The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have spent many Sundays since late 2017 immersed in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On the Third Sunday of Lent (March 24, 2019), we found ourselves waiting in the Garden of Gethsemane with the disciples while Jesus was praying. What were we waiting for? That depends on how you choose to interpret the verbs here. Our Gospel text was Mark 14:27-52.
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I would imagine that everyone in this room has enjoyed looking through old photos with a loved one and one of you is looking with incredulity at the older (and in my case, often grainy) images and saying, “Wow, this is really cool. Which one are you?” Sometimes, we want to know what our parents or our friends looked like before we knew them. Sometimes we want to learn more about that loved one – we are saying something like, “Tell me about this, Grampy: how did you fit into what was happening here?”
I find myself asking that same question – of myself – as I read through this chapter. There are so many people who are mentioned here – Jesus, of course, and Peter, James, John, Judas – not to mention a host of un-named servants and friends and the crowd. Where do I fit in? Which one am I? Which one are you?
Well, it depends, I think, on what we think is happening here. For most of my life, my interpretation of this passage has been based on the translation of Jesus’ prophecy that you heard earlier in verse 27. The New International Version reports that Jesus declared “You will all fall away…” A few verses later, Peter replies, “Even if all fall away, I will not…” The New Revised Standard Version words it slightly differently, but with the same effect: Jesus indicates, “You will all become deserters…” and Peter contests by saying, “Even though all become deserters, I will not…” These translations – justifiable, I think – suggest that the people who have known Jesus the best are about to have the crap scared out of them and run away because they are so frightened.
And, to be honest, if that is the reading – if that is what is happening in this picture, then the disciples are once more the clueless dolts that we have imagined them to be through the years. Jesus of Nazareth has a great plan, and it will require great bravery, but they can neither understand the plan nor muster the courage and so they fall short. They run away leaving him to his own devices in his hour of need.
In this reading, Peter in particular is bold in his assertion of loyalty and strength, but terribly weak in practice. He, along with James and John, is essentially helpless. They are weak and flawed, especially compared to their friend Jesus, who suffers through what we have come to call “the agony in Gethsemane” all alone.
Judas is singled out as one who is actively and intentionally “falling away” or “deserting”. So far as we can tell, Judas is the only disciple who is notsleeping, and he is actively undermining Jesus’ plan.
Have you heard this story before? Is this how you have read it, too? Brave Jesus, needing his friends now more than ever, but one of them is an active traitor and the others are shameless cowards in his hour of need. If that’s the case, you are surely not alone. That is a time-honored way of hearing this story.
But there’s a different reading. Jesus uses – and then Peter echoes – a very interesting word. The Greek word that Jesus uses to describe the behavior of his friends is skandalizo. In that language, a skandalon is a stick that is baited and then put into a trap. When a careless or unwary animal stumbles upon this treat, the stick moves, the trap springs shut, and the victim is caught.
Jesus uses this word himself in that very difficult teaching back in Mark 9, when he says, “whoever puts a stumbling block (skandalion) in front of one of these little ones… And then again three times later in the same chapter: If your hand (or foot, or eye) offends you (skandalizi), then get rid of it…”
Because of the use of the word skandalonin this passage, and its meaning in those other instances, some translators give a different picture for the prediction of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. For instance, the King James Version renders this conversation this way: “And Jesus saith unto them, ‘All ye shall be offended because of me this night…’, but Peter said unto him, ‘Although all shall be offended, yet will not I.’” The Contemporary English Version reads, “Jesus said to his disciples, ‘All of you will reject me…’, and Peter spoke up, ‘Even if all the others reject you, I never will!’”
And Eugene Peterson renders it thusly in The Message: “Jesus told them, ‘You’re all going to feel that your world is falling apart and that it’s my fault…’Peter blurted out, “Even if everyone else is ashamed of you when things fall to pieces, I won’t be.”
Now stay with me here, because this is crucial. If Jesus is predicting that his followers will all lose heart and flee because they are cowards, then our traditional understanding is correct. But what if he is saying, “Look, you may think that you know me, but you don’t really ‘get’ who I am or what I’m doing yet. And because you don’t fully understand me, or the Kingdom I’ve proclaimed, then what is going to happen will scandalize you – you will think that I’m wrong.”
If that’s what Jesus is saying in Mark 14, then the behavior of the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane is consistent – but in a way that could be perceived as being almost admirable.
Listen: Jesus goes off to pray and becomes, in reality, a sitting duck. The disciples whom he invites to accompany him choose to catch up on their sleep because they are going to need it. Someone has got to be ready to defend Jesus, and he has shown no inclination to defend himself. Praying is all well and good, but if we’re going to be able to help him when the dookey hits the fan, we’re going to need our rest. There will be important work to be done. I think that this interpretation might be strengthened by the fact that Jesus recognizes that his friends are falling into old habits, and therefore calls his beloved comrade “Simon” – his old name, rather than “Peter”.
In this understanding of what is happening, then, even Judas gets a little more noble. In bringing the powers of the Empire and Religion into a direct confrontation with Jesus, perhaps Judas is in his own mind merely calling Jesus’ bluff and telling him it’s time to fish or cut bait. He’s effectively saying, “Look, you’ve told us that you are the Messiah – we believe that you are the one to deliver Israel. Now’s your chance, Jesus. Act like a Messiah. Stand up to Rome and to Religion – or we will all die trying.”
