January 16, 2013
Dear brothers and sisters,
I am taking the good news today from Matthew 26:36-41.
Then Jesus came with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took along Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to feel sorrow and distress. Then he said to them, “My soul is sorrowful even to death. Remain here and keep watch with me.” He advanced a little and fell prostrate in prayer, saying, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will.” When he returned to his disciples he found them asleep. He said to Peter, “So you could not keep watch with me for one hour? Watch and pray that you may not undergo the test. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
Jesus and the disciples had left the upper room in Jerusalem singing a hymn of praise to God. It was a somber time as Jesus led them to an olive garden outside the city gates. Certainly, they lapsed into silence as each man contemplated his own thoughts about what lay ahead. In keeping with his habit Jesus withdrew a ways to pray, telling all but three to stay behind. Surely, Peter, James, and John were Jesus’ closest, most trusted friends. He took them up the mountain to witness his transfiguration and now he asked them to be with him in his hour of need. But yet, they couldn’t stay awake. I think that’s Matthew’s way of saying that Jesus had to face this alone. His friends couldn’t shoulder this burden for him; they couldn’t counsel him; they couldn’t support him. He had to respond to this test by himself. And he wished that they wouldn’t have to do the same at some point in their lives, knowing full well that they would. We all do. We all come face to face with God at the end of our lives alone.
This passage probably gives me a more complete image of Jesus’ humanity than any other. The Jerusalem Bible translates the second verse, “And sadness came over him, and great distress.” The New Jerusalem Bible gives us, “And he began to feel sadness and anguish.” The New Standard Revised Edition has it, “And began to be grieved and agitated.” The Saint Joseph Confraternity Version states, “And he began to be saddened and exceedingly troubled.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines “sorrow” as distress of mind caused by suffering, disappointment, deep sadness or regret. The New American Bible notes tell us that “even to death” means “enough to die.”
These various translations are interesting to me because they show the inadequacy of words to convey emotion. Jesus probably was filled with all kinds of feelings and thoughts. He knew he had but a few short hours yet to live. He knew that he would be subjected to the most horrific form of death imaginable. He would no longer be in the daily company of those he loved especially Peter, James, and John. His mission was coming to an end and he may have judged that he had accomplished little or perhaps had even failed. I can imagine all these thoughts and feelings tumbling about within his mind and heart.
At least one of the disciples overhead some of Jesus’ prayer, his anguished plea to God. Jesus prayed for what every man and woman prays for at some point, “If it possible, let this cup pass from me.” This cup for me has been the agony of so many situations and experiences that are part and parcel of life. Sometimes they have been so stressful that they made me want to die. The plea is always the same — let it be different, God. Let it come out the way I want it. Please! That’s what Jesus prayed as well. But he followed it by submitting himself to God’s will even though his spirit cried out for release.
The authors of the New Jerusalem BIblical Commentary believe that Jesus’ prayer was drawn from Psalms 42-43. In them the same verse is repeated three times. “Why are you downcast, my soul, why do you groan within me? Wait for God, whom I shall praise again, my savior and my God.” In his anguish Jesus turned to God, his savior, and praised Him. And waited for His answer. In his soul Jesus knew the answer to the question, “If it is possible.” He had to undergo the test, his willingness to accept, to submit his will to God’s.
Hard as it is, Jesus is showing me that in those times I should look past my own distress and look to God for salvation by submitting to His will, waiting to learn what that is. It is agonizingly hard. Jesus warns me that my spirit may be willing to do this, but my flesh will rebel. It will want its own way, its own will to be done. I have to undergo the test. I may pray otherwise, but that’s not the way life works. Better to accept that and wait for God’s will to be known to me.