We have come now to the heart of the Passion Narrative in Luke. All four gospels have a passion narrative. Scholars believe that the passion accounts were the first stories the Church told about Jesus as they began to preach. It's not surprising that gospel writers took the story and adapted it to their individual use.
Luke's way of telling the story has two particularly surprising details included here in this chapter that are not found in the other three versions. First, when Judas is unmasked as the betrayer and runs off to bring the military, the disciples respond in that solemn, tragic moment with an argument about who is the greatest among them. (That is an argument that happens in other places in the other gospels, but in Luke it is placed immediately after the act of betrayal.) The second is that Jesus tells his disciples that they must now sell what they can to arm themselves with weapons of war.
What is Luke trying to tell us? He's clearly arranging stories about Jesus in a way to make a point to his readers, in this case, in one of the most dramatic moments of his narrative, he's essentially underlining this points. But what are they?
If you read what scholars have written throughout history on this particular passage, it's clear that no one is really sure what Luke intends here. That's important to note. There's no simple way to understand what the Bible is teaching us, and there's frequently no consensus among the people who spend their lives trying to understand it. As I've mentioned previously, anyone who wants to claim that the Bible is a simple and clear instruction manual about how we are to live our lives just isn't being accurate.
So what do I think? I think it's important to keep in mind the arc of the dramatic narrative in this chapter. Jesus is betrayed by Judas. Then the disciples argue who shall be greatest - a dispute that Jesus has told them has no place among his followers. Then Jesus says that even Peter is going to betray him. The account lists betrayal after betrayal. It seems to me that the disciple's argument is meant to be as shocking in the setting as are Judas' actions and as will be Peter's threefold denial. Everyone is moving to abandon Jesus. It is as the prophecies and the psalms predict, the Messiah will be a man without friends betrayed by those who have been close to him. Luke is putting the account of the disciples argument where he puts it to show that they too are actively betraying Jesus immediately after receiving the Pascal meal in his presence.
The swords reference is generally understood to not mean that Jesus' followers are supposed to arm themselves and act violently. Jesus does not do that for himself. And in numerous other places he tells his disciples that they must not do that. It seems to me that Jesus is rebuking the disciples because whatever willpower that they have had to follow him, to take up their crosses, to stay disciplined, has vanished in this moment of Passover. He warns them that in the coming days this must not happen. They must be disciplined in the same way that members of the military are disciplined in their behavior. They must not lose their will to follow him. Or they too will be lost. It is a hard way to have to travel, but they must face it with courage, not as they have in this moment.
How willing are we to follow? How well have we kept to the discipline that Jesus asks of us?
As you answer those questions for yourself, keep in mind that this is not the end of the Gospel. The disciples who are scattering are reconciled with Jesus and though they fail this test - and others - they ultimately pass through the same trial as he does. We fail, and we try again. And again.