The Myth of a Violent Jesus: Part 2, Swords

The Myth of a Violent Jesus: Part 2, Swords March 12, 2018

Jesus healing the ear of a servant during his arrest, Museu de Évora, Portugal, c. 1500

In Part 1, we briefly covered the so-called “cleansing of the Temple,” arguing for an interpretation that removes violence from Jesus. We’ll do something similar in this piece. Only we’ll be discussing those passages that, on the surface at least, seem to imply that Jesus not only condones violence, but commands it.

The first passage comes from Matthew 10:34–36, and reads:

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.”

Game. Set. Match. Jesus is violent, right?

Well, no, not so much. Please let me explain.

What is happening here is something much deeper than a simple rejection of peace as such. Instead, it’s a rejection of the way that humanity tends to bring about peace. The differences are important.

You see, the way our human cultures and religions bring about peace is, paradoxically, through the use of violence. From the blood of Abel to that of Zechariah, it’s been done in this manner. Simply put, it’s a peace that is nothing more than the catharsis that occurs when all-against-all societal violence is transferred onto a surrogate other, a scapegoat if you will. This is witnessed, most strikingly, when, just prior to Jesus’ bloody death on a cross, the high priest Caiaphas admits: “You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.”

Not for nothing, but this is the exact sort of peace the Roman Empire brought about. Pax Romana, as it’s known, is peace through war, peace through conquest, peace through strife, peace through the elimination or subduing of an enemy other. But for Jesus, this is not peace at all. Therefore, as he says, he isn’t going to be in the business of bringing about this sort of peace. Instead, he is going to bring a sword.

However, news flash: It’s not going to be Jesus’ sword. There is no evidence that Jesus ever carried a sword. The swords that are brought, then, are the swords we bring against Jesus as he attempts to announce the coming of the kingdom of God that has no dividing lines whatsoever.

Case in point: when Jesus delivers his first sermon at the synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4:18–30), he includes a reading of Isaiah 61 but leaves off the expected vengeance that the enemies of God are going to be getting. In other words, the Day of Jubilee that the Jews are waiting for—where the good news is to be brought to the poor, where release is to be brought to those in captivity, where sight is to be recovered by the blind, and where the oppressed are to all be set free—doesn’t include violence against those doing the oppressing. And it causes so much scandal and offense that the listeners then attempt to toss Jesus off a cliff.

Here, Jesus doesn’t bring peace, but division. Division, not because Jesus is commanding such a thing, but because the people can’t handle one who renounces division, hence it divides them against Jesus.

This is the type of “sword” Jesus brings. It is a sword that comes down on Jesus first, and then to the disciples, whom Jesus sends out to the world “like sheep into the midst of wolves.”

Nevertheless, in Luke 22:36, Jesus then seems to contradict all his talk of nonviolence and nonretaliation when he gives his disciples the following advice:

“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.”

Huh? What?! After all that enemy love talk from places like the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is now telling his disciples to take up arms?

Well, not so fast.

Take a look at the very next verse: “For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was counted among the lawless.” Which Scripture is Jesus talking about? Isaiah 53:12, to be exact:

“Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.”

And so, like the incident in the Temple, this isn’t so much about Jesus being violent, as we’ve all probably so often heard, rather, it’s the playing out of a drama where the swords are but a prop. They are there simply so that Jesus could fulfill the role of the Suffering Servant of God, the one who “had done no violence.”

Incidentally, the only violence delivered that night from the “transgressors” is when one of the disciples uses one of the swords to cut off the ear of one of the high priest’s slaves. So, what does Jesus do about it? Wait for it . . . He immediately puts a halt to the violence: “No more of this!” Then Jesus actually heals the wound and warns his disciples that “all who take the sword will perish by the sword.”

As I said in the previous post, we must always remember to interpret these supposed “violence texts” through the lens of Jesus’ entire ministry, not the other way around. We mustn’t assume Jesus is violent because he talks about swords and even commands his disciples to get two of them (as if they were going to take on the Roman Empire with two weapons . . . how absurd!) That is not at all the point of this story, so please stop trying to say it is. In fact, like the incident in the Temple, the point of the story is quite the opposite.

Peace, and stay tuned for Part 3.

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