Luke 22:39-46


Put to the Test – Integrity or Compromise?

Luke 22:39-46  -  Jesus Prays at the Mount of Olives

39 He went outside
and, as was his custom, went to the Mount of Olives.
The disciples followed him
40 When he came to the place he said,
“Pray that you do not enter into temptation.”
41 Then he went about a stone’s throw from them,
and falling to his knees, he prayed in these words, 
42 “Father, if you are willing,
turn this chalice away from me.
Yet let it be your will, not mine, that is done.”

Luke gave far less detail about Jesus’ prayer than Mark had done. His direction to the disciples picked up an element of the “Lord’s Prayer” that he had shared wtih them during his public ministry: do not bring us into temptation.

The time of temptation had come. This was not just any temptation, but the definitive cosmic conflict between good and evil into which the disciples were being involuntarily drawn. It was above all a trial of faith. As events unfolded, the disciples failed the test. They certainly lost courage, possibly even faith, at least briefly, and their love for Jesus broke down.

Jesus himself deliberately chose to face whatever happened. Luke substituted Mark’s graphic threw himself on the ground with the more dignified and controlled knelt down.

The Cup in Hebrew Literature

There are numerous references to the cup in the works of many of the prophets. It is consistently connected with suffering. Often it is called the cup of God’s wrath and interpreted as punishment from the hand of God. 

The image is found in the Book of Psalms.

For in the hand of the LORD there is a cup
... and all the wicked of the earth
shall drain it down to the dregs. (Ps 76:8)

Isaiah directly linked the cup with the wrath of God:

... Stand up, O Jerusalem,
you who have drunk at the hand of the LORD
the cup of his wrath... (Isaiah 51:17)

Jeremiah also spoke of the cup as bearing the wine of wrath: 

For thus the LORD, the God of Israel, said to me: 
Take from my hand this cup of the wine of wrath, 
and make all the nations to whom I send you drink it.
(Jeremiah 25:15)

In Jesus’ prayer, the cup referred simply to the suffering he foresaw facing him. It had nothing to do with either the wrath of God or with punishment. His suffering would be the result of the violence of those seeking to cling to power.

Jesus’ prayer: Father .. let it be your will, not mine, that is done needs to be interpreted carefully. Jesus was not implying that the trial and crucifixion he was about to face were the will of God. That would point to a cruel and heartless God. That was not the God that Jesus knew and taught. The cup of suffering Jesus was soon to be asked to drink was served up by the sin of the world, soon to be acted out by the small group of high priests and the governor appointed by imperial Rome. God’s will for Jesus was that he persevere in his choice for love, whatever the cost. In the process, the Father would be present, not manipulating events, but empowering Jesus to persist in his choice for inclusive compassion and personal integrity. This was the God in whom Jesus trusted, the will with which he was totally aligned.

Luke’s Approach to the Passion of Jesus

Luke wrote his narrative, as he had clearly indicated in his introductory verses to Theophilus,

“so that you may come to know the sound foundation of the catechesis you have received (1:4).

Meaning. He wanted to lead Theophilus beyond the mere historical events to their meaning and truth. With this in mind he chose to recast to some extent Mark’s passion narrative. He obviously assumed the unrelieved starkness of Mark’s account of Jesus’ trials and eventual death, and in no way wished to dilute their impact, but he also wanted to uncover a whole other dimension.

Luke believed in Jesus’ resurrection, which he understood as God’s justification of his whole message and way of life. At the time, many people saw death as robbing life of permanent purpose and meaning. God saved Jesus from that meaninglessness of death. Luke was able, therefore, to present Jesus’ passion as a victory of his human spirit, strengthened by the power of God (and God’s angel – cf. verse 43), and expressed in his unshakeable “yes” to the empowering will of his God. For Luke, the passion of Jesus was far more than the inexorable enactment of the viciousness of the cruelly brutal sin of the world. And he wanted Theophilus to be very clearly aware of this.

Physical Suffering. Neither Mark nor Luke chose to mention more than necessary the physical details of Jesus’ suffering. (In later Christian devotion preachers have at times sought to exploit the degree of Jesus’ physical suffering to extract, if possible, a remorseful response from their hearers. Luke certainly was not into manipulation. Love, for Luke, was always to be free.)

Emotional Reaction. Mark’s description of Jesus’ passion had highlighted to some extent the emotional experience of Jesus. While mentioning (without emphasising) the physical suffering, he in no way softened the psychological humiliation and degradation meted out to Jesus, or his sense of dereliction even by his God as he hung on the cross.

Deliberate Response. Luke chose rather to emphasise Jesus’ obedience-response to God, his ready forgiveness and his persistent compassion towards others. Rather than attending to the psychological suffering of Jesus, he focussed more on Jesus’ deliberate and personal response to events, drawn from the depths of his spirit.

Modelling. In writing this way, Luke also wished to emphasise for his readers the manner in which they, too, were to meet the problems associated with Christian life in an unjust and dysfunctional Empire. Whatever they encountered, they too were to make their own the unshakeable trust of Jesus in his Father, forgiveness of their persecutors, and constant compassion to all. [The disciples would fail in their major encounter with the time of trial.]

