Read Luke 22:14-38
For my New Testament class, I wanted to do something interesting for my final paper. I felt like writing about Jesus’ non-violent teachings because I really care about peace, but that has been done before, and by smarter people than me. But one passage seemed to always come up in discussions about peace, the closing bits of our scripture today where Jesus tells the disciples to go buy a sword. I was always puzzled by this passage that seems so out of step with other teachings of Jesus. There are places he talks of his message as being as divisive as a sword, but that idea does not really fit here. In fact, this command didn’t even seem to fit with the scriptures that follow it—where at Jesus’ arrest, Jesus stops Peter from wielding his sword and heals the man wounded by the sword. Why would Jesus tell the disciples to buy swords they would be forbidden to use?
Often in the peace debate this sword saying is used as a prooftext to discredit Jesus’ radical nonviolent teachings, like his call to love even our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. I have even heard it coopted by modern gun rights advocates who attempt to twist the scripture into a view that Jesus supports the second amendment. In fact not long before I began writing my paper, Sarah Palin was quoted in a brand new article to this affect.
I was not sure what I was going to find as I dug into this passage, but at the time I was not really thinking about Easter, or the significance of this passage as a foreshadowing of that, but that is exactly what I found. What I found was actually a bit of how Jesus seemed to understand the significance of what was happening, how he pondered the significance of his death. He pointed to the fulfillment of Isaiah’s vision of the suffering servant in Isaiah 53. Before we get too far into that, let me first sum up the content of the passage. We will be digging deeper into Isaiah 53 for Easter Sunday this year:
Luke sets the stage for more than a presentation of what other churches call “the words of institution,” there is a certain gravity beyond merely the supper itself, to the words of the supper. Jesus is betrayed and the announcement of his betrayal leads to dissension over the loyalty of the disciples. The group begins debating over ambition and status immediately after supping together, and Jesus promises each will rule beside him and judge Israel. Satan’s sifting is experienced by the group and Jesus speaks of how his prayer for Peter will see him through the coming time of sifting where he will eventually commit his acts of betrayal. This seamlessly leads into our text about remembering the provisions of a previous time, the exchange about the swords, and the fulfillment of Isa 53. But in almost no telling of the story of the Last Supper does anyone ever think to include the squabbles of the disciples or these mysterious words of Jesus about buying a sword.
And this is probably to avoid some controversy, as scholars fight about how to understand what Jesus meant but these words. Some take the talk of swords figuratively, some literally. In my studies I found no good reason to take it figuratively. Some see it as Jesus play acting being an insurrectionist, setting the stage for people to treat him as the leader of a violent revolution. Others see it as irony, or even disgust. Jesus’ words “that is enough” could just as easily be translated “enough of that!” It is impossible to know if Jesus abruptly ends the discussion because he is frustrated or was just done saying what he had to say.
Some have pointed out that two swords for 12 disciples seems like a laughable amount of weaponry to rise up against the might of the Roman empire. Others that the disciples would need to defend themselves after Jesus was no longer with them. Whatever is meant by Jesus’ talk of swords, what is clear is that he saw this as part of being “numbered with the transgressors,” a reference to Isaiah 53; a role written about himself long ago that would soon be fulfilled.
The New Testament story is the fulfillment of the Old Testament story. It is a story of the justice of God, told in the symbols of the story of Israel. It was the Passover that showed the people of God a way out of their oppression and slavery. It was the Passover that gave Israel the Passover Lamb, the symbol of how God’s people—acting in faithfulness— would be protected by God from their enemies. And it was the Passover Lamb whose blood would break the bonds of slavery in Egypt, just as Jesus’ blood would break the bondage of sin for the world.
And here at the Passover we see Jesus enacting a new Covenant, a covenant made through his blood as the fulfillment of the Passover Lamb. We spent Advent exploring the Old Testament idea of the Kingdom of God, and in many of my Lenten devotions some of you are following along with, we have been examining how this Kingdom vision of Justice was expressed in the example and teachings of Jesus. He taught in parables about the mercy and justice of God, a God often offering grace to those who do not deserve it. And revealing how Jesus—as the Messiah— came to inaugurate this kingdom the prophets of old longed to see.
It was the kingdom’s fulfillment, it seems, that even this late in the game the disciples were still oblivious to. As Jesus unveils to them this new thing God is about to do, they got caught up in fighting about who would play the biggest role in this new kingdom to come. Who will be the greatest? Who will have the seat of honor as right hand man of to Jesus?
Not who you think Jesus says. It will be the humblest, the servant. It will not be the most dominant—the one most willing to do whatever it takes no matter how violent—to Lord it over the people of God through military might… It will be the one who is the most willing to take the form of the servant, the one who will suffer most out of their love for others. The one who rules will be like the one who serves, and this is exactly the picture we find alluded to in Jesus’ death on the cross.
