Two swords, two paths, and the Kingdom of God.

8

January 26, 2009 by J. Madson

And he said unto them, When I sent you without purse, and scrip, and shoes, lacked ye any thing? And they said, Nothing. Then said he unto them, But now, he that hath a purse, let him take it, and likewise his scrip: and he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one. For I say unto you, that this that is written must yet be accomplished in me, And he was reckoned among the transgressors: for the things concerning me have an end. And they said, Lord, behold, here are two swords. And he said unto them, It is enough.”
(Luke 22:35-38 KJV)

This scripture is often used to refute claims that Christ preached non-violence. The argument is generally made that the command to buy swords indicates Jesus endorsement of using force/violence presumably in self defense. However, such a reading makes little sense contextually both in Luke 22 and in the larger text of Christ’s teachings and life.

More likely interpretations of the command to buy swords:

  1. It has been argued we should not take the account literally in that two swords would not defend 12 men or any group that large
  2. Within the context of the sword command Jesus cites a prophecy in Is. 53:12, “For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’ For what is written about me has its fulfillment.”” Luke 22:37. It was very typical throughout Christ’s ministry to purposefully fulfill prophecies. In other words, it seems probable to me that the carrying of the swords was a purposeful act intended to fulfill prophecy much in the same way his securing of the donkey for his entrance into Jerusalem was a carefully planned act. These are the carefully staged acts of a prophetic revolutionary.
  3. The concept that this was prophetic fulfillment also gives context to Christ’s statement in response to the securing of two swords, “It is enough.” This has been characterized by many Christian scholars as meaning “That is enough. Obviously you don’t understand.”
  4. When Christ was actually confronted with the option of the sword, that very night, Christ rebuked Peter with “No more of this!” and added in Matthew’s account that those who take up the sword will perish by the sword.
  5. The healing of the ear also emphasized the place of violence in the kingdom of God.

I believe the previous 5 points illustrate fairly effectively that we should be wary to draw any conclusion about Christ and his endorsement of violence from this verse. If anything such views should be tempered by the strong indication that Christ was more concerned about fulfilling prophecy and that when violence became a real option, he demonstrated the peacefulness of the kingdom of God.

Another take.

Now for a potential interpretation that puts more flesh on the story, perhaps a little too much for some. If we do not read the scriptures with assumptions about how the story will end, a pre-determined outcome, and if we accept that Jesus had a real struggle in the garden and not just over our sins then perhaps there is an answer in Luke’s text. Let me add the caveat that I am not suggesting that Christ did not struggle over our sins (which I may address in a later post) but emphasizing that perhaps there was more to the struggle than often assumed.

Luke gives us the following chronology:

  1. Command to buy two swords
  2. Struggle in the garden
  3. Rebuke of the use of the sword.

One of the more interesting aspects of Jesus’ ministry is his constant temptation or invitation to use force or violence. What type of Messiah would Christ choose to be? What type of Kingdom would God establish? Would it be the Messiah represented in the Maccabean impulse to conquer Israel’s enemies, the Messiah in the role of Jesus (Joshua) the conqueror of Canaan, or in the mold of King David? Would Jesus establish a Kingdom like Rome which obtained peace through victory?

From early on in the gospel we are presented with the Kingdom of God at war with the kingdoms of the world (Rome in this instance). One of the important questions Jesus answers is whether the Kingdom of God is a mimetic rivalry to the kingdoms of the world, ie obtaining power and control in the very same manner, or is it something completely different. How will the Kingdom be established? Will it be done as all other kingdoms had, peace through force, or through some other radical way. Would he lead a dramatic rebellion against Rome and secure Israel’s freedom or would he be nailed to a cross and conquer “the powers that be” in the most absurd way ever imagined. This is how Satan was nailed to the cross as Paul claims. This is how the powers of the world were revealed (uncovered) to be kingdoms founded on blood and horror with the resurrection showing that they had no power except that which we gave them.

NT Wright wrote how unique Christ’s choice was:

“evidence which says that not only is this just a social protest such as might happen any time any place, but this is the unique climatic moment where God is becoming King. And when we study in detail and historically for all it’s worth what Jesus actually means by that it’s not just a protest against the Roman system, Antipas’ system — it’s a way of saying that there is a different way even of being revolutionary. Jesus is a double revolutionary. He is revolutionary both against “the system” and against the normal way of being revolutionary.

What would have been the alternative Christ faced in the garden? How could Christ have avoided the cup of suffering? John Howard Yoder in his very important book The Politics of Jesus phrased it this way

[T]he political temptation is not yet over. What was his prayer all about when, in the night of temptation, he prayed, “If it be possible, let this cup pass from me” (Matt. 26:39). What would it have meant for him to want the cup to pass from him? What would have enabled him to sidestep the cross? “Edifying exegesis” has hardly ever asked the question. For “political exegesis” this question is central. How could he have avoided the cross? We do not know in detail what other way of acting he considered in that hour. But we can hardly be wrong in assuming it would have required a holy war. [page 56]

I believe that is possible that when Christ told the disciples to get swords he was not only fulfilling prophecy but was perhaps struggling with what Messiah he would be. What kind of revolutionary would he be? What Kingdom would he establish in God’s name? Would he drink the bitter cup of the Messiah who suffers, is tortured, and killed or would he be the  conquering Messiah?

