A little while back I wrote a post asking “Are Bible Verses The Worst Thing Ever?”
This past week or so as I’ve read Christian defenses of Jerry Falwell Jr.’s call to kill Muslims and heard Christian rallying cries for more guns in the aftermath of the San Bernardino shooting, I’ve wanted to answer that question once again with a resounding “yes.”
Sure, there are obviously things worse than the Bible being divided into chapters and verses – like nuclear war or genocide or cancer – but few things have the power to engender, condone, and sanctify evil like a biblical proof-text.
Case in point: Luke 22:36
He said to them, “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.
Taken in stripped down isolation, as I’ve seen done countless times in the past few weeks, it seems like the ultimate trump card for arguing that Christians should pack heat.
Of course, sequestered like that, Psalm 14:1b – “there is no God” – could be the ultimate trump card for atheism.
But the simple truth of the matter is there is nothing divine about the arrangement of the Bible into chapters and verses. In fact, they didn’t really even exist until the 13th century. But in trying to help the faithful more easily access and reference scripture, the inventors of the biblical chapters and verses unwittingly unleashed one of the most destructive forces in human history: the biblical proof-text; a weapon that needed only the effort to cite it to be effective and could be wielded at a moment’s notice to destroy any enemy and justify any action, no matter how heinous or unholy that action might be.
Sometimes though, and to the eternal consternation of the holy warrior, some of those proof-texts, when seen in their original context actually mean something quite different than we are led to believe.
As clear cut as it seems, the currently en vogue invocation of Luke 22:36 is a textbook example of a verse being used as a proof-text for something it can’t possibly mean.
Now, to be clear, Christians have been debunking this proof-text for quite a while. I am simply adding my voice to that choir because it doesn’t seem like anyone is listening. Perhaps, the louder the chorus becomes, the more likely it is that someone will eventually hear the truth.
So, here’s the thing about Luke 22:36.
If it’s true that counter to everything he said and did in his public ministry, in this private moment Jesus has declared that those closest to him should own swords (or in our case today, guns) for their own defense, then there is only one conclusion we can draw.
Jesus was a hypocrite.
And the rest of the gospel makes no sense.
If Jesus is truly pro-violence – in any form – in Luke 22:36, then the Sermon on the Mount is hypocritical nonsense. For in it, Jesus blesses the peacemaker, commands his followers to turn the other cheek, love their enemies, and pray for those who persecute them. He even goes so far as to equate hate alone with murder.
If Jesus is really telling his disciples to pick up their swords to defend themselves against their enemies, then his command to Peter (just a handful of verses later) to put down his sword is inexplicable. Yes, he was concerned with fulfilling prophecy, but even that concern (as we will see in a moment) only reinforces his commitment to non-violence. Moreover, even if we dismiss the specific command to Peter as something only relevant to that particular moment in time (which, curiously, is not something we do with anything else in the gospels – except, of course, Jesus’ call to sell everything and given to the poor), then we’re still left with Jesus’ unequivocal denunciation of violence and a life lived armed and ready for combat: “Whoever lives by the sword, dies by the sword.”
Once again, if Jesus is actually telling his followers to prepare for a fight, then on top of being a hypocrite, Jesus also becomes a liar. For, when he stands trial before Pilate he grounds his defense in the fact that his follower do not fight.
But that is just the tip of the exegetical iceburg of problems with using Luke 22:36 as a proof-text for packing heat.
If Jesus was literally calling his follower to carry the sword (rather than making a prophetic point), then we’re left trying to explain why there is no mention anywhere in the New Testament of anyone in the early Church carrying a weapon with them into any of the dangerous situations they found themselves in. In fact, if anything, the book of Acts alone is a testament to the early Church’s dedication to non-violence for records the deaths of the first Christian martyrs, including Stephen who was stoned to death without putting up a fight and James, brother of John, who was, perhaps ironically, killed by someone else’s sword as he conspicuously did not have one of his own with which to defend himself.
Moreover, if Jesus was indeed ordaining the use of violence in Luke 22:36, then we are left to explain why no one in the first three centuries of the Church’s history seemed to have received that memo. For the early Church was – in the name of the Lord – almost universally pacifist until its unholy union in the 4th century with Constantine and his violence dependent empire.
So, then, how are we to interpret Luke 22:36?
Well, first, we need to look at the entire pericope because, as I said before, we can’t just rip this passage out of its context and expect it understand what is really being said.
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 fulfillment.”
The disciples said, “See, Lord, here are two swords.”
