Luke 22 and the Right to Bear Arms

I read a curious claim the other day made by Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association. (Fischer was in the news the other day because he was one of the first people to publicly blame the Sandy Hook tragedy on the lack of school-mandated prayer. In the past he’s blamed the Holocaust on “homosexuals in the military,” and advocated for the kidnapping of children of same-sex parents, just to give you an idea of who we’re dealing with.)

One would expect someone like Fischer to have a distorted understanding of scripture, so it didn’t really come as any surprise to read that he finds support for the Second Amendment in the teachings of Christ:

This whole concept of using a weapon for self-defense is rooted in the teaching of Christ. There was a time, the night he was betrayed, he told his disciples, “look, I’m going to be numbered with the transgressors, you’re identified with me so you’re going to numbered with the transgressors, you are going to be thought of as a criminal, there may be a time when you have to defend yourself with lethal force.”

I didn’t remember ever reading the words “lethal force” in the Bible, so I checked the passage he was referring to:

He said to them, “When I sent you out without a purse, bag, or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “No, not a thing.” 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. For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was counted among the lawless’; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled.” They said, “Lord, look, here are two swords.” He replied, “It is enough.” (Luke 22.35-38; NRSV)

One can see how someone desperate to find support for the right to bear arms in the teachings of Christ might see it here. I had never read it that way, but looking at it now I could see how someone like Fischer might.

Now, I want to be very clear about something: I am not writing this to prove that Bryan Fischer doesn’t know how to read the Bible. If I wanted to do that, I’d just quote him a few more times, because virtually everything he has to say about it is almost comically mistaken. But this particular passage could, at first glance, give the impression that Jesus was encouraging his disciples to carry weapons.

He was not. His disciples interpreted him that way, but when we understand what is really going on here, we see that they were quite wrong, and that Jesus’s response confirms this.

So what is really going on here?

A passage like this cannot be understood in isolation. Jesus refers (in Luke 22.35) to the time he sent them out “without a purse, bag, or sandals,” which we remember happening at the very beginning of Luke 10, where he “appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go” (v.1), instructing them, “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road” (v.4).1

But that was then, and this is now. They were relatively safe in Galilee during his ministry, “but now” the authorities are coming for him, and they are in danger. The Jesuit scholar Joseph A. Fitzmyer points out,

Jesus mentions three of the things that he instructed disciples earlier not to carry along with them; now he refers to the same threesome (purse, knapsack, or sandals) but instructs them solemnly and symbolically that they are to take them up.2

Of course, the three items are not precisely the same; he tells them not to take up sandals, but “a sword,” for what should be obvious reasons: he is symbolically expressing the danger they are in, and putting on sandals is hardly an effective symbol.

The disciples, like many Christian interpreters since then, fail to see that he’s speaking symbolically, and say, in effect, “Hey, we have two swords right here!”

Jesus’s response, in Luke’s original Greek, is hikanon estin. The NRSV translates this, “That is enough,” which might, somewhat understandably, be understood as “two swords will be sufficient.”

But we have to consider the context–would two swords be enough to protect Jesus and the Twelve from the officers of the temple police? Surely not.

What Jesus meant is better captured in Fitzmyer’s translation: “Enough of that!”3 They’ve misunderstood what he meant by taking him literally, and he is frustratedly telling them he’s had enough.

Nevertheless, at least one of the disciples’ swords makes an appearance soon after:

When those who were around him saw what was coming, they asked, “Lord, should we strike with the sword?” Then one of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus said, “No more of this!” And he touched his ear and healed him. (Luke 22.49-51; NRSV)

Why does Jesus not answer the disciple who asks if they should “strike with the sword”? My guess is that Luke wants the sword to be used–as it was in his source, Mark 14.47–but does not want to show a disciple directly disobeying an order from Jesus.4 But it’s clear from Jesus’s response what his answer would have been.

Of course, the strongest rebuttal of Fischer’s interpretation comes not from Luke, but from Matthew. When the disciple cuts off the ear of the slave, Jesus says,

Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. (26.52; NRSV)

I’d like to hear Bryan Fischer’s interpretation of that one.

Notes

[1] Technically, we are probably meant to remember Jesus’s instructions to the Twelve in an even earlier scene. As Joseph A. Fitzmyer explains,

Jesus’ question in v. 35 is supposed to be a reference to the instructions that he gave to the apostles when the Twelve were sent out (9:1–6; recall 6:13cd). But the items without which they were to go forth, “purse, knapsack, or sandals,” are found in the instructions for the “seventy(-two) others” (10:1-12; cp. 9:3 and 10:4)…Luke now makes no effort to resolve the inconsistency. (Luke, 2.1429-1430).

[2] Emphasis added. Fitzmyer, Luke, 2.1430. Fitzmyer actually translates this whole passage quite differently than the NRSV. Where the NRSV translates “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,” Fitzmyer has “the one who has a purse had better carry it; and his knapsack too. If one does not have them, he must sell his cloak and buy a sword” (1428). This is due to an ambiguity about the object of the verb echōn, “has.” A more literal rendering of the Greek would be, “he who hasn’t [one], let him sell his cloak and buy a sword” (my translation). The “one” in square brackets denotes an object that is understood but not explicitly named. Fitzmyer is more literal than the NRSV, but there are a number of translations that assume the understood object of the verb echōn is the sword, such as the KJV, RSV, NJB, and the NAB. I think Fitzmyer’s translation makes more sense, but it doesn’t really make that much of a difference for our present purposes.

[3] Fitzmyer, Luke, 2.1428. John Nolland, in his WBC commentary on Luke translated it exactly the same way (3.1075), as did Raymond E. Brown in his Death of the Messiah (1.269).

[4] Luke, more than the other evangelists, was concerned not to portray the Twelve in a negative light; so, where Mark says “All of them deserted him and fled” (14.50), Luke leaves that bit out and implies that they remain near Jesus while he was on the cross (23.49). (Cf. Fitzmyer, Luke, 2.1447.)

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