These enigmatic words of Our Lord in the 22nd chapter of Luke have mystified many. But whenever there has been an existential threat to Christian civilization, whether during the medieval Ottoman invasions or contemporary Islamic attacks, these words tend to carry heavier weight. But what we must learn is that there is a time and place for everything (Eccl. 3:1), not least of which swords. And this can be seen from the context of the Gospel passage.
And he said unto them, When I sent you forth without purse, and wallet, and shoes, lacked ye anything? And they said, Nothing. And he said unto them, But now, he that hath a purse, let him take it, and likewise a wallet; and he that hath none, let him sell his cloak, and buy a sword. — Luke 22:35-36
This is where the disciples responded famously, “Lord, behold, here are two swords,” to which Jesus says, “It is enough.”
Within traditional Christianity these two swords have been understood as symbolizing both spiritual and temporal authority (or the church and state) respectively. This was explained clearly by Pope Boniface VIII (reigned 1294- 1303):
We are taught by the words of the Gospel that in this Church and under her control there are two swords, the spiritual and the temporal . . . both of these, i.e., the spiritual and the temporal swords, are under the control of the Church. The first is wielded by the Church; the second is wielded on behalf of the church. The first is wielded by the hands of the priest, the second by the hands of kings and soldiers, but at the wish and by the permission of the priests. Sword must be subordinate to sword, and it is only fitting that the temporal authority should be subject to the spiritual (Unam Sanctam, Denzinger 873).
These two swords, furthermore, are symbolized in the two keys included in the Papal coat of arms. Nevertheless, from all this it is clear that in the Catholic tradition there is a time and place for everything; both the sword of the Spirit and the sword of the State.
Personally, I’ve always been fascinated by swords, and I’ve always told myself that if/when I had more money I would surely like to invest in several nice blades. (The Scottish and Viking swords have always held a special significance for me. And of course, the Norman Knight’s swords are unparalleled.) And although swords are clearly not the military weapons they once were, replaced by pikes, then gunpowder, and eventually modern technological and biological warfare, swords nevertheless retain a powerful symbolic value, corresponding to timeless metaphysical realities of life and death (which I can go into in another post).
The point remains, however, Christ’s disciples are called even to ‘sell’ their possessions if needs be, in order to defend the Church and Christians. As Saint Paul also said, “But if any provideth not for his own, and specially his own household, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim. 5:8). Not defending one’s own is clearly, therefore, a grave and mortal sin which no Christian can take lightly. And I don’t think it is necessary to argue the point further.
But as Pope Boniface VIII made clear, the spiritual sword maintains a certain superiority over the physical sword, and this goes for the Christian life as well. Not only is the “Word of God” likened to a “two edged sword,” (Heb. 4:12) but is itself called the “sword of the Spirit” (Eph. 6:17). And for the Catholic, we have especially been given the holy rosary as our own personal sword for spiritual warfare. Fr. Donald Calloway reminds us,
The rosary was forged in an age of chivalry. It is a spiritual weapon, a heavenly sword, fashioned by the hands of a Divine Craftsman. All swords take time and skill to make, but this heavenly sword required the greatest of efforts — centuries — to produce. It is a weapon unlike any other. It has the power to slay dragons (demons), converts sinners, and conquer hearts. The blade of this sword was forged in the living Word of God, shaped by the hammer of divine inspiration, and entrusted to the Queen of Heaven and her chosen servants.
Fr. Calloway, has expressed his view most eloquently and more fully in this lecture.
Today is the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, and so Catholic parishes around the country participated in rosary processions, in honor of Our Lady, and to intercede for Christians and the world. And I would suggest that Luke’s enigmatic gospel passage, whether it means anything else to you or not, minimally is calling all faithful Catholics to say the rosary piously everyday. And if, perchance, you happen to find yourself without a rosary, then surely it calls you to sell your cloak and buy one.
"We need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion. A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village: the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.” — C.S. Lewis