“That’s enough!” he replied.
Now, I know even with the immediate context, if we do no further digging, it still seems plausible to use this passage as a proof-text for God-ordained violence.
But let’s dig a little deeper.
And let’s do that by turning our gaze towards two of the most important figures in the early Church: Origen and Augustine. Their rules for reading and interpreting scripture are tremendously helpful, particularly in light of those modern interpreters who rely on what they euphmastically refer to as a “hermeneutic of common sense” which, ironically, makes no sense given that 1) we live in an incredibly diverse world full of an almost unimaginable diversity of outloooks on life and 2) more importantly, Jesus’ sense of the world was anything but common.
Anyway, for Origen, there are stumbling blocks in scripture which the Holy Spirit allowed to be there in order to draw us deeper into the text, moving us beyond the literal sense of what was on the page and towards the spiritual sense where the true meaning can be found.
We see such a stumbling block at the end of Jesus’ exchange with his disciples when they hold up 2 swords and he says, “That’s enough!”
This alone should send up red flags about the literalness of Jesus’ call to arms. For, on simply a pragmatic level, 2 swords is neither “enough” to start a rebellion, nor even to fend off the authorities who were on their way to arrest Jesus.
Therefore, as many scholars argue, Jesus’ declaration of “That’s enough” is probably best understood not as him exclaiming “Sweet! You guys already have what we need!” but rather him crying out in exasperation as he had so many times before, “You guys still don’t get it.” Yes, Jesus was warning them about terrible times to come, but the battle to come is against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places, not flesh and blood. Swords would be of no help. Therefore, they should be prepared for spiritual warfare, not physical violence.
Now, for Augustine (and really Jesus too if you think about it), our reading of scripture must be grounded in the Greatest Commandment. That is to say, no matter how wonderful we might think our exegesis is, if our interpretation does not lead us towards love of God and neighbor, then our interpretation is wrong.
We can’t be ready to love our enemies, when we’re already preparing ourselves to kill them.
Our reading of this passage from Luke, then, must keep us focused on the radical love and self-sacrifice Jesus lived out and called his followers to continue to embody in their own lives. To find that focus and, in fact, to find the key to understanding everything Jesus is saying here, we need to look at what he says in verse 37.
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 fulfillment.
We hear Jesus say “it is written” a lot all throughout the gospels, usually without giving much thought to where it is written. In this case, the context of what Jesus is quoting is of critical importance (shocker, I know).
Jesus is quoting from Isaiah 53:12.
Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,
and he will divide the spoils with the strong,
because he poured out his life unto death,
and was numbered with the transgressors.
For he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.
It comes from a famous chapter of messianic prophecy which you probably don’t recognize from that passage, but I’m sure you’ll recognize based on some of the early verses.
Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
In between that famous prophecy and the passage Jesus quoted, we find a passage that really illuminates what it means for Jesus to be “numbered with the transgressors.”
He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
and with the rich in his death,
though he had done no violence,
nor was any deceit in his mouth.
The emphasis is mine, of course, but it’s a critical point that can’t be missed when understanding what Jesus is saying – and not saying – in Luke 22:33-38.
A radical commitment to non-violence was essential to Jesus’ identity as the Messiah.
If Jesus was indeed calling his follower to arms, to be prepared for violence, then as their leader, as the one issuing that command, he too was participating in that violence.
Which would violate the prophecy he was so concerned with fulfilling.
And if in private Jesus was indeed calling his followers to arms despite everything he said and did publicly before and after that moment, then the Sermon on the Mount, his words to Peter, and his testimony before Pilate were all examples of deceit issuing forth from his mouth.
Which, again, would violate the prophecy he was so concerned with fulfilling.
As followers of this Messiah, if we want to claim the name of Christ as the marker of our identity, then we must seek to live as he lived. That doesn’t mean we’ll do it perfectly, but it does mean we must walk the same path of peace he blazed for us and called us to follow him down no matter how afraid of doing so we might be.
Which is why, given this and given all the other evidence I have already cited, there is simply no way to read Luke 22:36 with any integrity and claim that it is a God ordained endorsement of violence.
It just doesn’t work.
The only way that can be done is to completely ignore the immediate context and utterly disregard everything both Jesus and the early Church said and did.
Now, that doesn’t mean I personally don’t think you should own a gun. Speaking personally, I have no issue with hunting or recreational target practice, though I know plenty of other Christians do.
But, if you’re in need of a divine proof-text for packing heat in self-defense, you’re gonna have to look somewhere other than Luke 22:36.