When Judas gets there, Jesus’ followers begin to act like, well, followers. They defend him. Someone draws a sword. Blood flows – the blood of those who have come to arrest Jesus. And yet as his followers rush to his defense, Jesus forbids it. Although Matthew and Luke are more explicit in their depiction of this part of the scene, a faithful reading of Mark indicates that Jesus is the one who stops the violence in the Garden. His followers wantto defend him, they wanthim to stand up for himself, and they wantto stand up for him – and he prevents them from doing so.
Thenthey run away. If Jesus is going to be saved, then it’s going to be up to people like Peter, James, and John, because (as the disciples must see it) Jesus himself is naïve and clueless. Although his followers love Jesus, they must think that as noble as he is, simply does not understand how Empires work.
Jesus said that his followers would be scandalized by his behavior. If we accept the translation of that word as put forward by Peterson and some of his colleagues, then this reading is all about a group of disciples who think that they know better than their master what could and should happen. In this reading, if Jesus thinks that giving up to Pilate and Herod without a fight is a good idea, then Jesus is sadly mistaken and he’s going to need our help, according to the disciples, to get out of this jam.
So, back to my original question: which one are you?
I guess it depends on which reading, which translation of skandalizo, you prefer.
Today I’m asking myself – and therefore, you as well – are you one who has been scandalized and offended by the Lord? You can say it, you know. I think that he’s given us permission here. Are you someone who has looked Jesus in the eye and said, “Well, that’s an interesting theory, Jesus, but I’m not sure that you really understand how the world works. Listen, Lord: let me give you a little advice. Here’s how I think we want to play this thing out…”
Are you someone who has a better plan than Jesus?
What does this passage have to teach me about trusting in God and having faith? What do I need to learn, this Lent, about seeking to listen to and live into this narration about life in the Kingdom of God? What might have happened differently if the disciples had stayed awake and prayed with Jesus? We will never know. All we can be sure of is that they came to understand themselves as those who had, in fact, been scandalized by the behavior of their Lord, and it was only in hindsight that they came to see their own behavior and theology as flawed.
So there is a curious little footnote to this story. Mark ends his account of the struggle in the Garden with an odd description of a nameless kid who is almost caught in the round up but winds up escaping into the night whilst becoming known as the first “streaker” in the Gospels – a scared young man running naked as fast as he can into the darkness.
What is thatabout? Why does Mark – the author of the shortest Gospel – the “just the facts, Ma’am” kind of writer – why does he go out of his way to tell us this story, when none of the other Gospels thought to include it?
The only reasonable explanation that I can see is that this frightened teen is actually Mark himself. These two brief verses are Mark’s way of saying, “Yeah, I was there too.”
It makes sense. In Acts 12, we read that one of the central locations in Jerusalem for the early Christian movement was in the home of a woman named Mary, who was the mother of a son called John Mark. It’s entirely possible that this home was the site of the Last Supper on that Maundy Thursday evening. And if the Supper took place in his own home, it’s easy to imagine this kid hanging around the edges, listening to the men talking and planning and then following them out into the darkness. When everything goes down, he is overcome with fear and flees into the darkness and back to the safety of his own home.
Friends, I want you to remember what we said about Mark’s Gospel way back in 2017. The second Gospel was written, we said, to encourage the young church in Rome. That community was being persecuted and victimized and attacked, and they wanted to know where was Jesus in the midst of all this. Mark’s account, written to these people, is that Jesus can be trusted. That Jesus promises to be present in the midst of all the pain, all the injustice, all the persecution. The second Gospel was written to help a specific community see that the Kingdom is real and powerful and worthwhile.
And in this little footnote, Mark, the teller of the story, is able to say, “Listen, friends: I’ve been there. You need to know that I didn’t always ‘get’ him either. I’ve been scandalized. I’ve been offended. I’ve been afraid and I’ve been ashamed. But I’m telling you that Jesus is the real deal. You can trust him. As you live and move and seek to get through the days and nights in Nero’s Rome, don’t give up. Never forget that the ways of the Empire are notthe ways of the Kingdom that Jesus proclaimed. Remember that the values of the Messiah are not always celebrated by the Emperor.
I would suggest that the author of the second Gospel uses this story, in part, to help his first hearers – and us – to focus on the admonition that Jesus offered his friends in verse 38: “Keep awake, and pray…” Those are two of the most important aspects of being a disciple, I think. The commands in the Garden are virtually identical to the summation that Jesus gave in Mark 13 – the longest teaching passage in this Gospel: “What I say to you, I say to all: Keep awake”.
This, beloved, is the task and the purpose of Lent. To set aside some extra time, to seek to apply some special discipline, to put ourselves in a place where we are able and willing to do just that – to watch and to pray. To look for and point out signs of the Kingdom that is present among us even now. To hold onto the promise when it seems as though that Kingdom is incredibly far-off. The first 13 chapters of Mark give us a vision, a foretaste, a hope for the Kingdom. Mark uses them to help us be attentive to a Messiah who cares about injustice, and who offers us viable strategies to come together and live into that kind of community.
And this passage is given to help us remember that nobody – even first disciples and Gospel writers – gets it right all the time. We are called to live as a community of grace, humility, forgiveness, hope, and sacrifice. Those are not values that always sell well in the Empire – but they are the ones that will shape us into the likeness of the Christ, whose name we bear.
Thanks be to God, Amen.