Raymond E. Brown, The Death of the Messiah,
v.1, Act 1, scene 1 - #7. Prayer in Gethsemane, Part Four: Jesus Comes Back to His Disciples the First Time, pp 191-200

(detailed summary)

Prayer in Gethsemane, Part Four: Jesus Comes Back to His Disciples the First Time
(Mk 14: 37-38; Mt 26: 40-41; Lk 22: 45-46)


At Luke's, Jesus rises strengthened from his prayer. The two gestures of kneeling and standing express two gestures related to prayer. By asking his disciples to stand up, Jesus intends to communicate his strength to them.

When Jesus returns to his disciples in Mark, he addresses Peter as the representative of all the disciples. He challenges him by saying Simon, the name he usually uses in his dialogues with him. This challenge underlines the importance of the hour, which must be understood not only in the historical sense, but also in the eschatological sense: it is the moment of the great trial that precedes the reign of God. If this trial is essential, why then does Jesus pray to avoid it and asks the disciples to join him in this prayer? It is not clear what the participation of each individual should be, so such a prayer still has meaning.

The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. Spirit and flesh are two aspects of the human being, one which enables him to think and decide and which he shares with God, and the other which represents his changing and corruptible side that he shares with the animals. Through his spirit, the human being longs to align himself with God's plan, but his flesh is that vulnerability within him which is exploited by the force of evil. This passage of the Gospel is not only intended to describe the situation of the disciples, but also of Jesus himself.

  1. Translation
  2. Comment
    1. The Lucan Termination of Jesus' Prayer (Luke 22: 45-46)
    2. Sleeping, Watching, and the Coming Trial (Mark 14: 37-38a)
    3. Spirit and Flesh (Mark 14: 38b; Mt 26: 41b)

  1. Translation

    The underlined words are common to Mark and the other evangelists. In blue are the words common to Luke and Matthew.

    Mark 14Matthew 26Luke 22
    37 And he comes and finds them sleeping; 40 And he comes to the disciples and finds them sleeping, 45 And having stood up from prayer, having come to the disciples, he found them asleep from sorrow;
    and he says to Peter, “Simon, are you sleeping? Were you not strong enough to watch one hour?and he says to Peter, “So you (pl.) were not strong enough to watch one hour with me.46 and he said to them, « Why do you sleep?
    38 Keep (pl.) on watching and praying lest you (pl.) enter into trial. Indeed the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak."41 Keep (pl.) on watching and praying lest you (pl.) enter into trial. Indeed the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak."Having stood up, keep on praying lest you enter into trial."

  2. Comment

    In Mark/Matthew Jesus returns to his disciples for the first of the three times, while in Luke he returns for the first and only time.

    1. The Lucan Termination of Jesus' Prayer (Luke 22: 45-46)

      1. Luke truncates Mark's scene about Jesus' prayer, just as he truncates his arrest, so that these two moments could be made one scene. Luke's version spares the disciples while making Jesus a dominant figure, maybe not as much as in John, but pointing in the same direction.

      2. So it is a strengthened Jesus who ends his prayer. Luke uses the verb anistēmi (to stand up, to rise up) to translate the fact that Jesus is standing, one of his favourite words with kneeling (proseuchomai) which both refer to the two positions of the prayer. The fact that the disciples were asleep indicates that they were not praying.

      3. The disciples are "asleep from sorrow". It is difficult to understand what Luke means by sorrow, a word that no longer expresses the inner feelings of Jesus as in Mark. What is clear is that he wants to somewhat exonerate the disciples for not having prayed.

      4. "Having stood up, (anistēmi), keep on praying". By asking the disciples to stand up as he did and pray, Jesus expresses his desire to communicate his own strength. And this prayer not to enter into trial is answered for now, but not for long.

    2. Sleeping, Watching, and the Coming Trial (Mark 14: 37-38a)

      1. "He comes and finds them". The word "them" designates who, the group of three (Peter, James and John), or the group of disciples? For Mark, the group of three no longer plays a role here, and therefore probably means the group of disciples as a whole. This is what Matthew and Luke understood when they added "the disciples".

      2. "He says to Peter, 'Simon, are you sleeping?'" Why address Peter in particular? Let us remember Peter's bravado that he would never deny Jesus, that he had to die. Thus, Jesus addresses him as the one who embodies all the disciples: he was not able to keep watch for one hour with all the disciples. Moreover, he will use the plural "you" afterwards. Matthew, for his part, avoids explicitly mentioning Simon, softening this brutal treatment of the first among the Twelve.

