Lesson Focus: Jesus is deeply anxious about doing the work of his Father. Because we get anxious about doing the work of the Father, too, Jesus encourages us to pray for strength to do the will of the Father.
Lesson Outcomes: Through this lesson students should:
Recognize the emphasis that Mark is placing on Jesus’ humanity.
Understand that Jesus’ prayer is a model for us as we pray.
Be encouraged to pray “not what I want, but what you want.”
Catch up on the story: Jesus and his disciples have just celebrated the Passover meal together. The identity of the one who will betray Jesus to the religious authorities has been revealed. It is in this setting that Jesus begins to instruct his followers on how they are to remember the events that will soon take place. The Lord’s Supper re-imagines and re-interprets the Passover meal so that it becomes a remembrance of what God is going to do through Jesus.
The meal ends and they travel outside the city to the Mount of Olives. The disciples will soon abandon Jesus. They will be scattered like sheep are when the shepherd is attacked. They are not to fear, though; they will be gathered back together. Peter, for his part, wants to hear no talk about desertion. Not only will Peter abandon Jesus, but he will also deny him three times! The most trying part of Jesus’ ministry is just ahead. If he is to be faithful, he will need to spend some time in prayer.
The Text: Jesus and the disciples make their way to the Mount of Olives and more specifically, to a place called Gethsemane. Only John in his gospel refers to Gethsemane as a garden. The name itself, however, has its roots in the Hebrew and Aramaic word for “oil press.” It’s plausible to assume that the place Gethsemane was in fact a garden, and more specifically, a garden for olive trees. It was common at the time for an oil press to be located within the grounds of an olive garden (France, 581).
The group enters the garden, but Jesus only wants to take Peter, James, and John deeper into the garden with him. It’s at this point that Mark gives us a group of three words that describe Jesus’ physical, emotional and spiritual state. The first, ekthambeo, means someone becomes excessively affected by emotions, either fear or wonder. The NRSV and NIV both translate it as “distressed.” The NIV, more appropriately, adds the modifier “greatly.” This is the only time in the gospels where this word is linked to Jesus. The word, as it is used in extra-biblical sources, is often associated with the fear or dread that happens before an impending emergency (Kittle, Bromiley, and Friedrich, 4). Jesus’ trial and crucifixion are close on the horizon and Jesus is afraid.
The second word follows closely after ekthambeo. Ademoneo is translated as “agitated” (NRSV) and “troubled” (NIV). Both translations are rather a week in comparison to the force of the Greek, which means to become subject to extreme mental or spiritual anguish, at times even to the point of losing one’s composure. Not only is Jesus afraid, but also, he is physically showing signs that the imminent crisis has him quite rattled.
Finally, Mark states that Jesus is “deeply grieved, even unto death.” The NIV has the better translation while more literally following the Greek, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.” In Jesus, there is deep grief and sorrow that has consumed him over the events that must now take place. The “my soul” portion of the quote is possibly a reference to Psalm 42:5 and 43:5.
Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help 6 and my God.
It is possible that Jesus’ eventual and complete acceptance of the will of the Father during this moment is owed to his familiarity with the Psalm, where a mood of deep despair eventually gives way to a calm trust in God (France, 582).
Jesus instructs the trio to sit and keep awake while he goes a little further to pray. He wanders a few more feet into the garden and then throws himself on the ground and begins to pray. The image that Jesus throws himself on the ground is quite startling. It may be that in his great distress, his fear, and his sorrow, that Jesus is quite unable to remain standing. For those of us who have experienced great tragedy, trial, or adversity these feelings and this scene may be one we have experienced. It may also be that Jesus is taking a physical position that is one of lowliness and service before the one to whom he prays. Jesus is prostrate on the ground earnestly praying that what is about to happen may not happen.
We are told that Jesus prays that, if it were possible, the cup and the hour might pass from him. Jesus is hoping and praying that the will of the Father might be accomplished in another way other than his death. We must remember what the church has confessed from the very beginning, that Jesus is both fully God and fully human. At this moment in the narrative, Jesus’ humanity cries out for deliverance.
Here Jesus uses the Aramaic word, Abba. It is often supposed that this term is the most familiar term a child might use to refer to his or her father. There “is nothing childish about the special relationship implied (it was also used, for example, by disciples addressing their rabbi)…The term conveys the respectful intimacy of a son in a patriarchal family. And in that sense, Jesus’ use of this form of address to God is striking and unparalleled” (France, 582). Jesus is pleading with his Father that the mode of his mission might be changed. Even in his humanity, however, Jesus remains singularly focused on the will of the Father. Jesus will unswervingly do what the Father wills. His human will aligns with the divine will. His human “want” unites with God’s “want.”
