This is the forty-second installment, comprising Act 6, Scene 5, chapter 14:26-26, in the online commentary on the Gospel of Mark, which I am blogging on throughout the liturgical year. Please see the forty-first installment here. Links to the entire series are available in one spot at The Complete Gospel of Mark Online Commentary.
This is my division of the Gospel:
Act 1, 1:14-3:6;
Act 2, 3:7-6:6;
Act 3, 6:7-8:26;
Act 4, 8:27-10:52;
Act 5, 11:1-13:37;
Act 6, 14:1-16:8(20).
Scene 4: 14:26-42
26 When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. 27 And Jesus said to them, "You will all become deserters; for it is written, "I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.' 28 But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee." 29 Peter said to him, "Even though all become deserters, I will not." 30 Jesus said to him, "Truly I tell you, this day, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times." 31 But he said vehemently, "Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you." And all of them said the same. 32 They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, "Sit here while I pray." 33 He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated. 34 And he said to them, "I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake." 35 And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. 36 He said, "Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want." 37 He came and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, "Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour? 38 Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak." 39 And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words. 40 And once more he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy; and they did not know what to say to him. 41 He came a third time and said to them, "Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Enough! The hour has come; the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. 42 Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand."(NRSV)
Verse 14:26 is both the end of Scene 4 and the transition to Scene 5. The end of the meal is not described, only that when the Hallel Psalm was sung, they went to the Mount of Olives. Mark does not explain why Jesus has gone to the Mount of Olives or who exactly has gone with him. This is particularly intriguing with respect to the betrayer Judas: Is he with Jesus and the other disciples? If not, does he know that Jesus is going to the Mount of Olives? Had Jesus already planned this visit to the Mount? What was the purpose for it? Again, Mark describes nothing of the plan, if such a plan existed, or if the plan was revealed to the apostles as whole. So Jesus’ first words to the apostles on the Mount are striking and sharp.
And Jesus said to them, “You will all become deserters; for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’ But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” Peter said to him, “Even though all become deserters, I will not.” Jesus said to him, “Truly I tell you, this day, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” But he said vehemently, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” And all of them said the same. (14:27-31)
Jesus states bluntly that “you will all become deserters,” drawing on a prophecy found in Zechariah 13:7. It is yet another prophecy from Zechariah since the Gospel has moved into Jerusalem (see Act 5, Scene 1 and Act 5, Scenes 2 and 3) and, even more importantly, another sign since Jesus has reached Jerusalem that all which is now occurring and will occur is known to Jesus and in his control.
The content of the prophecy itself, though, is not insignificant, for the apostles who wondered if they are to be betrayers now learn they will be deserters. When the shepherd is struck, the sheep will be scattered. Certainly this refers in the first instance to those who surround Jesus now, but as we saw in Act 3, Scene 3 (cf. 6:34) he is the shepherd for all the lost sheep upon whom he has lavished compassion and who welcomed him into Jerusalem. Mark, though, by adding Jesus’ next prediction subtly demonstrates that their desertion is not final, for when Jesus foresees his resurrection he tells them that “I will go before you to Galilee.” While the focus is on Jesus’ resurrection and return to Galilee, it shows that they will meet him at some point in the future.
Peter, the apostle whose voice we are now used to hearing above all others, rejects Jesus’ claim and the surprise, it seems to me, is that more of the apostles do not do it. On the other hand, all of them in Act 6, Scene 4 have wondered if they might betray Jesus, so the charge that they will only desert Jesus, for a time, might seem a relief. Peter properly speaks up, though, and says he will not desert Jesus, and certainly he must mean it. Jesus then makes the powerful prediction that, in fact, Peter will deny Jesus three times. Just as with Jesus’ other predictions – in Act 5, Scene 1: “you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it;” and Act 6, Scene 4: "Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you” – the specificity of Jesus’ prophecy is breathtaking: “Truly I tell you, this day, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times” (14:30). Again, Peter speaks up, as he must, with a vehement denial: “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you” (14:31). After he speaks his piece, the other disciples finally chime in: “And all of them said the same” (14:31). Bold they might not be, but they do know that here is a time when their voices must be heard.
What makes Mark’s Gospel so dramatically powerful is the way in which he lets scenes or vignettes end; each character, Jesus, Peter, the other disciples have said their piece and we are most often allowed to consider them without narrative explanation. This is the feature that allows a narrative to gain strength from what is not said, but which we as readers or listeners are forced to consider. Included for our consideration is whether Judas is one of those who has chimed in with Peter, denying that he will deny Jesus. Is he present with them? If not, do they now suspect him? If he is absent, has Jesus mentioned him?
They then go to a garden called Gethsemane, which means “oil press,” and Jesus tells his disciples to “Sit here while I pray” (14:32). Jesus does bring his inner circle (see Act 4, Scene 2) with him, Peter and James and John, and Mark’s description of Jesus’ emotional state stresses that he is suffering. Jesus begins to be “distressed and agitated” (14:33), which is somewhat of a surprise, since all that is occurring and is to occur has been predicted by Jesus. And yet, Jesus’ predictive power does not remove his humanity or his concern for his future: “I am deeply grieved, even to death” (14:34). He instructs his inner circle to stay awake while he prays. The prayer is, again, a moment of powerful tension as Jesus “threw himself on the ground” and asked that “if it were possible, the hour might pass from him” (14:35). Mark’s next line seems to dissipate some of the tension, at least in his readers, who might wonder if Jesus now doubts the mission for which he has been prepared. Jesus prays as the obedient son, asking, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want” (14:36). This line resonates for those reading the text, for Jesus’ point of weakness becomes his point of power: not what he wants, but what God wants.
And his inner circle? They are asleep. Their task was to remain awake, whether to bear witness to Jesus’ emotional suffering or to have his back from those who would betray him, but they are not able to do it. Peter gets the brunt of recrimination: “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour? Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (14:37-38). In fact, Jesus’ claim that “the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” sums up all of Jesus’ apostles. Mark adds a truly interesting claim that Jesus “again he went away and prayed, saying the same words” (14:39). When we think of the impact of those words in 14:24-26, the emotional distress, Jesus’ throwing himself on the ground, his cry to God to allow him a way out if it is possible, it is remarkable that Peter, James and John are unable to remain alert or not to actually hear Jesus’ prayers and groans. Most importantly, Jesus must pray again for strength to fulfill his mission, to remain the obedient son. So, when Jesus returns to his best friends “and once more he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy; and they did not know what to say to him” (14:40), it feels as if they have not learned a thing since they began to follow him in Galilee.
It is easy to skip over the fact, though, that it is not two times, but three times that this occurs, Mark has simply grown weary of describing their failure. But is that truly it? Or is it just that the normal wear and tear, the normal daily weariness, breaks everyone down and Mark mentions it in a similarly matter of fact manner. This time, though, it is anything but matter of fact.
Jesus “came a third time and said to them, ‘Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Enough! The hour has come; the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand’ ” (14:41-42). Jesus’ death is moving from prophecy to fact right in front of the disciples’ eyes; they have been prepared for this almost from the moment they began to follow Jesus, but now when the time of crisis is on them, they are not ready. The sheep are already scattered.
John W. Martens
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