Reconciling the “Two Gethsemanes”

July 7, 2008

“Smitten for offenses which were not His Own, He, for our transgressions, had to weep alone.” — Second verse, “Night with Ebon Pinion” (emphasis added)

“Long in anguish deep was He,
Weeping there for you and me,
For our sin to Him was known;
We should love Him evermore
For the anguish that He bore
In Gethsemane, alone.” — Third verse, “In Gethsemane Alone”

Oftentimes, when we in Churches of Christ are directed to a song “to prepare our minds for the taking of the Lord’s Supper,” the song we sing is not about the crucifixion event itself, but about Jesus’ weeping in the Garden of Gethsemane.  “Night with Ebon Pinion” and “In Gethsemane Alone” are among the more popular choices for this.  The Bible story these songs bring to mind are the accounts in the Synoptics, where Jesus’ “soul is burdened with sorrow to the point of death” and He falls “face down” and prays “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me, nevertheless not My will but Yours be done.”  Luke even notes “sweat like drops of blood” pouring from his brow.  Three times the night before His death Jesus prays this prayer while His disciples sleep.

The presumption behind many of these songs is that in this moment, the suffering of Calvary begins.  In essence, Jesus knows what’s coming, and His “human side” gets scared.  He begs God earnestly to be spared from the pain that is to come, but knowing that it is necessary to the salvation of humanity, He couches His prayer with “Thy will be done.”

I don’t buy it.

To be sure, I believe the stories are true as they are reported in the Synoptics.  The problem I have is with the interpretation rendered in the songs.

For one, the Gethsemane that is portrayed in John stands in stark contrast with the supposed image of Jesus in the synoptics as a blubbering coward.  In John 17, Jesus’ prayer in the Garden is one where He is giving God the pep talk, not the other way around.  “The hour has come.  Glorify Your Son, that Your Son might glorify You.”  “I have finished the work You gave me to do.  Now, Father, glorify Me with Yourself.”  Jesus is not afraid of the cross; He’s looking forward to it.  He’s done everything God asked Him to do in His earthly ministry.  Now it’s time to get on with the next part of His mission.

Two, the supposed “fearful Jesus” of the Synoptics is dramatically inconsistent with the character of Jesus revealed in those very books, especially in Luke.  In Luke 9, Jesus “resolutely sets His face toward Jerusalem” immediately after telling His disciples TWICE that when He got there, He would be betrayed and killed.  The Jesus portrayed in the Synoptics sees the cross not as something to be avioded if at all possible, but as the inevitable and even desirable destination of His journey.  He went to Jerusalem for the specific purpose of dying.  It would be inconcistent with the character of Jesus to try to back out at the last minute.

In a similar vein, if the prayer described in the Synoptics is what the lryicists interpret it to be, this is the first and only time in Jesus’ life when anyone records Him doing something that is completely selfish.  Everything else Jesus has ever done in His life has been for somebody else. 

Likewise, a few minutes after His final prayer in Gethsemane, Jesus tells Peter to put away His sword, because “Don’t you think I can appeal to My Father, and He will at once put at My disposal more than twelve legions of angels?”  If Jesus really is pleading — as earnestly as we see Him begging His Father for anything in His life — to avoid the cross, to spare His life, to at least find another way, isn’t that the moment that those twelve legions show up? 

Instead, one angel appears.  One.  And that only with a few words of comfort, not an army.

So what do we do with this?  How do we reconcile the Gethsemane of John with that of Matthew, Mark, and Luke?  How do we compare the Jesus in the garden with the Jesus on the road to Jerusalem?

Is Jesus really begging for His life?  I don’t think so.  But I do think He is begging for somebody’s.

One key line in Jesus’ prayer in John may give us some insight into what might be happening in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  In John 18:9, when Jesus surrenders to Judas and the mob, He asks that His disiples be allowed to go free.  This is in fulfillment of a prophecy He Himself made in 17:12, “Of the ones You have given Me I have lost none.”  The rest of that verse reads, “except the Son of Perdition.”  Jesus makes a point of the fact that none of His disciples have died under His care.  They are His friends.  He has taken care of them.

Well, all except one — the “Son of Perdition.”

Judas Iscariot is the only one of the original twelve who will die before the crucifixion.  After betraying Jesus into the hands of the rulers, he regrets His decision and tries to return the money he was paid and buy Jesus back from them.  The rulers want no part of it, so Judas goes out and hangs himself.

The more I think about it, the more convinced I become that this is the part of the story Jesus wants to change.  Maybe what Jesus is praying for is permission to surrender Himself to the authorities so that Judas doesn’t have to betray Him.  Maybe what Jesus is weeping over is not the imminent loss of His Own life, but that of someone close to Him.  Maybe the part of God’s will that Jesus is having a hard time accepting is that we humans have to be allowed to make our own choices, even when those choices are destructive.

If I’m right — if Jesus really is weeping not for Himself or for us but for Judas Iscariot — the problem of the “two Gethsemanes” is neatly reconciled.  We see Jesus not at His cowardly worst, but at is selfless best.  We see the embodiment of “pray for those who percesute you.”  And we see God letting Judas be Judas, not intervening to prevent the betrayal, but wracked with grief over its consequences for a dear friend.

And now, if you can’t sing “Night With Ebon Pinion” the same way again, I’m sorry.  And you’re welcome.