This much seems clear, that Christ emerged from the garden determined which kingdom he would establish and what Messiah he would be. The cycle of violence would end. The mimetic rivalry would end. He would suffer, be tortured, and crucified voluntarily as a lamb to the slaughter. He would expose the things hidden from the foundation of the world. That empire, kingdoms, governments, are founded on violence and murder and continue to murder to maintain their power. The Kingdom of God was a kingdom founded on something entirely different. God would rule through peace, gentle persuasion, and no compulsion or he would not rule at all. When the option of violence appeared, and a sword was actually used, Jesus made it clear that there should be “no more of this.” This came in the very moment that Christ described as the the hour and power of darkness. What was the darkness he faced in that moment? It seems evident that part of that darkness was the temptation to be a revolutionary in the traditional sense, to take up the sword. Jesus rejected this option and we would be wise to reflect on his conclusion that those who “take up the sword will perish by the sword.” If his kingdom was of the world, ie one that operated like the world’s kingdoms, his followers would have taken up their swords but I believe Jesus has called us into another kingdom, another way of living, and that is the Kingdom of God as manifest in the life, teachings, and death of Jesus.

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8 thoughts on “Two swords, two paths, and the Kingdom of God.

  1. Vlad says:

    I find it hard to believe that Jesus would have taken two swords to keep his options open; as you even say, what good would two swords do? Indeed, what good would they do in light of the power Jesus manifested and his claim that he could appeal to his father for twelve legions of angels, in Matthew’s version? This would be a very confused and ineffectual messiah.

    Perhaps there is a close tie between Jesus request for swords and his stricture against them. This could simply have been a final object lesson for his disciples, conceived in his prescience.

  2. J. Madson says:

    Vlad,

    I think that you are probably right about the two swords. I personally think that Luke put the request and stricture close together as an object lesson. But I am not precluded to the option that the lesson was that Jesus could have chosen the violence option and rejected it for himself and his followers definitively in that moment.

    I think Jesus rejected the option to be a violent revolutionary repeatedly throughout his life, but I wanted to leave the option open that Jesus may have struggled over his role as Messiah. At a minimum he was tempted by others to take that route. This was partially done because I think Jesus was constantly tempted with taking the route of violence (as explained very well by Yoder). But I think it also illustrates that violence was an option that was rejected repeatedly by Jesus. The passage you reference of the twelve legions certainly lets us know that violence was an option. Not drinking the cup would have entailed some form of political messiahship including but not limited to engaging the powers with violence.

  3. This is, of course, an ambiguous passage; the meaning is supplied by the reader, not the text. Calling a passage metaphorical does not entail that it’s any specific metaphor. Even though it is impossible to literally defend 12 people with 2 swords, it might still be just a simple metaphor condoning self-defense.

    Of course, metaphor is a virtue in human literature; we create and read literature because of its richness of meaning, ambiguity, and because it elicits the participation of the reader. But metaphor is at best a crutch for truth, and often outright poison.

  4. Tod Robbins says:

    I think of a parallel story in Church history where during Zion’s Camp, Joseph Smith instructed the men not to harm a single animal, citing the treatment of rattlesnakes specifically, then later in the Camp killed one. I think it’s teaching the principal that God wants us to adhere to non-violence and an attitude focused in that way, but if the time arose for self defense that we may have that option as directed by the Spirit.

  5. Ron Madson says:

    Tod,
    I am a pacifist in the manner Hauerwas is a pacifist: “I tell everyone I am a pacifist so I do not kill anyone.” Over time the theological arguments and persuasive powers of the words of Christ have drawn me to that conclusion (words including DC 98) but the reality is that the abstract thought evaporates when faced with a rattlesnake—a creature I really fear and loathe for personal reasons. So I agree it may not be that simple when engaged in actual self-defense. It is just that nearly all of our conflicts are NOT self defense (see my little satire “In Defense of Blackwater, Gangs and Neocons” posted somewhere here—at best we have a “one percent” doctrine which is the most criminal of all excuses for a war of aggression.

  6. Ron Madson says:

    I meant DC 98—I do not know how that smiley face got there?

  7. J. Madson says:

    BB,

    at a certain level all language is metaphor. All language suffers from what you call this poison but I still maintain that texts do have meaning. Ambiguous as you feel this passage may be, there are bad readings or analysis and better ones. We do this with all sorts of writings and texts. Whether it be fiction, historical writings, or any other form of writing. If the problem for you is that some consider the bible or other texts as sacred and conveying more than human wisdom then thats more of a matter of not accepting the conclusions. There are many biblical scholars who do not believe the texts are divine and still believe there is meaning and better readings and interpretations.

    The deconstructionist school of thought is fine and all but and certainly the reader can and often does change the text but that is true for every literary form. However, I am convinced that words do have meanings and that in this case it is tenuous at best to believe Jesus endorses any form of violence. It is entirely inconsistent with his message, his actions, and the manner in which he approached his death. It is also inconsistent contextually.

  8. at a certain level all language is metaphor. All language suffers from what you call this poison but I still maintain that texts do have meaning.

    Sure. All human endeavors are messy, ambiguous, fuzzy, and mix truth and falsity. I have no problem viewing any scripture as a work of human literature, and applying the appropriate standards.

    If the problem for you is that some consider the bible or other texts as sacred and conveying more than human wisdom then thats more of a matter of not accepting the conclusions.

    I’m not sure what you mean here. I can recognize what’s good and bad, smart and dumb, in a scripture by elevating my own morality and and rationality above the scripture, just as I do with any work of literature.

    I think a more interesting contrast is between literature and scientific experiment. Even if I think the implications one must draw from a scientific experiment, such as the double-slit experiment, are inconvenient, counter-intuitive or highly weird, I must absolutely conform my thinking to the experiment. I can’t simply dismiss an experiment (or its implications) because it offends my reason or conscience in the way I can and do dismiss Mein Kampf for the same reasons.

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