      3. Why "Simon" and not "Peter"? Would this be a demotion for Peter, no longer worthy to bear the name that refers to solid rock? No, it is simply a reference to his traditional name when Jesus addresses him. The only two cases where Jesus uses "Peter", not "Simon", to address Jesus are Matthew 16:17 (You are Peter and on this rock...), necessitated by the play on words, and Luke 22:34, a question of elegance of style on the part of Luke who has just used Simon twice and wants to avoid repetition.

      4. "Were you not strong enough to watch one hour?". "One hour" is not to be understood in the historical sense of sixty minutes. The terms "watch", "trial" and "hour" have both a historical and an eschatological meaning (the great period of the final battle against evil to establish the reign of God). It is the hour of the great trial, and it is important to watch in prayer to be firm and resist evil before God's final intervention (see 1 Peter 5:8-10).

      5. "Keep on watching and praying". Jesus did not abandon all hope for his disciples by continuing to challenge them. The expression "watch and pray" has its roots in the Old Testament: "When I think of you on my bed, I meditate on you during the watches" (Psalm 63:7; see also Psalm 42:9 and Psalm 77:3).

      6. "Lest you enter into trial". Avoidance of trial is the goal of the vigil and the content of prayer. This is particularly urgent for those disciples who are not ready. One might be surprised that Jesus asks to avoid trial, when trial seems inevitable for the coming reign of God. In fact, the great trial is inevitable, but it is not clear what each individual's participation should be, so the prayer to be spared from it always makes sense. The book of Revelation acknowledges this: "Since you have kept my commandment of constancy, I in turn will keep you from the hour of trial, which will come upon the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth (3, 10).

    3. Spirit and Flesh (Mark 14: 38b; Mt 26: 41b)

      1. "the spirit is willing (prothymos), but the flesh is weak (asthenēs)". It is interesting to note that very early in the history of the Christian community reference is made to this passage, such as Polycarp of Smyrna in his letter to the Philippians (beginning of the 2nd century), where he invites to resist the lies of heresy: "For as the Lord has said, the spirit is swift, but the flesh is weak" (7:2).

      2. Let us note right away that the spirit and the flesh are not two components of the human being, like the soul and the body. For a Jew, spirit and flesh are two aspects of the human being. The spirit is the superior aspect of the human being that he shares with God and the angels: it is the centre of his feelings, thoughts and will. The flesh is that aspect of the human being that he shares with the animals and represents his tangible, perishable and earthly side; the flesh can be associated with his weak state, but never his sinful state. For example, in Qumran, it is recognized that some members of the community allow themselves to be guided by the Spirit of Truth, but stumble because of the flesh, for this is the means that the Spirit of Iniquity has found to attack faithful people by using their vulnerability. We are far from St. Paul's dichotomy between the flesh and the spirit, which is in fact the Holy Spirit given by Jesus, and the flesh which is a direct opposition to God (see Romans 8:9).

      3. Who is the sentence about the spirit and the flesh addressed to? The disciples only? We must include Jesus who appears troubled. The adjective prothymos (well-disposed, full of good will) appears in some passages of the Old Testament, like 1 Chronicles 28:21: "and you will be assisted in your work by every man who is zealous (prothymos) and skillful in some art" and in Paul "and hence my eagerness (prothymos) to proclaim the Gospel to you also, inhabitants of Rome" (Romans 1:15). Thus, Jesus is longing and determined to do God's will by drinking the cup intended for him. This is also the case with the disciples and Peter: "Even if it be necessary for me to die with you, I will not deny you" (Mark 14:31). But now Jesus experiences the weakness of the flesh: he is upset, troubled and sad (Mark 14:33-34), and asks God to take away this cup, a typically human experience that the epistle to the Hebrews describes in these words: "we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin" (4:15). Knowing that human weakness is Satan's weapon, Jesus prays to his Father: "But not what I want, but what you want!" (Mark 14:36). Sleeping and not praying, the disciples gave in to the weakness of the flesh and are so weak that they must pray to avoid being associated with Jesus' trial. This is a message to Christians to be realistic: they must be aware of the danger of the trial that precedes the reign of God and of their weakness that will be exploited by the power of evil.

Next chapter: Prayer in Gethsemane, Part Five: Jesus Comes Back to His Disciples the Second and Third Times

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