Of swords and words

I love talking with friends about how to live like Jesus. This will not be a surprise to most of you, as I never really shut up. One of my favorite topics to discuss is the pacifism of Jesus. This is a complex topic, and like most topics, I have friends across the entire spectrum of beliefs. But most of these conversations inevitably turn to the topic of swords. Is this because swords are awesome? Probably.

Zen and the art of Xenophobia

(Image only slightly related, but I love it.)

Here are the three most common “sword passages” that I’ve seen used in this way:
Matthew 26:52– “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.
Luke 22:36– 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.
Matthew 10:34– Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.

If you are anything like me, you are likely to focus on one of these passages; because Bible verses about swords are kind of like actual swords- double-edged. Personally, as a pacifist, I grab onto the first of the three because it confirms my worldview. And I have traditionally flinched when somebody brings up the second one, and then I ignore it because Jesus telling his disciples to buy a sword makes me uncomfortable. But it finally got under my skin enough that I had to do more research.

Looking at Luke 22:36 in a vacuum seems to be a clear endorsement by Jesus of the awesomeness of swords. Let’s look at not just the surrounding verses, but the context of what was happening here. This is during the Last Supper, in Jerusalem, as tensions mount. The religious leaders are trying to trick him into betraying himself through His words and actions, and Jesus knows one of his own disciples is going to betray him. Their very next stop is Gethsemane and Judas has already left to search for the authorities. It makes sense to make preparations to defend yourself in these circumstances, right?

Here’s the whole passage:
He said to them, “When I sent you out without a purse, bag, or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “No, not a thing.”
He said to them, “But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one.
For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was counted among the lawless’; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled.”
They said, “Lord, look, here are two swords.”
He replied, “It is enough.”
-Luke 22:35-38

First of all, what are two swords among 12 men “enough” for? Especially against the Roman legions? If Jesus wants to put up a fight He makes it abundantly clear that He can call on a legion of angels.

Jesus tells us exactly why the swords are needed in verse 37, but I had always skimmed over that. As I’m not a first-century jew, I had no idea what scripture He was referencing. For the record, it is Isaiah 53:12 (The whole chapter is a beautiful prophecy of Jesus.) The swords aren’t required for offense or defense, but to make Jesus and his disciples look like criminals or rebels.

This fits in with my (former) favorite sword verse, as within twenty four hours of this conversation Peter is slicing the ear off of a servant with one of those same swords. (Sidenote: I’ve heard some pacifists argue that Jesus never meant they should literally buy swords but I think that argument has no scriptural ground to stand on, largely because of this passage.) Jesus rebukes Peter, heals the servant, and He is arrested. The swords are not “enough” to defend Jesus from what comes next, because that was never the point of the swords. The swords served their purpose. Not to keep Him off the cross, but to get Him on the cross between two criminals.

Peter’s reactionary sword-swinging is the final example we have of any of the disciples engaging in what could be called self-defense. The apostles, like us, were a little slow sometimes- but this lesson appears to have sunk in. The majority of them met an ugly end, and I’m not aware of a single apostle who went out “guns blazing.”

To be honest, I still have no idea what to do with the final sword verse I listed: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

Any thoughts? Is this verse as scary as it sounds? Is there another verse I’m missing? (Does this mean we can stop singing “Prince of Peace”?)