Saturday, October 25, 2014
Truth and Meaning: Jesus and Guns
My blog last week generated enthusiastic response from ardent supporters of the right to keep and bear arms without a mandatory background check. At one point, one of these strident advocates cited Luke 22:36 as a defense of the position of his "God-given" right to own firearms. The verse describes Jesus talking to his apostles and reads, "He said to them, 'But now, let him who has a purse take it, and likewise a bag. And let him who has no sword sell his mantle and buy one.'"
Since this verse comes up frequently in discussions of gun control, let's destroy this argument once and for all. First, let us examine the full context of the verse by including the following two verses. "He said to them, 'But now, let him who has a purse take it, and likewise a bag. And let him who has no sword sell his mantle and buy one. For I tell you that this scripture must be fulfilled in me, 'And he was reckoned with transgressors'; for what is written about me has its fulfillment.' And they said, 'Look, Lord, here are two swords.' And he said to them, 'It is enough.'"
The New Oxford Annotated Bible has this to say about the passage. "An example of Jesus' fondness for striking metaphors, but the disciples take it literally. The sword apparently meant to Jesus a preparation to live by one's own resources against hostility. The natural meaning of verse 38 is that the disciples supposed he spoke of an actual sword, only to learn that two swords were sufficient for the whole enterprise, that is, were not to be used at all."
Anyone who has read the Gospels knows that Jesus was fond of metaphors. Matthew 23:24 - "You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!" Or Mark 10:25 - "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." Clearly, Jesus had no intention of inflicting either of these painful actions upon any camels. So, presuming that everything Jesus said was to be taken literally is groundless.
Jesus frequently used physical objects (seeds, lamps, vineyards, coins, lost sheep, etc.) to teach universal truths, and the same is true of the two swords. This interpretation is supported by Matthew 10:34: "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth, but a sword," (another verse often misquoted by gun advocates). In proper context, Jesus did not mean a physical sword that cuts up and bloodies the family, but a spiritual and moral one that may divide families nonphysically.
Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman labels a literal interpretation of Luke 22:36 as an absurd contradiction. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus teaches peace. Matthew 26:51-52 - "One of them...drew his sword, and struck a servant of the high priest's, and smote off his ear. Then said Jesus...'Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.'" Luke 2:14 - "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men." John 14:27 - "Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you." John 16:33 - "These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace." Acts 10:36 - "The word which God sent unto the children of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ."
The New Jerome Biblical Commentary agrees. "A new time within the era of fulfillment is dawning. Hostility will be the church's bedfellow...The reference to this destructive weapon (sword) must be taken in the total context of Luke-Acts...Since Luke narrates in his Gospel that Jesus not only preached love of enemies (6:26-36) but also lived that teaching (9:51-55; 23:34), and since he narrates in Acts that Paul and other missionaries never use swords, he cannot mean by 'sword' here a lethal weapon...Rather 'sword' is a symbol for crisis. A paraphrase of the latter part of verse 36 is: Sell your mantle and buy trouble."
Therefore, the words of Jesus in Luke 22:36 are not to be understood literally, that he would have his disciples furnish themselves with swords. His meaning is that, wherever they went and a door was opened for the preaching of the Gospel, they would have many adversaries. They would be met with violence, followed by rage and persecution. The phrase expresses the danger they will be exposed to.
When gun advocates use this verse to justify the purchase of guns without background checks for self-defense, they not only pervert the meaning of the statement, but the purpose for the warning. The disciples are entering hostile religious territory to preach a message, not to protect themselves from criminals. And the message they are preaching is one of love and peace, not "stand your ground" violence.
There are rational and compelling arguments on both sides of the gun control debate. Arguing that the Prince of Peace would have supported the right to keep and bear arms is not one of them.