Every reader would need to be alert to the danger. As Jesus had warned earlier: “Be constantly alert, praying that you are strong enough to escape all the things that are going to happen and to stand erect before the Son of Man” (21:36).

By focussing on the deliberate responses of Jesus to the various events of his passion, Luke showed his readers how they, too, could respond to the trials they would inevitably face.

43 [An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him.]

Scholars are uncertain whether these details belong to the original text of the Gospel or were added later. They are not found in the more reliable ancient manuscripts or in the narratives of the other evangelists. 

If they are original, they still represent to some degree Luke’s own literary creativity. (He would later mention that Jesus was unobserved, since the disciples were sleeping; and he would give no indication that Jesus had occasion to share his experience with the disciples, either before his arrest or after his resurrection.) The angel from heaven may well be Luke’s way of indicating the power of God at work within the mind and heart of Jesus, as Luke said, giving him strength.

44 Struggling hard, he prayed more earnestly.
His perspiration fell to the ground like drops of blood.

The word translated anguish struggling means agony. That translation has led later tradition to refer to the whole incident as the Agony in the Garden. In fact, Luke had not mentioned garden at all – simply the Mount of Olives. Neither word is much help. The Greek word for agony means wrestle, a hand-to-hand, inter-personal struggle.

Despite the later rhetoric, the text did not claim that Jesus sweated blood during his inner struggle, but stated simply that his sweat dripped from him and fell like great drops of blood.

The Agony of Jesus

Though Satan did manage to influence both leaders and governor to crucify Jesus, simply having Jesus killed would be a hollow victory. Any definitive victory of evil over good would have consisted rather in Jesus’ betraying God, himself, and the others to whom he had been sent.

Consistent with his insight into the heart of God and his sense of his own dignity, Jesus had always preached and lived the message of trust and mutual love. It was precisely his radical and unswerving insistence on this at all times that made him a threat to the vested interests of both the religious and secular power-brokers of his day.

The Context. No one had really understood or integrated Jesus’ message. The disciples were caught up in their concerns about relative honour and other issues of immature communities. He was clearly soon to be arrested and eliminated. His own weakness would be the occasion of the disciples’ breakdown, and he would no longer be present to support or draw them together. People generally had warmed to his healing action and message, but their faith was superficial. The leaders, whose particular responsibility was to recognise the presence and action of God in the world, were precisely the ones right at that moment plotting his arrest. 

He believed in the ultimate resurrection of the just (as did Pharisees and many others), but the gospel language of “the third day” was either not meant literally or was a precision made later by the Christian community in light of Jesus’ actual resurrection. He faced total failure, in the one mission that mattered to a sinful world. 

Temptation. His was tempted, then, in all likelihood 

    • to see his whole life as useless and even meaningless
    • to lose faith in love
    • to lose trust in God
    • to feel bitter towards all who had let him down
    • to withhold forgiveness.

Response. Luke’s concern in the narrative that followed would be to show how Jesus faced those temptations and how, rather than be sucked into despair, still resolutely chose

    • to trust
    • to hope 
    • to forgive.

Perfected. In that process Jesus realised the deepest potential of his humanity, and became perfect. He depthed the heart of God; he understood God’s unshakeable love for and hope in human persons; he acted from his own truest identity. The depth of his suffering forced him to draw on the deepest resources of his truest self. 

He became not simply the model of the faithful disciple. He mastered once and for all the evil of the world. He won salvation and forgiveness for all who would follow the same path.

Scriptural Interpretation. A confirmation of this interpretation is found in the “Epistle to the Hebrews”, a document written about the same time as Luke’s Gospel:

In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications,
with loud cries and tears,
to the one who was able to save him from death,
and he was heard because of his reverent submission.
Although he was a Son,
he learned obedience through what he suffered;
and having been made perfect,
he became the source of eternal salvation
for all who obey him... (Hebrews 5:7-9)

In its own way the Letter also highlighted:

    • the prayer and the struggle (agony) of Jesus when confronted with suffering
    • his depthing of the heart of his God (becoming obedient)
    • his growth into perfection through his faithfulness
    • his becoming source of salvation for others.

45 When he stood up again from his prayer,
he went to the disciples
and found them asleep from sadness.
46 He said to them, “Why are you asleep?
Stand up!
Pray not to enter into temptation!”

The disciples could still not come to terms with the drama of the moment. They slept. Luke was much kinder towards them than Mark had been. He excused them, explaining that their fatigue was the result of their sadness. As they faced into their moment of truth, Jesus begged that they pray not to succumb. But it was too late. 

Jesus had prayed; the disciples had not. Jesus was victorious in his trial; the disciples failed. Luke was anxious that his community learn the lesson. He had raised the point earlier in his account of Jesus’ warning about the coming destruction of Jerusalem: Be constantly alert, praying that you are strong enough to escape all the things that are going to happen (21:36).

Next >> Luke 22:47-65