God-Soaked World Bible Guide – Day 32
April 6, 2017
Thursday, April 6– Matthew 26:36-46
36 Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” 37 He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated. 38 Then he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” 39 And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” 40 Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? 41 Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” 42 Again he went away for the second time and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” 43 Again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. 44 So leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words. 45 Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. 46 Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.”
Points of Interest:
- All four of the Bible’s biographies of Jesus give considerable time and space to the final days before Jesus’ death, a week in a which he was in the big city of Jerusalem for the Passover feast and had been teaching his apprentices, interacting with large crowds, and embroiled in tense encounters with the city’s cultural and religious elite. All four of the biographies – also called gospels, literally “good news” – also mention this mountain side garden, tucked in near olive groves, where Jesus was arrested. This was an actual garden that any more local readers of these original texts could visit themselves and imagined what had occurred on this fateful evening.
- When last we met James and John (the two sons of Zebedee) in this guide, they were arguing over who was the greatest amongst Jesus’ apprentices and conspiring to grab the top two spots. Now Jesus is looking to them for emotional support and friendship, and it goes about as well as we’d expect it to.
- The language here leaves no doubt as to what this night was like for Jesus. He is grieved, agitated, and deeply grieved even to death, we’re told. Few sleepless nights have been quite this restless and agonizing.
- Jesus tells his friends to stay awake not just for his sake, but for theirs. They are facing a time of trial as well, though they don’t see it yet. Perhaps the trial is whether or not they can stay awake and be loyal and true friends to Jesus. More likely, it is the trial they will experience when their friend and teacher is arrested, tried and murdered as an enemy of the state of Rome. How would most of us react if our closest mentor and friend was disowned by whatever spiritual community we are part of and arrested by the state for terrorism? I know that such a trial would expose me pretty deeply as well.
- The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. Thinking of pretty much any good intention or temptation, I say, “Truer words were never said, Jesus.” This could make us discouraged, as this is a pretty discouraging phenomenon. I think there are two more helpful ways to take this line, though. One is to accept our weakness of flesh with less self-judgment and shame. God understands our weaknesses and we needn’t endlessly deride ourselves for it. The other is to ask for greater power of spirit for where we need it. This access to divine help is a considerable part of the experience of Jesus’ God-soaked New Covenant spirituality he’s teaching us after all.
- Jesus’ prayer is for this cup to pass from him without him drinking it. This image of a cup of suffering is the same one Jesus referred to when James and John were negotiating for power as Jesus’ right-hand guys. Just as Jesus told them that the path to spiritual greatness would travel through great suffering, he senses great, impending suffering of his own that he doesn’t think he can bear. Usually, readers have assumed that Jesus is expecting his upcoming torture and death and would rather avoid it, even though it is central to his destiny. In this reading, which may well be accurate, Jesus’ prayer is heard by God but isn’t answered as he hoped it would be. An alternate reading is that Jesus is willing to suffer and die, but though he hopes to live again, is afraid that death will be the end. In this reading, though Jesus suffers, his prayer is heard and answered in the affirmative. Probably the stakes of how we read this are low, but I think it’s interesting to try to imagine the various ways Jesus may have experienced fear and grief on this night.
- In Jesus’ own angst-ridden prayer, he makes a strong statement of his preference, and also offers submission to the will and preference of God. It seems that praying with only half of this prayer is shallow. Praying our own desires without a desire to yield to God’s wishes seems flippant. But telling God we simply want what God wants without engaging our own desires seems dishonest. Jesus does both here, which seems to be a good model for increasing our own connection to both God and self.
- At the end, Jesus seems so disappointed and sad. He’s disappointed in his sleepy and weak friends, disappointed in the associate who betrays him, and sadly resigned to the betrayal which is about to occur. This moment reminds me that this phrase Son of Man can be a title for God’s designated ruler but also a phrase that means “human” or “everyman.” Jesus tasted the full range of human experience that we do, even the worst parts.
Prayer for your city – Somewhere in your city right now, there are gardens and bedrooms and classrooms and boardrooms where people are lonely, sad, and afraid. Pray that God will be these folks’ comfort, will answer their prayers spoken and unspoken, and will bring a true friend to their sides.
Spiritual Exercise – This week our spiritual exercise will be a modified version of a spiritual practice called Immanuel Prayer. One of Jesus’ nicknames, or titles, is Immanuel – Hebrew for “God with us.” Immanuel prayer is a mode of praying in which we invite Jesus to help us perceive Jesus as with us in all things. Take a moment today to call to mind a place in your life where your future looks bleak. Call this area to mind for a moment, thinking of what about it causes you fear or distress. Then thank Jesus for being present and available in all things, having experienced distress himself. Ask Jesus to help you to perceive how Jesus is with you now in your fear, how he is not asleep or inattentive. What comfort, strength, or help can the Spirit of God bring to you today? And ask Jesus if you like what the will of God might look like for you in this area.