Jesus gets up and goes to the three that followed him further into the garden, but he finds them sleeping. He calls to Peter using his personal name, Simon. Jesus wants to know how it is that Peter could be asleep at a time like this. Jesus then admonishes Peter, and the other two, presumably, to “Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial…” Here, Jesus is encouraging the disciples, and us too, to be alert, awake and in prayer. Why are we to do so? We are to do so that we may be kept from trial or temptation. The call here is to keep out of temptation altogether, to not get into it in the first place. Watchfulness and prayer seem to be keys to remaining faithful to the will of God. Indeed, the Spirit of God that can be received through prayer and devotion is strong and able to help us remain faithful. Without the Spirit, in our flesh we are weak.
Jesus goes back to pray twice more and each time he returns he finds the trio sleeping. By this point the disciples are dumbfounded, they just do not know how to respond in the face of their own weariness. The third time Jesus returns he chastises them again for resting. They have had enough sleeping and resting; the time has come for Jesus to be betrayed. Judas is near.
So What…? Two things are important for us as we read this story. The first is that we see and recognize Jesus in his great distress. It is important for us, as we approach Holy Week, to highlight Jesus’ humanity along with his divinity. Here we are shown the vulnerability and distress that God faces as a result of becoming one of us. We confess that Jesus is both fully human and fully God. We see his humanity being shaken by his forthcoming torture and death. He is physically shaken in ways that you and I know all too well. And yet, in that place of vulnerability, in that fear of all that will come, Jesus is able to pray “not what I want, but what you want.”
Sure, we might be able to say, “He was human, but he was God too, so that kind of obedience should be easy for him.” To say that misses the point of the incarnation and the cross. The early church settled the debate that Jesus had two wills, a fully human will, and a fully divine will. His divine will did not overwhelm his human will. Nor did it give him some kind of advantage over us. He had to bring his human will faithfully in line with the divine will, just as we all do. That is what it means for him to be fully human. Jesus, in his distress, in his humanity, chooses God’s will over his own.
The second thing I think that is important is how this passage should shift our attitude about prayer. Certainly, Jesus has faith that God can change his current situation. It is not that God refuses to answer Jesus’ prayer. Jesus’ prayer is answered by Jesus bringing his will in line with his Father’s will. We should view prayer the same way. Prayer consists not necessarily in changing God’s mind about things and events, but in finding our own place in alignment with God’s will. Prayer is the way by which our desires come into line with our heavenly Father’s will.
As we prepare to enter the last week of Lent, let us take comfort in the fact that the God who created and sustains the entire universe became one of us, living like us in every way, suffering like us in every way. It is through this complete identification with humanity that Jesus is able to bring about our salvation and redemption. Thanks be to God for his steadfast love and grace which brings us from death to life!
At the same time, however, let us confess that we often use prayer as a way to manipulate God into giving us what we want. Sometimes our prayers reveal a deep-seated mistrust of God. We pray too often for our desires and less about our daily bread. As we enter Holy Week, let us pray that we might have the strength that Jesus had, who, in the face of torture and death, was able to pray, “not what I want, but what you want.” This prayer never gets easy, but it is possible through the grace of God.
Critical Discussion Questions:
What does God look like in this text/Who is God in this text/What is God doing in this text?
God in Jesus Christ became human. He is afraid; he is shaking and distressed about the future. Yet, he is committed to us and to do the will of the Father over his desires. Jesus models for us a form of faithfulness that is difficult but not impossible.
What does holiness/salvation look like in this text?
Holiness is praying “not what I want, but what you want.” It is not enough to simply pray those words but to allow ourselves to be led to possibly unpleasant places by God. What helps us as we pray this prayer is the knowledge that God vindicates Jesus through the resurrection. Jesus doesn’t stay dead. The will of God for our lives may, for a time, lead us into discomfort and possibly suffering, but on the other side of that suffering, there is the life-giving power of God.
How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become?
We should examine how we pray. Our prayers should help us orient our will and desires so that they will be in line with the will of the Father.
Specific Discussion Questions: Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.
In verse 33 Mark tells us that Jesus is “distressed and agitated.” A fuller translation of the original Greek could go something like this: “[Jesus] began to become greatly frightened and apprehensive about the coming events so much so that he physically lost his composure.” When have you felt this way? What does this description of Jesus have to say about Jesus’ humanity?
What do you think Jesus means when he says that he was “deeply grieved, even unto death?”
Describe a time when you have been so distressed that you have been unable to remain upright? Why does Jesus “throw himself on the ground?” Is there a possible reason Jesus chooses to pray from the ground other than his distress?
Jesus prays that “this cup” be removed from him. What is “this cup?”
Mark tells us that Jesus prays three times that the cup of his suffering might be removed from him. Each time he declares “not what I want, but what you want.” Why does Jesus need to pray this prayer three times? Was it hard for Jesus to do the will of the Father?
What would it look like for you to pray, “not what I want, but what you want” and really mean it? How would that prayer affect your daily life or your future plans?
Jesus encourages his followers to keep awake and pray so that they might not enter into the time of trial. What do you think Jesus means by that? What kind of temptation do you think Jesus is referring to? What kind of connection might there be between prayer and staying out of temptation?
Works Cited: R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 2002).
Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, eds., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964–).