what did jesus mean?

by David Cartwright

 Cover         It’s funny what we remember and what we forget. Some things stick with us for a lifetime. Others refuse to come to light. One insight that has stayed with me now for fifty years is a comment one of my professors made while I was in divinity school. The class was discussing various views of the doctrine of the Eucharist. Speaking of Reformation viewpoints, the professor said, “What you have to realize is that Luther’s question was, “What does the text say?” Calvin’s question was, “What does the text mean?” That is the basis of their disagreement on Jesus’ words, “This is my body.” Luther came away from the text with a doctrine of the ubiquitous presence of Christ in the elements, while Calvin believed in a memorial interpretation. After all, as Calvin put it, Christ’s body cannot be in the elements since Jesus ascended into Heaven. Needless to say, the discussion has continued to this day, with a sordid history of in-hospitality on both sides of the divide. What did Jesus mean when he said, “This is my body.”?

Well, that’s not the only scriptural saying of Jesus we could reflect on. There’s an interesting place in the Gospel of Luke (Chapter 22) that suggests that some of Jesus’ disciples were carrying weapons. Earlier in Chapter 10, Jesus had explicitly told his disciples to go out with no bag, no purse, no sandals. Now he tells them to sell their cloak and buy a sword. Picking up on this, the disciples say “Look, Lord, here are two swords,” most likely the ever-present near-Eastern dagger. Jesus replies, “It is enough.” What on earth could he mean? Does he mean that two swords are enough? That’s all they need. Some commentators say no. These commentators say that this is not what Jesus meant at all. Others take a slightly different tack. They say that when Jesus saw that even his disciples were carrying swords, his heart was broken. They hadn’t gotten his message of non-violence. Still others say that Jesus is simply acknowledging that there is no way around violence in this world. “Let them have their way.” And sadly, even his disciples will be a part of it.

Obviously, the interpretation of this passage continues to cause us to reflect on the question, “What did Jesus mean?” The Two Sword passage has been used by some to justify going to war and by others to justify having nothing to do with war. Personally, I can see how these scriptures might apply both to situations of war and of non-violence. That is why I personally cannot conclude that Jesus is a pacifist, as many believe; nor do I think he’s an insurrectionist, as at least one is saying these days. Taken together with other things Jesus had to say, these scriptures help me see what the other side is talking about. Specifically, Luke 10 and Luke 22 taken together at least force us to ask the right questions, if not ultimately arriving at the answers we’re looking for. For instance, what are we to make of the use of drones in air strikes? What would Jesus think of this? As a Christian, all I can say is that finally it’s up to us to make the hard decision based on what we think Jesus means. That is the one thing I am confident that Jesus asks of us.

Next time: What did Jesus say?