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Jesus Prays in Gethsemane (Mark 14:32-42)

Analysis and Commentary

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Garden of Gethsemane
Arthur Tilley/Stockbyte/Getty Images
    32 And they came to a place which was named Gethsemane: and he saith to his disciples, Sit ye here, while I shall pray. 33 And he taketh with him Peter and James and John, and began to be sore amazed, and to be very heavy; 34 And saith unto them, My soul is exceeding sorrowful unto death: tarry ye here, and watch.
    35 And he went forward a little, and fell on the ground, and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. 36 And he said, Abba, Father, all things are possible unto thee; take away this cup from me: nevertheless not what I will, but what thou wilt.
    37 And he cometh, and findeth them sleeping, and saith unto Peter, Simon, sleepest thou? couldest not thou watch one hour? 38 Watch ye and pray, lest ye enter into temptation. The spirit truly is ready, but the flesh is weak. 39 And again he went away, and prayed, and spake the same words. 40 And when he returned, he found them asleep again, (for their eyes were heavy,) neither wist they what to answer him.
    41 And he cometh the third time, and saith unto them, Sleep on now, and take your rest: it is enough, the hour is come; behold, the Son of man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. 42 Rise up, let us go; lo, he that betrayeth me is at hand.
    Compare: Matthew 26:36-46; Luke 22:39-46

Jesus and the Garden of Gethsemane

The story of Jesus’ doubt and anguish at Gethsemane (literally “oil press,” a small garden outside the eastern wall of Jerusalem on the Mount of Olives) has long been thought one of the more provocative passages in the gospels. This passage launches the “passion” of Jesus: the period of his suffering up to and including the crucifixion.

It’s unlikely that the story could be historical because the disciples are consistently depicted as asleep (and hence unable to know what Jesus is doing). However, it’s also deeply rooted in the oldest Christian traditions.

The Jesus being depicted here is far more human than the Jesus seen throughout most of the gospels. Typically Jesus is portrayed as confident and in command of affairs around him. He isn’t perturbed by challenges from his enemies and he demonstrates detailed knowledge about coming events — including his own death.

Now that the time of his arrest is nearly at hand, Jesus’ character changes dramatically. Jesus acts like almost any other human who knows that their life grows short: he experiences grief, sorrow, and a desire that the future not play out as he expects it will. When predicting how others would die and suffer because God wills it, Jesus shows no emotion; when faced with his own, he’s anxious that some other option be found. Did he think that his mission had failed? Did he despair at his disciples’ failure to stand by him?

Jesus Prays for Mercy

Earlier, Jesus advised his disciples that with sufficient faith and prayer, all things are possible — including moving mountains and causing fig trees to die. Here Jesus prays and his faith is undoubtedly strong. In fact, the contrast between Jesus’ faith in God and the lack of faith exhibited by his disciples is one of the points of the story: despite asking them just to stay awake and “watch” (the advice he gave earlier to watch for signs of the apocalypse), they keep falling asleep.

Does Jesus accomplish his goals? No. The phrase “not what I will, but what thou wilt” suggests an important addendum which Jesus failed to mention earlier: if a person has sufficient faith in the grace and goodness of God, they will only ever pray for what God wills rather than what they want. Of course, if one is only ever going to pray that God does what God wants to do (is there any doubt that anything else will happen?), that would undermine the point of praying.

Jesus exhibits a willingness to allow God to continue with the plan that he die. It is worth noting that Jesus’ words here assume a strong distinction between himself and God: the execution willed by God is experienced as something foreign and imposed from the outside, not something freely chosen by Jesus. The phrase “Abba” is Aramaic for “father” and denotes a very close relationship, yet it also excludes the possibility of identification — Jesus is not talking to himself.

This story would have resonated strongly with Mark’s audience. They, too, suffered persecution, arrest, and were threatened with execution. It is unlikely that they would have been spared any of this, no matter how hard they tried. In the end, they would probably feel abandoned by friends, family, and even God.

The message is clear: if Jesus could manage to remain strong in such trials and continue to call God “Abba” despite what is to come, then the new Christian converts should try to do so as well. The story almost cries out for the reader to imagine how they might react in a similar situation, an appropriate response for Christians who might indeed find themselves doing just that tomorrow or next week.

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