(Dis)Arming the Disciples (by Drew Strait)

(Dis)Arming the Disciples (by Drew Strait) December 31, 2012

So many want to appeal to Luke 22 to show Jesus was not against guns, but Drew Strait subjects that counter-appeal to an examination:

(Dis)Arming the Disciples? Jesus’ View on Sword Control in Luke 22

The tragic events in Newtown have left our nation riddled with grief, and the use of semi-automatic weapons in this most recent mass killing has once again brought the issue of gun control to national prominence. Within the church, too, this horrific tragedy has prompted serious soul searching. What should the church’s response be to the incessant violence carried out by individuals armed with guns? While mourning the loss of innocent children, I’ve found myself joining other Christians who are mourning the church’s assimilation to America’s gun empire. How have things come to this? Isn’t the church supposed to look “different” than the violent kingdoms of this world? Is it true that the church represents a stumbling block toward better gun control in our nation?

If recent debates about gun control are any indication, it seems that the church is divided into two camps: those who want to proliferate guns as a strategy for confronting violent behavior in our nation and those who want to melt America’s guns into plowshares. As a proponent of the latter, I’ve been surprised by Christian gun owners who are using the disciples’ possession of swords in Luke 22 to argue that Jesus encouraged the disciples to arm themselves.  So the argument runs: Jesus commanded the disciples to sell their cloaks and buy swords; therefore, Jesus encouraged his followers to bear swords for personal protection. Put another way, since Jesus told Peter to put his sword away after lopping off the ear of the high priest’s servant—but didn’t ask Peter to “discard” the sword—therefore Jesus supports the right to bear swords (i.e., guns).” To that end, I’d like to revisit Luke chapter 22 in its first-century context.  

To begin, it is critical to recognize that the disciples’ wielding of swords fits the contours of the first century Jewish story.  Unlike our situation in America, Israel was living under the hegemony of Roman power, with its burdensome system of taxation and unprecedented military might. Jews responded to Rome’s occupation of Israel in different ways. Some created strict ritual laws to separate themselves from the pollution of Rome’s presence; others collaborated with Rome and earned prestigious positions of power. Some withdrew to the desert to start Israel over because, in their mind, apostate Jews and the Roman army had defiled Jerusalem; others resisted Rome with banditry and organized terrorist tactics through kidnappings and spontaneous stabbings with concealed daggers. Still others created the concept of a “fourth philosophy,” which urged Jews to affirm that Yahweh is King rather than Caesar (Jos. Ant.18.23-24; Acts 5:36-37). The Israel that Jesus was born into was hardly the Kingdom society his ancestors longed for. The presence of Rome was a daily reminder that the voice of the prophets had yet to be fulfilled.

Despite these different strategies for negotiating Roman power, one thing was clear: for the Kingdom of God to arrive, Rome had to go. And for many, that meant violence initiated by Yahweh and/or the people of God themselves. Many of Jesus’ peers, in fact, dreamed of a day when Yahweh would overthrow Rome much like he did the ancient Egyptians in the Book of Exodus.  They longed for Yahweh to initiate a second exodus even greater than the first, a climactic intervention that would finally—at last!—inaugurate the Kingdom of God and restore Israel to political independence under the reign of Yahweh alone. But Israel was growing impatient: talk of a violent revolution was brewing among the disenchanted.

It is here, under Israel’s growing anti-Roman sentiment, that Jesus’ insistence on enemy love takes center stage. Rather than add fuel to the revolutionary fire, Jesus resisted Rome through what N. T. Wright calls a “doubly revolutionary technique” of turning the other cheek, going the extra mile and taking up our crosses. For Jesus, the evil of Rome would be defeated not through personal armament but through a revolution of God’s love displayed on a Roman cross. That Jesus was aware of Israel’s building conflict with Rome is evident when Jesus arrives in Jerusalem and prophetically warns Israel of its coming destruction:

“As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God’” (Luke 19:41-44).

Instead of threaten Rome with the wrath of God, Jesus weeps. He weeps because he recognizes that Israel has overlooked the things that make for peace. As George Caird once memorably said, “The nation [of Israel] must choose between the way of Jesus and all other possible alternatives, and on its choice depended its hope for a national future.”[1] For Jesus, the hope of Israel’s future was inextricably bound up with the way of peace: the way of peace heralded by Zechariah (Luke 1:79); the way of peacemaking blessed by Matthew’s beatitudes (Matt 5:9); the way of servanthood in contrast to the gentile kings (Caesar!) who lord their power over others (Luke 22:25-26); and, not least, the way of the cruciform God who took on the form of Isaiah’s suffering servant and was obedient even to the point of death. Revolutionary violence against Rome had no place in Jesus’ vision for God’s coming Kingdom. And those who chose not to follow Jesus out of the dangerous narrative of revolutionary violence ended up surrounded by the Roman legions and, ultimately, destroyed, along with the Temple in AD 70.