True greatness is not about prestige and honors and accolades, it is about humility and service. It is not for those who are impatiently wrapped up in taking back their country by violent revolution, not for those most willing to lay down their life to drive out the Romans and win back the Holy Land. It is for those who live lives of faithful service, content to take the kingdom of God as it truly is—a kingdom of peace and justice with thrones sitting around a table of unity, not that unlike these twelve people sitting together around a table to celebrate the Passover. It will even be the same people, and more in fact.
And think about who is sitting around the table with Jesus: some fishermen and a skeptic, a violent revolutionary and a tax collector who had betrayed his country; the one who would deny Jesus three times and the one who would betray him with a kiss. If it wasn’t for Jesus, these men would have very little in common. Some would even have been mortal enemies, yet with Jesus among them they gathered around the table of fellowship to be thankful to God. That is what the Kingdom of God is like, and that is what church should be like… sinners and saints, people of every stripe gathered around Jesus. Learning how not to squabble… learning how to be more like their Servant King.
The question we have been wrestling with this Lent is, what does the justice of God look like? And in this passage we find our answer: It looks like a divided Israel healed despite many differences, gathered like the 12 disciples around the Prince of Peace. It looks like the freedom earned by the Passover, freedom from slavery. It looks like the new covenant, providing a way into the family of God for those left on the outside. It looks like the kingdom of God reigning above human agendas or dreams of power. The justice of God looks like the humblest is the greatest; the one who trusts God’s promises for the future rather than the discouragement of the present. God’s justice is found in those who can look back at the faithfulness of God and see how God took care of his people, and can trust that there is no need for fear based thinking or worry to justify acts of desperation.
But there are hints of much more in the story, hints of Satan sifting two disciples who would betray Jesus, Peter and Judas Iscariot. One would deny him three times and turn back, and one would betray him only to throw his life away in despair. God’s grace was deep enough for both, but only one repented and believed. We see a great deal of fear at work in both Judas and Peter, but it was only Peter who would put those fears aside one day and race to the tomb. As the people of God, we too are being sifted. There is something valuable at the heart of us that will be uncovered, if we can let our sifting point us back toward the hope of the resurrection and not toward selfishness and self-preservation justifying acts of betrayal.
When it comes to the gospel story we see Jesus being sifted too. We see his tortured prayer at Gethseme. We see his betrayal; his painful death on the cross. We see his people spit in his face and mock him, and we see his love and grace go all the way to the end—all the way to his dying breath. But Jesus, in this passage, presents his death in light of Isaiah 53, of being the Suffering Servant through whom true freedom would come.
As the disciples of old—we Christians are often eager to flash our swords and take up arms, yet we see Jesus present himself not as the giver of wounds but as the receiver of wounds—wounds by which we are healed. We see Jesus, who committed no sin, numbered among the transgressors, hanging between two violent revolutionaries in the shameful death of an insurrectionist. A humiliating death that would serve as a warning to all who followed in the ways of transgression.
In this death, which we might be tempted to see as the ultimate act of injustice; proof the world can never be changed, Yet Jesus invites us to see his death on the cross as an act of service, an act of redemption. For God took the sin and shame and wickedness of this world into himself and absorbed it. God suffered, but God suffered as a servant, righting the creation that had drifted as far from God as it could go; paying the ransom for a world held hostage by sin.
As Isiah puts it:
“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.
6 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.”
We find ourselves puzzled at the justice of God. What does this mean for us, in our time? I think the unity and humility we see Jesus pointing to gives us our best clue. It is not enough just to believe in Jesus intellectually, as the book of James puts it even the demons do that. If one would truly reign with Jesus, truly be his disciple, we must lay down the fear based thinking that justifies violence and strife. We must become like him in humility, in joining into the suffering of our world and living humble lives of service. We must look back on God’s faithfulness and go forward in hope. We must do more than be grateful for Jesus’ sacrifice, we must follow in his example.
When the devil sifts us, we are all too ready to take up a sword. We are all too ready to miss the point of what God is up to. Our fears can often point us away from trusting in God, but the battle Jesus faced was one of fighting through that fear to the victory on the other side of the cross. He could have taken the path of violence, he had every right to it in the midst of all the injustice he faced. As the ruler of the universe, he could have “lorded it over” this path of suffering. But Jesus took the path of the Passover Lamb, he let himself be numbered among the transgressors, he took the path of the Servant King.
For those who would reign with him, we must also be willing to suffer with him. For those who would rule with him, we must also be willing to serve with him. We should not be a people wondering about the minimum requirements of making it into heaven, but people wondering how far, with God’s help, our transformation can go. But the direction, long before it becomes a picture of us exalted—ruling with Christ on a throne, is a picture of the path of the cross. It is the path of the Suffering Servant.
This is not a mystery hidden from us, it is not something that should take us by surprise as it did the first disciples. We already know the end of the gospel story. But to get to the end of the story we must walk the path of Jesus, the path of the cross, the path of humility, the path of the Suffering Servant. We, as the people of God, must look past our fear of the present dangers we face… and have the courage to follow God even there.