Question: Gun enthusiasts such as Sarah Palin are currently saying that Jesus would want his followers to carry guns: “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’” (Luke 22:36, NIV). How is this passage best understood?
Answer: Since questions that come to me via the blog platform are anonymous, I had to check out this story before I answered the question, which is really a question about exegesis and interpretation of a biblical text. Sure enough. Sarah Palin has a new book out and she says, in capital letters, “JESUS WOULD FIGHT FOR OUR SECOND AMENDMENT.” Palin then cited this passage in the Bible for why Jesus Christ would be a supporter of open carry. “Shoot, even the Lord said to take up arms and defend yourself and protect the innocent!” Palin said. “We’re expected to take responsibility to defend ourselves and to protect the innocent, certainly not relying on fallible leaders to do it for us.”
I have no interest in getting into this divisive political/cultural/legal issue. Sarah Palin is obviously pandering to her right wing base. But it’s really a non-issue since the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the Second Amendment in McDonald v. City of Chicago. On June 28, 2010 the Court ruled (5–4) that the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms,” applies to state and local governments as well as to the federal government. This ruling disqualified the laws of several states and municipalities that have tried to restrict gun ownership, such as in my state of Illinois and in the City of Chicago where children are being gunned down on the streets and in the parks in open gang warfare. So don’t write to me about gun rights. But the former governor invokes the name of the Lord for her cause and that does require answer.
The first question to ask of this verse is: does this sound like the sort of thing Jesus would say? I would say that from everything we know about Jesus, it’s not what we expect him to say. So what is Jesus really saying to his disciples? What’s the context of this verse?
Jesus and his disciples were in the upper room observing the Passover and had just celebrated the Seder during which Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper. At the end of the Supper he announces that one of them will betray him and they all begin asking, “Is it me?” Whereupon they begin a dispute about which of them is the greatest of Jesus’ disciples and Jesus has to remind them he is among them as one who serves. At this late stage in their relationship with Jesus the disciples still don’t understand what his mission is all about, what kind of kingdom he was bringing about, and what this would imply for them. Nevertheless, Jesus promises that they will indeed eat and drink with him in his kingdom and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel. But he predicts that Peter, the one regarded as the leader, will deny him three times.
Then he asks them: when I sent you out on your mission without purse, bag, or sandals, did you lack for anything? They agreed that they lacked nothing. At this point he says they are take what they didn’t need before—bag and purse. And he adds that the one who has no sword should sell his cloak, on which one depends for protection against the elements, and buy a sword with it. There’s no way to understand this enigmatic statement in this context except as ironic. Do the disciples now need what they didn’t need before?
However, the evangelist gives us another way to understand Jesus’ saying. It is to fulfill the scripture (the Old Testament prophecy from Isaiah 53:12) that says, “He was counted among the lawless.” The meaning of Jesus in the gospels is that he fulfills prophecy. Isaiah 53 is a song of the suffering servant and the early Christians saw every verse of that passage being fulfilled in the passion of the Christ.
The disciples pointed out that they had two swords among them. Jesus said, “It is enough”—enough of a symbolic gesture to fulfill the prophecy. His group had weapons on them at a time when the Roman procurator was trying to maintain peace and security. He could be reckoned among the law breakers.
With that they went out—armed—into the Garden where Jesus prayed until his betrayer arrived with a cohort of soldiers. But a skirmish broke out as they tried to arrest him. Peter took one of the swords and cut off the right ear of Malchus, the slave of the high priest. Jesus said, “Enough of this.” And he healed the servant’s ear. So much for the idea that Jesus was advocating an armed insurrection. This also serves as a demonstration of his teaching in the sermon on the plain about loving your enemies and “turning the other cheek” (Luke 6:27-30).
Jesus reinforces his non-violence by asking the armed guard, “Am I a robber or a revolutionary brigand that you have to come to get me with swords and clubs in the middle of the night?” He points out that he was teaching openly in the Temple every day. The implication is: “why didn’t you just arrest me in broad daylight?” Well, we know the reason. The authorities thought it would have created a disturbance. So they came under cover of night.
Jesus declined to defend himself with force. He told Pontius Pilate in the Gospel of John that he could have called down twelve legions of angels to defend him, but chose not to do so. He was prepared to be the first martyr for the kingdom of God by witnessing to the values of that kingdom. Those values didn’t include self-defense. Jesus’ followers got the message and the early Christians were staunch pacifists.
Sarah Palin has the U.S. Constitution and the U.S. Supreme Court to appeal to in her view about gun ownership. She doesn’t need to be taking the Lord’s Name in vain. And all those preachers who are carrying guns into the pulpit need to consider whether they’re promoting the values of the kingdom Jesus preached or some other set of values. As you read on in this passion narrative, Peter, who wielded a weapon in the garden, later that night denied association with Jesus three times.
Pastor Frank Senn
Images: above – Peter Cutting off Malchus’ Ear, by Giuseppe Cesari (1568-1640)
Below – Jesus Heals Malchus’ Ear, by James Tissot (1836-1902)