All Who Live by the Sword…

Q: I’m curious about Jesus’ instructions to his disciples at the end of the last supper about the necessity of carrying a sword. (See Luke 22.) Perhaps he was just warning them that things were going to get nasty, but why then, when they said they had two swords, did he say, “That is enough.” Luke apparently thought this conversation important enough to record it. Surely he foresaw the misuse that one of his followers (unidentified in Luke, but identified as Peter in John 18) would make of the sword.

A: You raise a good point. It is indeed clear from Jesus’ irate response to Peter’s use of a sword in Mt 26:52, Jn 18:11 and Lk 22:51 that a real sword was not intended. The figure of speech Jesus uses is called metonymy. Only here, sword represents readiness, alertness, action, shrewdness, as opposed to violence and bloodshed. The idea he means to convey is that the disciples have entered a dangerous time when few can be trusted and they must keep their wits about them.

The disciples frequently misunderstand Jesus, interpreting him literally when he is speaking figuratively or spiritually. The theme of misunderstanding is strongest in John’s Gospel, where it often has comic overtones. But here the misinterpretation has potentially dangerous consequences.

So why did Jesus say, “That is enough”? In the original Greek the phrase can just as easily be translated, “Enough of that” (i.e., “stop that,” compare Lk 22:51). So he was probably expressing his exasperation at their obtuseness. Had they been with him so long and still not understood him? They should have known he would never have condoned such violence.

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