Matthew 26:14–25, 31–56, 69–75
51. Suddenly, one of those with Jesus put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. 52. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.”
This past Tuesday marked the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the American Civil War. It was a war that testified to the truth of Jesus’ words: All who take the sword will perish by the sword. 610,000 people dead. The South was wrong in its defense of slavery. And yet, what was true then is still true and will always be true: No matter how right the cause or sometimes even how necessary war may be, in war there are no winners.
There’s another detail in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ arrest. Notice who gets hurt. Not the religious leaders. Not the Roman soldiers. Not even Jesus or his disciples. Instead, Matthew reports, one of those with Jesus put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear.
How strange. How sad. And—how predictable! It was a slave who was hurt—a nobody, an innocent bystander, someone with no power, someone who had nothing to do with Jesus’ arrest, who probably didn’t even want to be there. It was a slave who was hurt.
So when the sword is drawn, not only are there no winners, but it’s often those who have the least who suffer the most. How many millions of soldiers have died on the battlefield over the past 150 years? How many more millions of unarmed civilians have been bombed, shot, gassed, burned, tortured, raped and made homeless. It’s true that those who take up the sword die by the sword. It’s true that those who don’t take up the sword also die by the sword.
But is that all there is to it? Is this scene in the story of Jesus’ final days a lesson about the weapons of steel only, or is there a deeper lesson for each of us in our everyday lives?
The sword is a weapon that cuts, or in this case, “cuts off.” In the story, a sword cuts off a slave’s ear. “Cut-off” is a spiritual problem. Cutting oneself off from others is a constant temptation in the spiritual life. It works against the gospel’s call to unity, accountability, repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation and community.
The person who best represents cut-off in our reading for today is Judas. Judas was one of Jesus’ most prominent disciples, part of his inner circle. It may be that he was closer to Jesus and believed in him more than all the rest. But somehow Judas lost his connection with the others. It’s hard to imagine Judas sitting around a table and saying to his friends, “I’m thinking of turning Jesus in. What do you think?” No, Judas relied on himself and his own ideas. Cut off from his community he made poor choices.
What was the sword that Judas used to cut himself off from other people? I don’t mean a sword of steel but a sword of conviction. Was it a sword of anger that led him to turn Jesus in? Was it a sword of grief? Was it a sword of disappointment?
When Jesus said, Put your sword back into its place, he was speaking to the person who cut off the ear of the high priest’s slave. But he could just as well have been talking to Judas. It’s as if he was saying, Whatever it is that has cut you off from me and from other people, put it back in its place. Put your sword of anger away. Put your sword of grief away. Put your sword of disappointment away. Whatever it is that separates you from others, put it back in its place.
It’s a mistake to think of Judas as the bad guy in this story. Surely he’s the most tragic but not because he turned Jesus in. None of the other disciples did any better. They ran away in Jesus’ hour of need. Peter even denied that he knew his friend and teacher.
In the end, everyone betrayed Jesus. And in the end, everyone repented–even Judas. All experienced the sting of grief, and guilt, and shame, and failure. What made Judas different is that in ending his life he alone cut himself off from the love and forgiveness of Jesus. Love and forgiveness were waiting for him and would always be there, but Judas wasn’t around to receive it.
Which draws us into the story to ask where our swords are drawn. What is it that separates us from each other? In which relationships is the sword of grief, or shame, or failure, or self-pity, or anger, separating you from others? Where is your life separated from the peace and the joy that God wills for each of us? Are you waiting for others to change? How’s that working for you?
Put your sword back into its place, Jesus says. It’s not a scold; it’s a gift. When we keep our swords drawn we cut ourselves off not only from others but from the joy of living. When we keep our swords drawn we cut ourselves off from forgiveness and reconciliation. When we keep our swords drawn we sometimes cut ourselves off from emotional, spiritual and even physical health for, as Jesus said, all who take the sword will perish by the sword.
Although the odds are stacked against it, there are stories among you that give me great joy and hope. Some of you by your own faith and courage are living examples of what it looks like to put away your sword. Some among you come from unhappy homes. People cut each other off by not speaking to each other, by cutting off an inheritance. Sometimes there’s emotional distance; you can live in the same house as someone and feel like you’re alone. Divorce is one of the most painful examples of cut-off. And yet, among us we have more than one household that has put away the sword of grief and anger and bitterness, even to the extent of experiencing reconciliation between themselves and their former partner. What a gift for those who are blessed by such grace, and what a gift for those of us who are encouraged by hearing such stories!
But opportunities to put away the swords that cut us off from others can be much more ordinary and every-day. This past week I was at my weekly Bible study with other pastors. Everything seemed pretty normal until it was time to leave. One of the pastors was almost out the door when she said, Pray for me; going into Holy Week, I’ve got nothing left. She was exhausted; but instead of suffering alone she trusted us enough to hear her exhaustion and need for support. We said to her, “Come back here!” The group stood in a circle around her, placed our hands on her and prayed for peace, and strength to get through the full week ahead. In that moment, she chose not the path of Judas, cutting off from others. She chose the path of Jesus’ disciples, who even though they had failed, allowed themselves to be surrounded by the grace and love of God, expressed through their community of faith.
No matter where you are in your faith journey the love of Christ awaits you. Wherever your sword is drawn, put your sword back in its place, for the sake of freedom; for the sake of joy. In Jesus’ name, AMEN.