Luke 22:35 And he said to them, “When I sent you out with no moneybag or knapsack or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “Nothing.” Luke 22:36 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. Luke 22:37 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. Luke 22:38 And they said, “Look, Lord, here are two swords.” And he said to them, “It is enough.” [English Standard Version]
This passage in the gospel of Luke is frequently referred to by people who wish to ‘soften’ Jesus’ (peace be with him) stance on pacifism (non-resistance to attacks). Didn’t Jesus specifically tell his disciples just prior to his arrest that they should purchase swords?
In a previous article I argued that this command to purchase swords was symbolic, based on Jesus’ quotation of the prophecy that he would be “numbered with the transgressors”. Carrying swords would give his disciples the appearance of being violent trouble makers. It was not a command for the disciples to actually use their swords, as shown almost immediately when Peter used his sword to fight against the soldiers who came to arrest Jesus. Jesus rebuked Peter, and healed the person Peter injured.
However, my older son recently challenged my symbolic interpretation of this passage. He pointed out that if Jesus had only talked about purchasing swords, my argument might conceivably be valid. But Jesus also told his disciples to carry money and provisions with them when they traveled – contrary to his previous instructions to them. How would carrying money and provisions be symbolic of being ‘transgressors’?
I sought to answer the objection by saying that carrying money and provisions would be transgressing Jesus’ own previous commandment not to do so. My son, though, just said that he thought I was really stretching on that point. While making provision for their journeys might appear to be ‘transgression’ to those who were devoted followers of Jesus, probably most people would just consider it to be a good display of wisdom to do so.
At the time I was having this discussion with my son, I didn’t back down from my position. I just pointed out that the later example of the disciples showed that they didn’t understand Jesus to have renounced his teaching on pacifism, as the historical records indicate that the followers of Jesus Christ did not seek to defend themselves against attacks and persecution.
However, I have thought a lot about this passage since then, and I now agree that the ‘symbolic’ interpretation is not accurate because my son is correct that making provisions for a journey would not identify a person as a ‘transgressor’ in the eyes of any ordinary person. So whatever the significance of the passage may be, Jesus simply could not have been telling his disciples to carry provisions with them just so they could ‘look like’ transgressors. And if that argument does not work for carrying provisions, neither will it work for purchasing swords.
What in the world does the passage mean, then? As it stands, it would appear that Jesus was repudiating his former teaching and practice; but that is simply inconceivable!
Jesus had spent several years instructing and encouraging his disciples, and giving them the example of his own practice. And in this passage in Luke, Jesus is said to have reminded his disciples of his previous teaching, and to have pointed out that they had never lacked when they conscientiously obeyed his instructions. The disciples themselves acknowledged the truthfulness of Jesus’ statement.
So why in the world would Jesus now reverse himself? Was he really saying that the former instructions would no longer ‘work’ since he was about to be taken away from them? To say such a thing is absurd. The reason Jesus had told his disciples not to be concerned about what they would eat or wear “tomorrow” was because he said they could count on their “Father in heaven”. Their “Father” knew their needs and would provide for them. Jesus had not set himself up as their provider and protector, but the “Father”.
It would be ‘blasphemy’ to imagine that the “Father” couldn’t provide for them any longer if Jesus himself wasn’t physically present with the disciples to ‘help’ the “Father”! Jesus’ statement, as it stands, would seem to be incomprehensible.
As I now see it, the answer to this dilemma is actually simple. We have in this gospel account another illustration of the fallibility of the writers of the gospels. In this case, the error is very small – simply a matter of the form of the verbs. I believe that we should understand Jesus’ statement to be predictive rather than imperative (a command).
That is to say, I believe what Jesus was actually saying was that despite the fact that the disciples themselves had proved the ‘workability’ of Jesus’ teachings, they were now about to abandon those instructions due to their shock and discouragement over what appeared to be the complete destruction of their hope that Jesus was the Messiah. They would simply “give up”, and go back to their former way of life – or they would have if their sorrow had not been turned into joy 3 days after what appeared to be the defeat of Jesus.
So, instead of saying: “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”; what Jesus actually said was most probably: “But now the one who has a moneybag will take it, and likewise a knapsack. And the one who has no sword will sell his cloak and buy one.”
This was just another way of saying what the gospel called “Matthew” records Jesus as saying: Mat 26:31 Then Jesus said to them, “You will all fall away because of me this night. For it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ Luke just recorded specific examples of what Jesus meant by “fall away”.
Peter maintained resolutely that he would never forsake his Master, but would be willing to die for him. Jesus, though, predicted that before the night was over Peter would deny Jesus 3 times.
The other disciples also insisted they would certainly never abandon Jesus; but Luke records that Jesus told them they would be willing to completely abandon his instructions despite the fact that they had proven the trustworthiness of those teachings. Jesus was correct about both Peter and the rest of the disciples.
Jesus was not entirely ‘negative’ in his predictions about them, though. Although Peter was to deny his ‘lord’ three times, yet Jesus said he would turn back to his faith; and when that occurred, he was to “strengthen [his] brothers”. Luke 22:31 “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, Luke 22:32 but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.”
Having decided that Luke gave us a slightly distorted version of Jesus’ statement, I’m not going to be too hard on him. After all, he was not present with the disciples during Jesus’ ministry; he himself said at the beginning of his gospel that he was seeking to give an accurate report of what he had heard from eyewitnesses. And according to his account, it is clear that the disciples themselves (or some of them at least) had themselves misunderstood Jesus to have been issuing a command rather than a simple prediction about how they would abandon his teachings. And those disciples seemed all too ready to abandon Jesus’ previous instructions when they believed Jesus was abrogating them! Instead of exclaiming “Look, we have two swords”, they should have been puzzled about why Jesus would be telling them to forget about his former instructions (as they understood him to be doing).
I can imagine Jesus “rolling his eyes” ( 🙄 ) as he said – in sorrowful exasperation at the inability of his disciples to understand what he was saying – “it is enough”. (That is, the two swords you have are sufficient). At any rate, when Peter decided to actually use his sword in defense against the soldiers, Jesus made it very clear that Peter’s actions did not meet with his approval.
That is my current understanding of this intriguing “sell your cloaks in order to buy swords” passage. As always, this is my opinion and I may certainly be wrong. However, to me it not only solves the mystery of Jesus’ seeming renunciation of much of what he had previously taught; it also fits very well in the context of Jesus’ predicting that his disciples would all forsake him out of fear and discouragement. God knows best.