luke 22:36 & self-defence: did jesus teach us to buy swords?
35 And he said to them, ”When I sent you out with no moneybag or knapsack or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “Nothing.” 36 He said to them, ”But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one. 37 For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ’And he was numbered with the transgressors.’ For what is written about me has its fulfillment.” 38 And they said, “Look, Lord, here are two swords.” And he said to them, ”It is enough.” (Luke 22:35-38)
Recently I conversed with a friend who, speaking about violence, defended their acceptance of violent self-defence by referencing Luke 22:36. Here Jesus seems to tell his disciples to buy swords for the purpose of protection.
The problem with this kind of interpretation is that it perpetuates an all-too-common method of Bible reading whereby verses are unapologetically ripped from their narrative context. The understanding of Luke 22:36 as a text that advocates any form of violence is a good example. Let’s look at the text…
In Luke’s story 22:35-38 appears immediately after;
1) We are told that the priests are planning to murder Jesus
2) Judas agrees to betray Jesus
3) Jesus has predicted his death, and has stated it must occur
4) Jesus predicts the failure of the disciples, especially Peter
In 22:35 Jesus reaches back even further in the story asking his disciples if they lacked anything when he had sent them out on their mission. He is referring back to the episodes in 9:2-3 and 10:3-4 where he had previously sent out the Twelve and then the seventy-two, telling them not to take anything; no money, food, spare clothes or bag.
Immediately after Luke 22:35-38 we find that Jesus goes to Gethsemane and is arrested. In 22:35-38 Jesus is preparing his disciples for this coming event, a fact made clear in 22:37 when he quotes Isaiah 53:12, which refers to the Suffering Servant figure. Jesus tells his disciples to take things he banned in the previous missions – a moneybag and knapsack – and a new item, namely a sword. It sounds like Jesus is preparing his disciples to act violently at his arrest!
Did Jesus completely contradict himself in Luke 22? Did he simply come to his senses and realise violence was necessary for self-defence? If this is the case he seems to have changed his mind again in 22:49-51 when he scolds one of his disciples who takes a sword to the ear of one of the arresters. Is the only way to read this passage to see Jesus as wildly inconsistent?
Let’s draw some of the threads together.
Jesus declares in 22:31-34 that despite his prayers Satan will “have” Peter, since his faith will fail and he will deny his master. Jesus’ comments about buying a sword must be read as following such a declaration. Jesus has recognised the coming failure of Peter and the other disciples.
Is it not probable that Jesus puts forth a new and ironic instruction to the disciples precisely because he knows they will fail? Perhaps he is subtly pointing out the willingness of his disciples to abandon his previous teachings regarding nonviolence in favour of buying swords for self-defence.
Jesus’ subtle irony is not unfruitful, since his disciples will not have to buy a sword – they already have two! Jesus’ new “instruction” has exposed what they have already planned to do. Upon having these weapons of violence presented to him Jesus responds with, “It is enough,” perhaps an expression of frustration (Enough of this conversation!), perhaps an indication that the swords will be sufficient to fulfil the prophecy from Isaiah 53:12.
The implication of the quotation from Isaiah is that Jesus has told his disciples to obtain swords knowing they will inevitably use them, thus becoming “transgressors”, thus fulfilling the Isaianic prophecy in 22:27.
This brief episode is not at all about condoning violent self-defence – it is about the fulfilment of prophecy and the failure of the disciples to understand that Jesus must die!
That Jesus later reprimands his disciples for the use of one of the swords seems to confirm this interpretation. I may be very wrong here, but at this point I find this reading much more consistent with the Lukan narrative, and with Jesus’ nonviolent ethic across the Gospels.
It seems, at least from Luke 22:36, that Jesus did not teach us to purchase weapons for self-defence; in fact he was critical of doing so!