Early in Jesus’ ministry, he gave instructions for his followers to “take no purse, bag, or even sandals” for the mission field. Rather they are to rely on the benevolence of the community. However, as Jesus is nearing the time of his arrest, he instructs the disciples to not only take a purse and a bag but a sword as well. Why would Jesus, who throughout his ministry advocated nonviolence, tell his disciples to arm themselves?
There are disputes regarding the intention of Jesus in this verse. A plain literal reading of the verse indicates Jesus wants his followers to be armed. Yet there are some clues to suggest that what Jesus meant isn’t so clear. Here are some of the clues:
- In Luke 22:37, Jesus suggests that carrying a sword would help to fulfill the passage in Isaiah 53:12 that, “he was counted among the lawless.” Carrying the sword would be like what Jesus did when he entered Jerusalem on a donkey. It was primarily for symbolic reasons to fulfill prophecy. While this is a compelling argument, it is not convincing for me.
- In Luke 22:38, the disciples say, “Here are two swords” and Jesus says, “It is enough.” This may be Jesus clearing up another misunderstanding by the disciples. When Jesus speaks of taking a sword, he means this in a symbolic way, i.e. be ready for conflict. When the disciples press him about having two swords, his answer is better understood as “it is enough talk about swords.” Again a compelling argument but not completely convincing.
- In Luke 22:50-51, Jesus’ actions speak louder than words. The most compelling case that Jesus didn’t advocate violence is based on his behavior in the Mount of Olives. When one of his followers actively uses violence, Jesus says, “No more of this” and heals the ear of the high priest’s servant. Jesus himself never takes a sword. He taught his disciples to love their enemies and to not fear those who can kill the body but not the soul. When faced with his impending death, he willingly submitted his life.
Although there were anti-Roman insurgent, pro-violence movements (like the Zealots), Jesus and his followers never aligned themselves with them (outside of Simon the Zealot being one of the 12). The direction of Jesus’ life and teachings support non-violent interaction and confrontation. One section of a gospel that is highly contested shouldn’t encourage the advocacy of violence as a justified Christian method. Based on Jesus’ overall life, violence should never be advocated in his name.
Often we present public facades of joy, happiness, peace, and contentment. Yet buried within us may be feelings of anger, sadness, brokenness, and envy. Our artists capture this feeling better than many. The poet Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote of “wearing a mask” to hide our “torn and bleeding hearts.” Smokey Robinson sung these words, “If there’s a smile on my face, it’s only there trying to fool the public.” As humans, we have perfected the art of putting on a good face to hide our feelings.
As Jesus is celebrating what would be his final Passover on earth, tensions are running high. Jesus is beginning to gain an audience at the Temple and there are some who don’t like it. The gospel writer Luke describes the scene aptly. He says, “the leading priests and teachers of religious law were plotting how to kill Jesus but they were afraid of the people’s reaction.” They were putting on a mask of piety in order to protect their reputation. Meanwhile violence reigned in their hearts. This violence inside eventually manifested itself and led to the death (or should I say murder) of Jesus.
It’s funny that the priests and teachers of the law were more concerned with the reaction of the people than the reaction of God. While maintaining a public face of piety in order to protect their reputation with others, they failed to consider their standing with God. While acting as intercessors on behalf of the people and teachers of the Scriptures, they nevertheless rejected the Spirit of God and refused to follow the Word of God that said, “You shall not murder.” Ultimately they allowed their hatred of Jesus to overrule their fidelity to God and the law.
Often there are thoughts and feelings inside of us that are less than holy. We may feel anger, disappointment, fear and jealousy towards others and even toward ourselves in some instances. When these thoughts occur, it is so important to, as the old hymn goes, “take it to the Lord in prayer.” Allow God to form our Spirits so that our love toward others can be genuine. Once this occurs, we are then free to love God and others sincerely.
There is an innate desire within many of us to be recognized. We want to be seen as significant. Often this desire is cloaked in the use of the word “meaning.” We want our lives to have meaning and to matter. This desire in and of itself is not a bad one. Like anything, the notion of meaning and significance can become idolatrous and evil when these notions are given priority over seeking God.
In Luke 20, Jesus gives his disciples a warning about “the teachers of the law.” (Teachers of the Law were bible scholars and “professors.”) Jesus says, “They like to walk around in flowing robes and love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets.” (Luke 20:45-47) Their actions were based on an appeal to significance. They felt they were significant because they dressed like holy people, because they were greeted as if they were important, and because they received the honor of respected members of society.
However, for the teachers of the law, their significance was based on the treatment and response of others. For Jesus, his significance was based not on his treatment from others but from his fidelity to his Father. Jesus said, “Whatever the Father does the Son also does.” (John 5:19) His significance was centered on doing the will and work of God.
As we consider how we seek our own significance we can ask ourselves, “Is protecting my reputation more important than following God? Do I spend more energy promoting myself than seeking God’s will? Do I get my significance from what others think of me rather than what God thinks of me? As a community, do we seek to look good in front of our Uptown neighbors or do we truly seek the will of God?