Those Who Live By the Sword Will Die by the Sword – Confrontation, Mercy, Enemies – Lent 2015 Reflections

Summarizing previously we cannot say we are people of mercy and allow our enemies/oppressors to persecute the defenseless. Can one really use force and mercy simultaneously? Is there really a such thing as “merciful force?” What would that really be? A punch that doesn’t hurt too much? Sounds ineffective. More on that in a little bit. But first, I want to continue processing this idea of mercy for our enemies and mercy for our friends.

Most of my thinking has centered on the Farewell Discourse (Jn. 13-17) and shortly after is this really amazing (and somewhat comical) scene in Matthew’s Gospel when Peter pulls out his sword and swings wildly and ends up slicing off an ear of one of the high priest’s servants. Just before Jesus heals the ear of the servant, he tells Peter, to put the sword away, “As those who live by the sword, die by the sword” (Slightly different response in John’s Gospel).

Though I am not a pacifist, I respect and admire many of them. I really do. In the big picture, they are a welcomed conscience. While I do believe there is a place for force, I do not believe that force will ultimately give the victory. But this verse is often cited tritely as a Jesus slam dunk stating that force is never to be used. After all, those who live by the sword, die by the sword.

Like with any position, there are various degrees and nuances to be found; pacifism would be an obvious example. “My frustration with “live by the sword, die by the sword” is the claim if we don’t use force, we’ll have peace. It’s just not true.” Even in this case, Peter puts down his sword. Later he will still be executed by “the sword” (church history tells us he was crucified).

Is Jesus wrong? It seems that those who live by the sword, die by the sword and those that do not live by the sword, still die by the sword.

A few things here. Though Jesus is likely implying that this is a macro-truth, he is speaking into a very specific situation. Further, it is very likely that he is saving Peter’s life that night. Thus Peter is saved in different ways that weekend. And lastly, Jesus knows he must be arrested that night. As John describes it, this is the cup he must drink from. 

But Jesus is not promising Peter any type of safety. Nor is this any basis for any foreign policy, or a Jedi-mind trick (“They let you live if you put that away”). If anything it’s a confirmation of the coming persecution and the tradition of martyrdom. But what Jesus is also telling Peter (and to all those that believe in the power of might/force) is that there is a power greater than the sword. Jesus conquering the grave and being raised to life again will demonstrate that. It’s almost like you can hear him saying “You have heard it said, that he who has the most swords has the control but I tell you, in me, there is a power greater than any sword.”

And here’s where I think some of my pacifist friends and I can agree. The themes of this power include peace, love, mercy, restraint, and forgiveness. Where we might differ is that I still believe there is a place for force, or at least the demonstration of the potential of it. And in the next post, I’d like to make the case that Jesus thinks so too.


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