In Luke’s Gospel, just before Jesus is betrayed, he has this conversation with His disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane:
And He said to them, “When I sent you without money bag, knapsack, and sandals, did you lack anything?” So they said, “Nothing.”Then He said to them, “But now, he who has a money bag, let him take it, and likewise a knapsack; and he who has no sword, let him sell his garment and buy one. For I say to you that this which is written must still be accomplished in Me: ‘And He was numbered with the transgressors.’ For the things concerning Me have an end.” So they said, “Lord, look, here are two swords.” And He said, “It is enough.”
In this passage, Jesus seems to be telling his disciples that they should acquire weapons. Throughout history, much has been made of this verse in support of Christians taking up arms. It was, for example, a favourite verse of the Teutonic Knights of the Middle Ages. In fact, for most of Christendom (that is, whenever states saw themselves as Christian states), this verse was used to justify the use of arms.
However, those who support a more pacifist view of the Christian calling make much of Jesus’ words, “It is enough.” That is, this view sees Jesus speaking metaphorically, which is how, for example, St. Ambrose reads the passage. He says that selling one’s garment to buy a sword is a reference to giving up one’s body (“garment”) to death by the sword (“to buy a sword”). The fact that the disciples (as they often did) interpret Jesus’ words literally, leads Jesus to break off the discussion with the words “It is enough,” referring not to the two swords, but to the discussion.
I tend to favour this more spiritual reading of the passage because of what follows. Immediately after this conversation, Jesus prays while the disciples sleep, then Judas arrives, betrays Jesus with a kiss, and Peter takes a sword and cuts off the ear of Malcus, a servant of the high priest. Jesus’ response to this action is direct and unequivocal, but the Gospel writers record slightly different versions of this response:
Matthew records: “But Jesus said to him, ‘Put your sword in its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Or do you think that I cannot now pray to My Father, and He will provide Me with more than twelve legions of angels? How then could the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must happen thus?’”
Mark does not record the rebuke.
Luke records: [Jesus said] “‘But permit even this.’ And He touched his ear and healed him.”
John records: “So Jesus said to Peter, ‘Put your sword into the sheath. Shall I not drink the cup which My Father has given me.?’”
Jesus may have told his disciples to acquire swords, but he rebukes the disciple who uses a sword.
I think there is significance in the fact that Peter cuts off the ear of Malcus—and that Jesus heals it. When we use force to oppose those who oppose us, when we fight fire with fire, we end up destroying the ability of our enemy to hear. We cut off the ear of the very ones Jesus came to save.
Unlike Jesus, we do not want to drink the cup the Father has given us, we are not willing to permit, “even this.” We do not believe that the Father hears our prayers and sends angels to assist us.
Many who have rejected Christianity have a very high regard for Christ. They just have never met any Christians who look anything like Him. We Christians and our various swords are cutting off the ears of those who long to hear the Gospel. They long to hear, not the Gospel as a proposition, but they long to hear the Gospel as a life lived; they long to hear the Gospel from men and women who actually live it, who prove that it can be lived, that what Jesus said is indeed true.
Thank God that Jesus heals. Jesus heals those whom we have wounded in our fear. But Jesus also rebukes us. Will we drink the cup the Father has given us? Or will we fight fire with fire? Will we “Permit even this”? Or will we strike out and wound and kill others to preserve what we think is our own?
Truthfully, I am much more like Peter than I am like Jesus. I can be impetuous. I get angry quickly and violence is drawn easily from me. I don’t take easily the trampling of my rights, the denial of my dignity, or the loss of my possessions. That’s one of the reasons why I don’t own a gun. I might use it. I am like an alcoholic who doesn’t keep booze around. She may have been sober for thirty years, but still she knows that given the right trigger, she might grab a bottle if one were nearby. When we pray, “and lead us not into temptation,” it is good to learn to do our part and not to go anywhere near the temptation we are praying to be delivered from.
Taken literally, Jesus may have said that the disciples should own weapons, but he rebukes them when they use them. Within the Orthodox tradition, we have many warrior saints. Some are considered saintly because of their military prowess in defence of an Orthodox people, some are considered saints because of their dependence on God in their military victories, and others, the majority I think, are considered saints because as soldiers they laid down their arms and refused to fight.
There is no “one size fits all” teaching in the Orthodox Christian tradition regarding the use of arms. However, I think a case can be made that any Christian use of violence is evidence of a failure at some level. I may not own a gun, but all I have to do is dial 911 and several people with guns will arrive in my defence. Is this, perhaps, necessary in a fallen world? I don’t know. One thing is certain, it wasn’t necessary for Jesus. That His followers find it necessary is probably not evidence of our great holiness; it’s probably evidence of our spiritual poverty.
And so we are poor, poor in spirit. If we can just acknowledge this, we may make a beginning. Maybe in our extreme spiritual poverty we need, or think we need, weapons. And if this is the case, then let us at least acknowledge it. Let us say, “I rely on violence (my own violence and the violence used by others on my behalf) because I am far from what God has called me to be. I am poor in spirit. I am far from my heavenly calling. Lord, have mercy on me a sinner!
If we acknowledge our spiritual poverty, perhaps we will be motivated to pray for our enemies, for those whose ears we damage by our violence. Jesus is merciful. If we confess our sins and pray for those who reject the Faith because they don’t see any Christ-like Christians, God may hear our prayer. It is our fault, after all. It is our fault that they don’t hear, that they don’t see Christians that look like Jesus. And maybe, if we acknowledge our failure, we will find Grace to become a little more like Jesus, to accept the cup that the Father gives us, to allow, as Jesus said, even this.