In a recent email exchange with a serviceman named James (who has commented here a few times) asking what I do with 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. (for the record, this is probably better translated as “enough of that” …for more on that go here)
This passage is often bundled with Jesus’ conversation with the centurion as proof that Jesus wasn’t entirely committed to non-violence. And while the passage ought to give a pacifist pause, I don’t think it proves that Jesus thought that there were legitimate uses for violence.
Greg Boyd’s Take: Two Swords are Enough
Greg Boyd has done an ok job interpreting that passage non-violently…but I don’t think his argument is completely satisfying. Greg argues:
I think a close look at the passage reveals Jesus’ purpose. Immediately after telling them to buy a sword (Lk 22:36) Jesus says, “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.”(vs. 37). To fulfill prophecy, Jesus had to be viewed as a transgressor. He had to at least appear to be a political revolutionary to the Jewish authorities for them to feel justified in arresting him. His cleansing of the temple a few days earlier was probably calculated for the same effect. So, to fulfill the prophecy and to provoke the Jewish authorities, he had to have enough weaponry to justify being viewed as a law breaking revolutionary.
While I agree, I typically don’t find “Jesus did X so he could self-consciously fulfill prophecy” a good enough argument. Furthermore, while it certainly makes sense that Jesus needed to give some semblance of being a political revolutionary, I am fairly confident that he could have gotten crucified without appearing to endorse violence. In other words, Jesus’ nonviolent revolution was sufficiently subersive alread to warrant the death penalty. I see no need to add some weapons as props to push his enemies into arresting him.
Greg Boyd’s take is one of the better ways of interpreting this passage. Some folks dismiss this passage as a later insertion by those who want to legitimize violence. On the other end of the spectrum are those who believe that this passage legitimizes self-defense.
Enough of this!
Jesus knows that things are going to go down. He knows that, in a little while, his disciples will be outlaws. And so, to prepare them for the coming reality, he reminds them of an earlier time.
He reminded them of when they were sent out with nothing, yet they lacked nothing. But now, things were going down, so he asks them (rhetorically, I believe) to carry a purse or bag, and for them each to carry a sword.
Jesus asks them this because the words of Isaiah 53:12 must be fulfilled: “And he was counted with lawless people.” One could use this reference to someone indicate, as Greg Boyd does, that Jesus needed to appear to be with brigands in order to facilitate his arrest. But it seems best to take the reference as a foreshadowing of the fate that is to come. In other words, the carrying of the swords doesn’t fulfill the prophecy…rather, Jesus tells his disciples to carry swords because the prophecy is about to be fulfilled. That is a subtle yet important distinction.
Taking Jesus literally, they inform Jesus that they already have two swords among them. Jesus seems to find this exasperating, since he cuts the conversation short by proclaiming “enough of this.” It seems that the disciples, yet again, are missing the point.
The words with which Jesus concludes do not mean that two swords are enough…the Greek doesn’t require this translation and it doesn’t really make sense. Two swords are profoundly insufficient against the soldiers who are on their way to arrest Jesus (Luke 22:47ff).
During the arrest, the disciples ask if they should use their swords and one of the disciples (elsewhere we learn that it is Peter) pulls out one of those swords and uses it—and gets rebuked for it. So, clearly, this whole conversation about swords doesn’t indicate that Jesus intended for his disciples to use swords.
So, what’s going on here? Jesus tells his disciples to each have a sword…they feebly respond that they have two already…Jesus gets frustrated. And later, when he’s arrested, Jesus rebukes Peter for using one of the two swords that they already had.
What’s the point? Why does Jesus tell them to have swords? Given the context and Jesus’ larger teachings on nonviolence he was trying to make a larger point that his disciples were too obtuse to get. Which is why he told them “Enough of this!”
Jesus is being ironic. It is the only thing that makes sense of the passage. Jesus, on his way to being arrested, knows that the time of trial has come. And in order to prepare them for the hostility that is to come, tells them, in effect, to posture themselves for war.
But they take Jesus literally, still unable to interpret the words of their Master in a way that fits with his overall teaching on the Kingdom of God. Jesus’ words mustn’t be taken as justification for armed resistance or self defense. Rather, he is calling his disciples to face the coming confrontation boldly, doing revolution in the way he taught them. Jesus taught them a peaceful way to resist the Enemy. Paul’s teachings on resisting the powers (rather than flesh and blood) aren’t his innovation—they flow out of the teaching of Christ. Yet here, in this passage, at this point in the story, the disciples still don’t get that.
At any rate…it seems clear to me (whether you read this as simply Jesus fulfilling prophecy so that he can fulfill Isaiah 53 or you see Jesus as being ironic) that this passage simply cannot be used to legitimize self-defense. That isn’t the point…and the context actually refutes that point.