Thursday, November 4, 2010

Take Up the Sword?

We read in the Gospel the incident of Peter taking out his sword and cutting off the ear of the servant of the high priest during the passion of Jesus. (cf Lk 22:49-51; Jn 18:10-11). This causes much disturbance to many people. Likewise the verses Lk22:35-38 also puzzle many readers. This is a passage where Jesus tells his disciples to be prepared with purse, bag and sword. 

When Jesus sends out the seventy-two disciples, he strictly forbids them to take with them purse, bag or sandals(cf Lk 10:4), whereas here in Lk 22:36 he enjoins on them to take such articles and a sword besides! If the meaning of these words has to be properly grasped, their context and their background should be looked into.   This statement is recorded before the passion of Christ (In Lk 22:37, Jesus, quoting the prophecy from Isaiah, forewarns them regarding his passion). Through his passion, death on the cross and resurrection, the life of Jesus in this world comes to an end. 

With these events begins the era of the Church during which the disciples will have to undergo many difficulties, trials and persecution. Then they will have to provide themselves with the necessities of life. This is what he is reminding them about in Lk 22:36. In the Christian life, prudence is very necessary. The missionaries of the early Church had purse,bag and sandals. It can also be seen that the Jews had the custom of carrying a sword with them. 

The book of Acts describes how the early Christians were persecuted (particularly, slain by the sword) (cf Acts 8:1-3; 9:1-2;12:1-5). St Paul speaks clearly of the adversities he had to face on his missionary journeys (cf 2 Cor 11:26-27). He describes the dangers he had to encounter from brigands and gentiles.   During the lifetime of Jesus, while the disciples preached the word in Palestine, and particularly in Galilee, the Jews extended help and hospitality to them. 

To the Essenes, even strangers supplied the necessities of life. This fact is recorded by the historian Flavius Josephus. Lk 10:4 should be read against this background. After the death of Jesus, his disciples were not in a position to expect the same hospitality in other places. Towards the close of Jesus' public life, the attitude of the Jewish people towards the disciples had undergone a change. Their animosity towards Jesus had increased day by day as we see recorded in the Gospels (cf Lk 11:53-54; 19:47; 20:19; 22:2).    
Be Prepared
The Gospel account of thePassion of Jesus shows that the world was against Jesus and his disciples. This was a troublesome and critical time. It was also a time to be prepared. For this preparation, self-abnegation and suffering were essential. It is only the violent who will enter the kingdom of heaven (cf Lk 16:16).
The verse 22:36 should be seen as a symbolic reference to the preparedness of Christ's disciples. We see here a very strong metaphor in the line of Eastern tradition. Jesus has used such metaphors several times during his discourses. (For example, in Mt 23:24; Mk 10:25, we have the reference to those who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel). The cloak was an essential item of clothing during winter. When Jesus exhorts the disciples to sell their cloak and buy a sword, he is emphasizing the seriousness and importance of the matter. The one who stands with the drawn sword, stands in readiness. He is attentive and courageous. In olden days people who went on a journey were provided with knapsack and sword.
During the time of persecution one's very life is at stake. Faith and courage are most essential during these times. St Paul exhorts the believers to keep themselves ready for the battle of the spirit, by arming themselves with all the weapons of a Christian soldier, specially the word of God which is the sword of the Spirit (cf Eph 6:13-17). As for St Peter, he did not grasp the meaning of preparedness for the spiritual warfare (preparedness for persecution); therefore he did not keep himself ready for it. That Peter would deny his master is seen in the verses preceding Lk 22:35-38 (cf Lk 22:31-34). Lk 22:36 indicates that, if Peter would refrain from denying his master, he should have prepared himself and been watchful. We see in Lk 22:39-46 a Jesus who is strengthened through prayer and ready to face his passion and death.
There are many stories about those who misunderstood Jesus' words and took up the sword for political liberation. In Jesus' time a sect called Zealots did the same. But Jesus is not visualizing the disciples literally taking up weapons and fighting a battle. During his passion Jesus reproved the one who drew his sword and cut off the ear of the soldier (cf Lk 22:49-51). From Jn 18:10-11 we know that it was Peter, who, failing to understand the meaning of these words, was guilty of this act.
In Lk 22:36 the apostles did not understand what Jesus meant by the word "sword". This is clear in 22:38. Here they are saying, "Lord, look, here are two swords." They take the words, of Jesus, "Buy one" literally. In the Gospels there are several instances where the apostles do not grasp the Messianic secret, for example in Lk 9:45; 18:34; 22:49-51. It is only after the Resurrection that the disciples, aided by the power the Holy Spirit, understand the Christ who attained glory through his suffering and bore witness to him.
By the statement, "It is enough" (Lk 22:38), Jesus shows compassion for the apostles in their lack of understanding and puts an end to their conversation. "Enough of that" should not be taken to mean "two swords are enough". This is an irony. Jesus, grieved by the misunderstanding of the apostles, reproaches them and puts an abrupt end to their conversation. This expression "enough of that," meaning "never speak to me of this matter again," can be seen in (Deut 3:26).
The people from Galilee often carried a sword. Some people think that it is pointing to these swords, that the apostles said, "Here are two swords". From the time of John Chrysostom, some have believed that these swords were the knives to be used to chop off the head of the lamb for the Paschal meal. Others are of the opinion that they were knives meant to carve the flesh of the roasted lamb. Still others think that the reference is to the ornamental swords hung on the walls of the cenacle wherein took place this conversation. What the apostles meant by the sword is not important because Jesus does not here mean a material sword.
We can consider the words of Jesus,'The one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one," as addressed to each Christian. Christ's disciples are obliged to walk in the footprints of the Crucified without turning to the right or left. And for this, fervour, zeal, attention and preparation are absolutely essential. In a spiritual battle one cannot but have the alertness and attention of a soldier keeping watch with a drawn sword.
We cannot forget that what Jesus requires of his followers is non-violence. He who asked us to love even our enemies, does not show us the path of violence or physical prowess. The essence of the Gospel of Jesus is love. What we see in the Gospel are the various means of winning the spiritual battle through victory over one's selfishness. The chief means for this is daily prayer. Prayer is strength. Those who do not pray will, like St Peter, fall in the midst of trials and temptations. The advice St Paul gives is important: "Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints" (Eph 6:18).

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