Thursday 28 March 2013

Jesus and the two swords (Lk 22:35-38)

The following is from Augustine Perumalil, SJ, "Violence and Meekness in the Teaching of Jesus," a paper given at the ACPI meeting some years ago. His interpretation, that Jesus was facing the temptation to use violence, does not seem so new and fresh to me anymore - perhaps after reading Rossi de Gasperis. 

In this passage [Lk 22:35-38] Jesus would appear to endorse the possession of weapons of violence, if not their violent use:

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.” (Lk 22:35-38, NRSV)

A literal reading of this passage would suggest that Jesus, though he had previously advocated love of enemies, was now envisaging extreme situations in which violence would be necessary. Some have suggested that Jesus in this passage is accommodating himself to the ‘non-ideal’ context of human fallenness.[1] This literal interpretation was used to justify the Holy Roman Empire by early medieval thinkers. Likewise, the theorists of the High Middle Ages grounded the notion of a papal theocracy in the same notion. Martin Luther also interprets this passage in a way that shows Jesus as endorsing prudential administrative violence. For Luther, Rom 13:4 was the key to understand the endorsement of the sword. Rom 13:4 endorses the use of the sword by the ruler for the good of the community, to punish the evildoers.
Many in the peace tradition take account of Jesus’ rejection of violence at his arrest (Lk 22:49-51), and have tried to find an understanding of this passage that evades an endorsement of violence. Four such suggestions are worth considering.
Guy Herschberger suggests that the disciples, alert to the plots to kill their master, had already acquired swords with which to protect him. However, they had failed to grasp Jesus’ radical rejection of violence, as they had many other elements of his mission. Thus Jesus’ command here should be taken as an ironic rebuke to Peter’s lack of faith (especially in view in the preceding verses, 22:31-34); and Jesus’ conclusion, “It is enough,” should be taken as a regretful “What more can I say?” or “Enough of that.”[2]
John Stoner, on the other hand, has seen the passage as Jesus’ final examination of the disciples’ grasp of his teaching on nonviolence. Their failure to protest or question his command constituted a failure of the test, while his response meant, “That is enough. Obviously, you do not understand. We shall go on.”[3] This interpretation bears well with Jesus’ observation that the apostles were slow to understand spiritual matters, that they had hearts too hard to take in his teachings, eyes that did not see, and ears that did not hear (Mk 8:16-18).
Richard Hays, in his turn, takes Jesus’ command as a figurative warning of impending opposition, while the disciples’ literalist response provokes the impatient dismissal, “Enough already!”[4]
According to Howard Marshall, the saying is not an endorsement of violence but an indication of the intensity of the opposition which Jesus and his disciples will experience, endangering their very lives.[5] 
These explanations are not satisfactory. Many consider such explanations motivated and opt for a more straightforward reading of the passage. Jeremy Thomson, for example, argues that Jesus’ command in v. 36 meant what it said; he wanted his disciples to carry actual swords as his end approached. But the intention was not to use them in self-defence; two swords would hardly be enough to protect him against the crowd that came to arrest him. The purpose of the sword was to give the appearance of being among outlaws, as suggested by v. 37: “For the time has come for this prophecy about me to be fulfilled: ‘He was counted among those who were rebels.’” If this interpretation is true, Jesus’ final remark in v. 38 must be taken to mean: “Two swords are enough for me to be counted among the lawless.”
Undoubtedly, the passage is ambiguous. Its ambiguity has invited various interpretations. But if the test of a difficult teaching is the way it is put into practice, we must pay attention to the account of the arrest later the same evening (Lk 22:47-53). There is no doubt that when the crucial moment arrived, Jesus decisively rejected the use of the sword in an explicit statement, “No more of this!” (Lk 22:51). The miraculous healing of the severed ear emphasized that violence had no place in his strategy. Therefore the explanation of the two swords being enough must be one that rules out any endorsement of violence.
Jeremy Thomson offers an innovative interpretation that takes the endorsement of the swords literally, but at the same time emphasizes Jesus’ commitment to nonviolence. Thomson sees a struggle going on in the mind of Jesus in the unnamed place near the Mount of Olives (Lk 22:39-46). Jesus is reluctant to go through with the ‘cup’ of suffering and is looking for an alternative by which he might accomplish his messianic task. The choice before him was between the way of suffering and a campaign of violence. We may imagine that before the conflict was resolved in the garden, Jesus was in two minds as to the course of action. Perhaps he was tempted to take the way of the sword, but did not know exactly what was to be done with the swords, except that their appearance would entail outlaw associations.
But the time of prayer was crucial. During prayer, his confusion regarding the future course of action had been clarified; he had become even more determined that the cycle of violence must be brought to an end. Therefore, when one of the swords was used, he immediately intervened. From this action of Jesus, Thomson concludes: “His pronouncement, because it was made in the worst circumstances possible (‘your hour and the power of darkness,’ v. 53b), assumes the character of an absolute prohibition for all his followers; an end to violence for all times.”[6] If this interpretation is correct, the controversial passage highlights a renewed commitment to nonviolence after a period of toying with the idea of violence. When he declared, “No more of this” that was his final word on the subject.

[1] Jeremy Thomson, “AT 33: Jesus and the Two Swords: Did Jesus Endorse Violence?” at http://www. Originally published in Anabaptism Today 33 (June 2003).
[2] See Guy F. Hershberger, War, Peace, and Nonresistance (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1969) 302-303.
[3] John K. Stoner, “The Two Swords Passage: A Command or a Question? Nonviolence in Lk 22,” Within the Perfection of Christ, ed. Terry L. Brensinger and E. Morris Sider (Nappanee, IN: Evangel Press, 1990) 67-80.
[4] Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation, A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (New York: HarperCollins, 1996) 333.
[5] Howard Marshall, The Gospel of Luke NIGCT (Exeter: Paternoster, 1978) 823.
[6] Thomson. 

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