Jesus and the Two Swords (Luke 22:35-38)

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Sometimes you read things in the Bible that makee you pause uncomfortably. Not just the big things, but the odd verse that seems to have awkward implications. Here’s one that’s bugged me for a while.

Why does Jesus let the disciples take two swords to Gethsemane?

It’s a moment of high tension. The group has just eaten the Last Supper, Judas has disappeared to commit the most famous act of betrayal in history, and Jesus has just prophesied that Peter’s going to deny knowing him. It’s probably fair to say that spirits were low.

And then Jesus tells the disciples that, while previously they’d lacked nothing, now they need to be prepared for hard times – get a new bag and wallet and…

And a new sword.

Wait, what?

The disciples respond to this by showing Jesus the two swords they do have (which raises other questions), and Jesus says that it’s enough. Which is crazy, because there are a minimum of twelve people here, on their way to an inevitable confrontation with authority. If anyone in the group thinks that two swords is enough to mount a violent response to what’s coming, they’re delusional.

Or maybe not. After all, they’ve been raised on stories like that of Gideon, where God ensures victory for those facing ridiculous odds. Maybe they figure this is the case here; it’s not like Jesus hasn’t already shown his power over nature and spiritual forces. No, it’s the implication of them carrying swords that makes me uncomfortable, especially as Jesus seems to authorise it. It seems contradictory, especially in the light of “Love your enemy” and “Turn the other cheek”. Heck, it comes just seconds after he quotes Isaiah 53, which is all about the Messiah triumphing without violence.

So it seems that something else is going on here. After all, in the garden, the swords actually get used and Jesus is scathing. condemning their use and healing their damage. “If you live by the sword, you’ll die by the sword,” he says, which would seem to be a good reason not to buy one, right?

Maybe this is the point. Maybe there’s something prophetic about this whole scenario, a way of displaying God’s message to the powers and authorities standing in that garden. Yes, Jesus could call down angels or storms or fire and brimstone to obliterate his enemies. Yes, there are images of a warrior God throughout scripture and these are valid. But this isn’t how humanity will be redeemed, the Kingdom won’t be established through swords and spears and drones and guns. The Kingdom will be established with a cross, and through this the wounds and scars of friend and enemy alike can be healed, a Kingdom more interested in ploughshares than swords.

A victory won through swords can’t lead to resurrection. A victory won through the cross does.

“Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come with swords and clubs?” Jesus directs this to those who’ve come to arrest him, but maybe the disciples need to hear it as well. After all, they’re the ones fighting for the Kingdom, not against it.

(BTW, always be wary of a church that rejoices in any wounds other than those of Jesus.)

And so maybe this all gets summed up in the story of Malchus (the luckiest person in this story, because let’s face it, although he temporarily loses an ear, that probably wasn’t what Peter was aiming for). In any other scenario, he ends up maimed for life; in this one he’s healed by his ‘enemy’. This should clue us in to the nature of the Kingdom – it creates a space for healing and restoration, not violence and anger, and while it may be uncompromising and challenging at times, that should be rooted in the Holy Spirit, not in the arrogance and rage of some dude who thinks he’s doing everyone a favour by waving a sword around.

I wonder what happened to Malchus, whether he went back to his life and carried on as normal, or whether he ended up as one of the ‘bad guys’, like the centurion or the thief on the cross, who ended up recognising who and what Jesus was at a time when all his followers had disappeared.

And I wonder what happened to all those other people wounded in the name of God.I wonder where will they see Jesus the Healer, rather than Peter the Swordbearer?

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