Monday, April 18, 2011

Sheathing the Sword – a Holy Week Meditation

While Jesus was still speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, came. With him was a large crowd carrying swords and clubs. They had been sent by the chief priests and elders of the people. His betrayer had given them a sign: Arrest the man I kiss. Just then he came to Jesus and said, “Hello, Rabbi.” Then he kissed him.

But Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you came to do.” Then they came and grabbed Jesus and arrested him.

One of those with Jesus reached for his sword. Striking the high priest’s slave, he cut off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put the sword back into its place. All those who use the sword will die by the sword. Or do you think that I’m not able to ask my Father and he will send to me more than twelve battle groups? But if I did that, how would the scriptures be fulfilled that say this must happen? ” Then Jesus said to the crowds, “Have you come with swords and clubs to arrest me, like a thief? Day after day, I sat in the temple teaching, but you didn’t arrest me. But all this has happened so that what the prophets said in the scriptures might be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples left Jesus and ran away. (Matthew 26:47-36 Common English Bible)


I accepted an opportunity to write a meditation for the Common English Bible Lenten Blog Tour, and so I worked on the assigned passage – only to discover that I had read the schedule wrong and wrote a meditation for the text assigned a day earlier to someone else. So, I would like to share this meditation with you and invite you to return tomorrow to read the continuing story of Jesus’ Holy Week Journey.

During the Lenten season we are continually reminded that the path of discipleship is a difficult road to navigate. As Jesus reminds us in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) it is a narrow path that few are willing to embark upon, for it costs us much to take this path. It can involve facing insults and even persecution. Indeed, if one continues reading past the end of the story above, it becomes clear that the road can lead to death.

In the passage we are invited to contemplate today we find Jesus facing betrayal, abandonment, and arrest. It is clear that, at least for this moment in time, Jesus is forced to take this narrow path alone, having been betrayed and abandoned by those closest to him.

As we consider this passage our attention is quickly grabbed by the mob that comes looking for Jesus in the night. They’re led by one of Jesus’ own disciples, who betrays him with a kiss – that most intimate of gestures. At the end of the story, Jesus is arrested and the disciples flee. There are two other images, however, that I’d like to lift up. The first is the contrast between light and darkness, and the second is the sword.

It is important to note that this event occurs under the cover of darkness. As Jesus points out to those who come to arrest him, he had been teaching openly in the Temple – in the daytime – but that’s not when they came to arrest him. Instead they come at night, in the darkness, armed with swords and clubs, as if he is a thief in the night. By pointing this out, he shines a light on their efforts. They operate under the influence of darkness.

The other image is that of the sword, which in many ways also functions as a symbol of darkness. The mob itself comes armed with swords and clubs, with which they intend to demonstrate their power to control the situation. We’ve seen mobs like this beating protesters in Syria, Iran, Egypt, Libya, Zimbabwe, and Ivory Coast. A generation ago in this country the mob beat civil rights marchers – and many times these violent mobs wore the marks of the state. But the mob isn’t the only carrier of the sword. Here in Matthew 26, we read that one of the disciples pulls out his sword and strikes the servant of the High Priest. The person isn’t named here, and Mark is even less clear, with the bearer of the sword apparently a bystander, and interestingly, John goes the other direction and names Peter as the sword bearer. Whoever this person is, Jesus tells him to put his sword away, for he is not in need of their defense. After all, if necessary God would send twelve battle groups/legions of angels to defend him, but all of this takes place in fulfillment of the scriptures.

But, whoever this person is, and whatever protective measures Jesus might call upon, I find it interesting, and even troubling that a follower of the Prince of Peace is carrying a sword. I wonder where did this sword come from, and why is this person wielding it? Did this disciple not understand Jesus when he taught them in the Sermon on the Mount to not retaliate, but instead turn the other cheek? As I think of this person, I think as well of those gun toting preachers we’ve been hearing about.

Despite the turmoil of the moment, Jesus doesn’t let a teachable moment get away from him, and so he tells the crowd: “All those who use the sword will die by the sword.” In making this claim, Jesus doesn’t leave any wiggle room. There are no exceptions to this rule. Indeed, he doesn’t even exempt the military or the police. There’s no clause that gives permission for self-defense. He simply reminds us that if you choose the way of the sword, then you will find yourself in an endless cycle of violence.

If we choose to live by the sword, then eventually we’ll suffer the consequences of that choice. And history is full of examples of this truth. One war leads to another. When World War I was launched it was supposed to be the war to end all wars, and yet, just a two decades later, the World was again embroiled in war. Many thought that the end of World War II would usher in an era of peace, but that didn’t last long. And now, the nation of my birth, is fully engaged in two wars and living on the edge of another. Conflict rages across the world leading to death and destruction in region after region. Yes, when we embrace the way of the sword, it is difficult to walk away.

As for me, I hear in this word a call to embrace nonviolence. I believe that it is the way of the Kingdom. I will admit that the realist in me has kept me from embracing pacifism, but as I move toward Good Friday and then Easter, I hear this challenge very clearly, and I wonder what this means for the way I live my faith in public? What does it mean for me to truly follow the one who calls for the sword to be sheathed even as he faced death on the cross. And I hear this question raised in the context of Jesus contrast of darkness and light, and I wonder, am I ready to walk in the light?


keithwatkinshistorian said...

The contrast between Egypt and Libya is confirmation of the point you make. I too find it easier to affirm the theology of this episode in Jesus's life than to decide how a person or a country should act. It is a hard lesson to learn. Reinhold Niebuhr's steady movement toward "realism" may support the use of swords, but America's recent military adventures show how disastrous it can be.

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...


Thanks for mentioning Niebuhr. I find myself drawn to his realism, and know that Obama is influenced by him. But, we seem to be too quick to draw the sword, much as this disciple did, and need to hear the call to sheath the sword. But I'm still puzzled by why the disciple had the sword in the first place!

wacks said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
wacks said...

Thanks for sharing this wonderful post.God and meditation