands. And in the context of the experiential learning that comes from obeying his literal commands about their ministry travel, he gives them these commands. So on what grounds might we call them metaphor ONLY?

I have covered some reasons I disagree with common interpretations of this passage, but I stated above that my main interest is actually how and why we accept certain interpretations of scripture. Here’s some interpretation issues to consider:

  1. Commentators can have blind spots and aren’t equally interested in every passage. An example of this is not thinking through violence issues well, as in this passage.
  2. We should not make something metaphorical that is explicitly not, without getting the literal meaning exactly clear first.
  3. We should not allow someone to lay aside clear indications from the immediate context to make sense of a passage when it isn’t necessary.
  4. All things being equal, the “harder” interpretation is to be preferred first, even if it seems to be in “conflict” with the Lord’s other teachings. It may well be that the Lord expects us to decipher his nuances, rather than level the hills and valleys of his views.
  5. We must always ask: have all possible options really been considered?

We must consider these interpretation issues not only as relevant to this passage, but also in reading and interpreting the Bible for ourselves. Remember that though God is more nuanced than we could ever imagine, he will never lie. The Holy Spirit is at work convicting and teaching us through his word. And Jesus is the living Word who perfectly embodies all of God’s commands, and you have the mind of Christ.

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