During the fourth week of class, I take my students through the passion narrative in Matthew’s gospel. The “passion narrative” simply refers to the suffering and death of Jesus. All four gospels contain a version of this account, which begins with Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane and ends with his burial.
When looking specifically at Matthew 26.36-46 (Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane) in class, my students highlight several things:
- Jesus’ humanity witnessed in his anguish and sorrow.
- Inherent in Jesus’ plea is the notion that God might change his mind; that perhaps Jesus doesn’t have to go to the cross.
- The temptations in Matthew 4 revisit Jesus in the Garden. Again, Jesus is tempted to choose his own desires over God’s will.
- Throughout the gospel, Jesus goes to prayer before making major decisions, embarking on big tasks, and carrying out his ministry. He follows the same protocol in this section.
- Ultimately, even in his weakness, Jesus submits to God’s will. While he requests to sidestep what he’s about to undergo, his plea is never made apart from his desire to carry out God’s grand plan. He chooses obedience to God’s agenda rather than his own.
Additionally, my students recognize the contrast between Jesus’ faithfulness and the disciples’ faithlessness—while Jesus is fervently praying, they are sleeping. We then discuss how Matthew intentionally uses this juxtaposition to make several points. Matthew wants his 1st century audience (and us) to realize that temptation can only be staved off by prayer, and that despite the suffering we may face, we’re called to carry out God’s mission.
Interestingly, my students never point out that God fails to answer Jesus’ 3-fold petition. Jesus earnestly pleads, but the Father is silent. In this moment of deep need, we would expect God to respond to his Son; yet, he keeps quiet.
Truthfully, I’d never noticed this either, until I was directed to this passage in prayer the other night. On the precipice of another difficult decision, I was seeking God’s input; however, like Jesus, the only thing on the other end of my request was static.
While we can ruminate on God’s non-response, this is not the passage’s intent. In looking at the text, it’s apparent that despite God’s silence, Jesus knew what to do. Throughout Matthew’s gospel, we witness Jesus’ life of obedience. He made right choices all along the way. This wasn’t the first time he’d run into a difficult decision, thus, on the precipice of his own looming death, he was prepared. He knew his options and chose to submit his desires to God’s plan.
Strangely, this passage of warning brings me solace. It reminds me that if we live lives of obedience as Jesus did, we too will know how to respond to difficult situations, especially when God doesn’t seem to be answering. In the midst of weakness or confusion, we can look to Jesus, tapping into his example, in order to make the right choice. Even when emotion obscures our thought process, when we’re bogged down by pain, or when our souls are “overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (26.38), we can choose obedience to God’s will.
Above all, it reminds me that God allows for wavering. In Gethsemane, we witness the intensity of Jesus’ struggle. We recognize the pressure to succumb to temptation. We see Jesus waver and commiserate, because we too have experienced this. While it’s important to receive the grace God extends to us in our weakness, what’s most important is how we conduct ourselves in the midst of the vacillation. We’re called to waver obediently—in earnest prayer, on our knees, like our Savior.