Are two swords enough? (Luke 22)


Then Jesus asked them, ‘When I sent you without purse, bag or sandals, did you lack anything?’ ‘Nothing,’ they answered. He said to them, ‘But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.  It is written: “And he was numbered with the transgressors; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfilment.’” The disciples said, ‘See, Lord, here are two swords.’ ‘That’s enough!’ he replied.” (Luke 22:35-38)

This is one of those passages that has been fated to be so thoroughly misunderstood as to be held up to prove the exact opposite of what Jesus taught. Earlier, Jesus had sent them out with no moneybag (Luke 9:3,10:4) to teach them to depend on God, not money. But now Jesus says in v36 to get a moneybag. It’s obvious that Jesus is not now reversing his teaching to depend on God. We also know that Jesus is not an advocate of violence, and yet he says to buy a sword (v36). What’s going on?

Jesus’ point is that the disciples should prepare their hearts and minds because a time of tension has come which will stretch their faith almost to breaking point. They have to be ready to fight the spiritual battle which is almost upon them.

And when they say, “Look here are two swords,” it’s with that familiar, slightly gormless, lack of spiritual insight that we see elsewhere (“Are you so dull?” “How long must I put up with you?” etc) that totally misses the metaphor. And when Jesus answers “Enough!” he is rolling his eyes with exasperation, not saying, “Yes, two swords is a perfectly adequate amount of military equipment to begin an Anti-Roman rebellion.”

And if further proof of this perspective were needed, it comes immediately in v37, “For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: “And he was numbered with the transgressors.”  Jesus’ quotation of Isaiah 53 frames the prophetic position of the Messiah not with the sword-bearing aggressors but with the victims, the criminals, the dispossessed and the disempowered.

The quotation is an important referent for the role of the Messiah as contrary to popular expectation: “He poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.” Jesus is standing with the lawbreakers, and is “numbered” with them.

The heart-question is “Why?” Why did he willingly choose to be identified with the worst kinds of people?

Jesus was completely obedient to the will of God in a way that we can only dimly comprehend, yet he chose to identify himself with the dis-obedient (that is, with us).  And the reason for it is tied up with those two swords. For just as surely as two swords cannot be enough to fight an empire, neither can our foolish self-reliance suffice to free us from the entangling addiction of sin.

Jesus numbers himself with the disobedient to save us from our sin of disobedience.

Jesus wasn’t killed as an innocent victim, who had no choice, but as the fulfiller of Scripture, which had told the story, traced the humiliation and described that death among criminals long long before.

So, are two swords ever enough?

“There was just such a man when I was young—an Austrian who invented a new way of life and convinced himself that he was the chap to make it work. He tried to impose his reformation by the sword, and plunged the civilized world into misery and chaos. But the thing which this fellow had overlooked, my friend, was that he had a predecessor in the reformation business, called Jesus Christ. Perhaps we may assume that Jesus knew as much as the Austrian did about saving people. But the odd thing is that Jesus did not turn the disciples into storm troopers, burn down the Temple at Jerusalem, and fix the blame on Pontius Pilate. On the contrary, he made it clear that the business of the philosopher was to make ideas available, and not to impose them on people.”
― T.H. White, The Once and Future King

A picture of that attempted imposition comes a little later in the chapter, which we should consider here. It’s the account of Jesus’ arrest:

49 When Jesus’ followers saw what was going to happen, they said, ‘Lord, should we strike with our swords?’ 50 And one of them struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear.

51 But Jesus answered, ‘No more of this!’ And he touched the man’s ear and healed him.

52 Then Jesus said to the chief priests, the officers of the temple guard, and the elders, who had come for him, ‘Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come with swords and clubs? 53 Every day I was with you in the temple courts, and you did not lay a hand on me. But this is your hour – when darkness reigns.’”

So here is the question of the swords laid open and made explicit. Lord, shall we strike with our swords? Is Jesus leading a rebellion that requires swords and clubs?

The answer, in case you’re unsure on this one, is no.

No to patriotism. No to nationalistic power-plays. No to military responses. No to friendly fire. No to Crusades. No to border controls, passports, xenophobia, racism, fear and hatred of outsiders… all that stuff belongs to the “hour when darkness reigns.”

Jesus had more important things to do than plot the overthrow of an evil Empire.

And so do we.

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