With this background in mind, Jesus’ words and actions in Luke 22 are brought into dramatic relief. Despite Jesus’ many attempts to shape the disciples’ minds into the peaceable Kingdom, their confusion over the aims of Jesus becomes clear at the Lord’s Supper. After making a “new covenant” with the disciples by reinterpreting the passover meal around his own sacrificial death, Jesus warns them that the hospitality they have experienced thus far is going to change to hostility after Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion.  Jesus’ prediction of Peter’s betrayal sets the stage for the coming drama. To prepare the disciples for the intensity of what is about to come, Jesus uses exaggerated and over-the-top language called hyperbole. And this is where the talk of swords comes into play.

Jesus first recalls the hospitality the disciples experienced during their missionary travels: “’When I sent you out without a purse, bag, or sandals, did you lack anything?’ They said, ‘No, not a thing'” (Luke 22:35). Then comes Jesus’ use of hyperbole to signify coming hostility: “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” (Luke 22:36). That Jesus is using exaggerated language is indicated by his command to sell one’s cloak and buy a sword. To remove your cloak in the first century meant to walk around in your underwear. Imagine that: Jesus’ disciples walking around half naked while wielding a sword! But what is more telling is that two verses later the disciples reveal that they are, in fact, packing heat: “Look, there are two swords here!” (Luke 22:38). There is a long tradition of translating Jesus’ response as, “it is enough.” However, how could a few disciples wielding two swords take on the devil and Rome’s possession of Jerusalem? Their revolutionary talk is foolish! To the contrary, Joseph Fitzmyer, followed by others, argues that Jesus’ response “it is enough” (ikanon estin) is actually an idiom that means: “that’s enough!” Rather than encourage the disciples to arm themselves, Jesus is disarming the disciples’ violent mentality with the sense of “enough of that nonsense!”

But the disciples still don’t get it. When the crisis actually arrives in Gethsemane and Jesus is arrested, one of the disciples wields his hidden sword and strikes the servant of the high priest. Jesus immediately responds, “Enough of this!” (eate eos toutou).  True to his teaching on enemy love, Jesus proceeds to heal the servant of the high priest, which indicates Jesus’ vision for bringing new creation to this world, not the destructive power of violence. Matthew’s version of Jesus’ arrest provides an even more telling response by Jesus: “Put your sword away! Those who take up the sword will die by the sword!” (Matt 26:52). Jesus is disarming the disciples’ violent mentality, showing them that God’s kingdom is drawing near through the way of the cross.

One final point needs to be made here: to my knowledge we do not have a single shroud of evidence that early Jesus followers carried swords with them as they expanded the church to the ends of the earth.  What we do know is that they imitated Jesus’ life and teaching by taking up their crosses (Acts 7;  Pliny, Ep. Tra. 10.97). At the beginning of Luke’s second volume, the disciples ask Jesus one final question before Jesus ascends into heaven: “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). The passage is telling—the disciples are still waiting for Jesus to overthrow Rome. Jesus quickly corrects the disciples and commissions them not to violent resistance in an apocalyptic scenario but rather to missional witness empowered by the Holy Spirit in “Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). And that, friends, is the work of the church. Our vehicle for bringing God’s kingdom to earth is not the sword—or the gun—but our witness to Jesus’ resurrection, empowered by the Holy Spirit.

When Luke 22 is read in its first century context we get a profound picture of the world’s Savior disarming his followers in anticipation of his triumph over evil on the cross. What might this mean for the church today? Aside from conversations that need to happen in congress, I am wondering how we as the church can lead the charge in disarming our nation’s surplus guns and propensity toward violence (both here and abroad)?  Jesus had to disarm the violent mentality of his generation—what would it look like for us to disarm ours? It is time for pastors to say “enough of this!” And maybe for some this means using our creativity to make a safe space for Christians to melt their excess guns into plowshares. Whatever the solution is, may our pastoral leadership help to “guide our [nation’s] feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:79).


            [1] (George Caird, “Jesus And The Jewish Nation” The Ethel M. Wood Lecture, University of London, March 9, 1965. [London: Athlone, 1965], 16, 22).

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