Even now, some of the Old Testament stories remain ingrained in our collective consciousness, and biblical literary references abound. Such would have been much more the case for Jesus’ audience and, perhaps even more critically, for the target audiences of the gospel writers. References to defining moments, events and stories from the Old Testament are numerous in the New Testament and perhaps references to gardens are always meant to recall that first biblical garden, Eden.
My theological wanderings have taken me out of the Garden of Eden and into some other biblical gardens, reflecting on possible parallels between these and the Garden of Eden. Around the time of Jesus passion and resurrection, gardens are the setting for key moments: the garden of Gethsemane, scene of the betrayal and arrest; and the garden where the tomb is located and the first resurrection scenes are enacted.
One of the (many) bible verses I have sometimes struggled with is the one in which, in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples “if you have no sword, sell your cloak and buy one” (Luke 22:36). In the midst of a Gospel which, to my mind, preaches a consistently non-violent message this verse has always struck me as something of an anomaly. Furthermore, what is the significance of Jesus responding “that is enough” when the disciples present two swords, and why, having expressly asked them to acquire swords does Jesus, at the moment of his arrest, tell the disciples to put down the very weapons he himself instructed them to carry?
Reflecting on these verses in the light of the Genesis story has helped me to come up with a possible explanation about what is going on in this story ... but you might have to bear with me while I try to put my current thoughts into some sort of fairly coherent form.
When the Garden of Eden is created and humanity is placed within it, the tree at the very centre of the garden is the Tree of Life. Access to the tree of life is not limited but Adam and Eve do not choose to eat of its fruit. Later, as Adam and Eve are sent out of the garden, “he posted the great winged creatures and the fiery, flashing sword to guard the way to the tree of life.” (Genesis 3:24) At their departure from the garden, swords bar the way to fullness of life; perhaps because in adulthood we find it hard to accept the fullness of life, the world of freedom and possibility, that as children we take for granted. Perhaps the swords are our own limitations, fears, distractions and preoccupations that bar our way to living life in all its fullness, that prevent us from living eternal life as an everyday reality.
In the garden of Gethsemane, we are back inside the garden, and once again, there are swords. Just as God instructed the tree of life to be guarded by swords, it is Jesus, God, who instructs the disciples to bring swords with them to the garden. Perhaps the events in the Gethsemane Garden are a re-enactment and reversal of the tree of life narrative we see when Adam and Eve leave the Garden of Eden.
If the disciples have brought swords with them to the Garden of Gethsemane it is, undoubtedly, with the intention of protecting Jesus, of guarding the way to him, which in the parallel with the Genesis story puts Jesus in the place of the tree of life. At least for me, there is no great leap of imagination to locate the Jesus who has “come that you may have life in all its fullness” (john 10:10) and has also identified himself as “I am the vine and you are the branches” (John 15:5) in the place of the Tree of Life.
The disciples have to bring swords, not because Jesus is going to condone any act of violence, but because this is the moment when the swords guarding the Tree of Life are going to be put down, and the way to fullness of life is reopened. Perhaps this is also what the slightly strange verse in Mark’s gospel “A young man followed with nothing on but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the cloth and ran away naked” (Mark 14: 51-52): could this be the guard from the tree of life running away and leaving the route open? Jesus’ instruction to “put down your swords” which appears in all four gospels, is not just a reaffirmation of his non-violent credentials, but is also a renewal of the unlimited access to the Tree of Life, offering the gift of life in all its fullness.
And who were the first to gain access to the tree of life? The reactions to this reopening of the way to fullness of life appear to be two-fold.
Judas, with his kiss of death, and the soldiers who dragged Jesus away respond with violence and hatred. Just as in the Genesis story the tree of life was accessible to Adam and Eve, symbolic of the whole of humanity, Jesus reaffirms that life in all its fullness, access to the tree of life is open to all, even those who will choose to abuse its vulnerability. But many are they who offered a world of possibility will act in aggressive confrontation rather than reach out and eat a fruit which they feel unworthy to taste.
Meanwhile, the others present, the disciples, all run away in fear: afraid of the violence of the soldiers, or filled with fear at the potential and possibility of this unlimited access to fullness of life? In putting down the swords which guard the way, Jesus reaffirms that life in all its fullness is within our reach. But many are they who dare not risk the small sacrifices required even when they have glimpsed the rewards.
And what about us? Do we run away in fear when we glimpse what life in all its fullness might be like? Do we criticize, ridicule and condemn those who have fullness of life because our fears and anger won’t allow us to eat of its fruit? Or do we reach out, tentatively, and taste the fruit that will allow us to live free, fulfilled and happy?
We are challenged by the gospel to put down the swords we hold in clenched fists which are barring the way for both ourselves and others. We are challenged to approach the tree of life and eat freely of its fruit.
So how do we ensure we are eating of its fruit, how do we taste and see that it is good, how do we eat our fill and live life to the full? And how do we ensure we are offering its fruits to others? How do we encourage and invite those who gaze from a fearful distance or those who turn their heads in shame or anger to approach?
More questions than answers, but I am sure it is a path we should all be treading together.