Perhaps one of the most abused passages in all of scripture these days is Luke 22:36. The issue comes up often, and is a predictable comment that ends up in any thread where I discuss nonviolent enemy love… “But didn’t Jesus command that his disciples carry swords?”
To arrive at the position that Jesus endorses violence as a result of Luke 22:36 is almost as bad as saying that Jesus endorses adultery because of John 8:11. In the famous story found in John 8, Jesus is confronted with a pending execution and completely disrupts it– setting free the woman condemned to be executed for adultery. As Jesus sends her on her way, he says “where are your accusers?” to which she answers that they had all left. Jesus issued the well know reply: “neither do I condemn you.”
Now, what if I argued that Jesus thinks it’s okay to commit adultery based on this passage? I hope you’d know the story well enough (or go read the actual context) and realized that such an argument would not be quoting the entirety of Jesus’ statement. The final thing Jesus says to her is “go, but don’t do it again”, but if one were to leave off this final statement, it may appear that Jesus endorsed adultery.
While Bible believing gundamentalists would quickly rebuke me for such an abuse of the John 8 passage (and rightly so) they’re very quick to employ this same method of only quoting half of a passage when it comes to justifying the ownership of weapons designed to kill people (see the ridiculous example in the image above).
In this case, they quote Luke 22:26 (which records Jesus’ last words before leaving the last supper and heading out to where he would be arrested). The verse in total isolation certainly makes it appear that Jesus was a hypocrite by contradicting his previous teachings on nonviolence by telling his disciples to go out and buy swords if they didn’t already have one. And, if that’s all that Jesus said in that passage, they’d have a good case. While it wouldn’t be a slam dunk on the Jesus and violence issue since he clearly stated in Matthew 5 that the children of God are nonviolent, it would show that Jesus was inconsistent on the issue and cast his entire teachings into doubt (ironic that if gundamentalists are right, Jesus can’t be trusted). However, the crucial flaw in the Luke 22:36 argument is the inconvenient existence of Luke 22:37, where Jesus goes onto explain why they needed to bring swords to his arrest. Jesus explains, as one will see plainly in the text, that there was an Old Testament prophesy stating the Messiah would be “counted among the lawless”, and that he wanted to make sure this prophesy came to pass– thus why they needed to carry swords.
(Side note: the Bible didn’t originally have chapters and verses, this is a modern addition. While certainly helpful, it does promote the mistake of lifting a “verse” out of the complete passage.)
What I love about the Luke passage is that it’s one of the few passages that explains itself. Often one needs to go searching and considering all sorts of issues to understand the meaning of a passage, but it seems in this instant Jesus didn’t want to leave it open for misinterpretation, so he interprets what he meant right on the spot: he needed to fulfill the prophesy that he’d be arrested like a common criminal.
Furthermore, there are a few additional facts that really make this a poor proof text to support the idea that Jesus endorsed using violence against other people:
Jesus says two are “enough”, even though there were 13 of them. Clearly, if these swords were for self defense, two would not be enough at all.
There is also an alternate understanding of Jesus’ use of the word “enough” when his disciples say “hey look, we’ve already got a couple here“. Some scholars have argued that Jesus wasn’t saying “enough” as in, “two will be plenty”, but rather said “enough!” in disgust and exasperation as he saw them start to get the wrong idea about actually using the swords. While we don’t know for sure from the text, if we had a biblical version of the show Myth Busters, I would certainly place the latter understanding in the realm of “plausible”. Jesus did previously use language in exasperation on a few occasions such when he responded to his disciples with the line, “are you still so dull??” or told Philip “how is it that you’ve spent all this time with me and still don’t know me?” so I’m not opposed to the idea that Jesus was frustrated with them for actually thinking he was promoting the use of violence. However, either option of understanding “enough” still places one in the category that Jesus was not endorsing the use of violence.
Now, the ultimate proof that Jesus wasn’t promoting violence in self defense is what we see happen just an hour or two later: Peter actually uses one of the swords to cut someone’s ear off, and Jesus not only rebukes Peter for doing that, (“Put away your sword! Whoever lives by the sword will die by it”), but Jesus goes one step further in healing the ear of one of his own enemies who had come to arrest him.
The verdict is in: there is absolutely, positively no possible way to use Luke 22:36 to support the use of violence unless you also contend that Luke 22:36 is the last verse in the book of Luke. This passage neither commands “sword ownership” nor endorses the use of violence. One need not take my word for it– just read the entire passage, because Jesus tells us exactly what he meant both through words (explaining the prophesy) and behavior (correcting them when they misunderstood it to endorse violence). It’s actually one of the easier biblical passages to understand.
If the isolated understanding of Luke 22:36 were true, Jesus would be a horrible hypocrite who couldn’t be trusted– but thankfully, that’s not the case.
It’s seriously time to put this passage to bed and to stop twisting it.
But if not, please don’t act all mortified if I try to explain to you that Jesus endorses adultery– because I’ll need to show you how dangerous it is to only quote half of a statement.
* This is the first post of a series called “Put It To Bed” which will deal with common verses that are misused, misunderstood, or deliberately abused. If you have a verse/passage you’d like me to discuss, let me know and I’ll be happy to consider it.
(Image courtesy of: https://www.facebook.com/ActiveSelfProtection where you’ll find lots of other pro-violent images.)