Then going out he went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives, and the disciples followed him. When he arrived at the place he said to them, “Pray that you may not undergo the test.” After withdrawing about a stone’s throw from them and kneeling, he prayed, saying, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still, not my will but yours be done.” And to strengthen him an angel from heaven appeared to him. He was in such agony and he prayed so fervently that his sweat became like drops of blood falling on the ground.] When he rose from prayer and returned to his disciples, he found them sleeping from grief. He said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not undergo the test.” Lk 22:39–46.
In these verses, one finds Jesus in the Garden on the Mount of Olives. In all Synoptic versions of the Agony in the garden, Jesus is depicted as dealing with his interior reaction to his coming passion and his intentional alignment of his will to that of the Father’s plan of salvation.
Unlike the Markan Jesus, who asked his disciples to wait, the Lucan Jesus tells them to pray that they not undergo the test. This language reiterates the final line of Luke’s version of the Our Father. Lk 11:4. Then, Jesus begins his own prayer by addressing God as Father, which is also in parallel to Luke’s version of the Our Father. Lk 11:2. He intentionally assumes a posture of supplication as he kneels down to pray. In his prayer, he asks the Father to take this cup away, if it be his will.
In no other Biblical place is Jesus’ humanity more clearly apparent as when the author shares Jesus’ anxiety about the physical and mental suffering that is to come. Despite Jesus’ humanly concerns, he expresses obedience to God’s will for the salvation of all. It is a clear act of subordination of a son’s will to that of the Father’s.
While the Father chooses not to take the cup away, he does seem to respond to his prayer with what seems to be an act of compassion as he sends an angel to Jesus in order to strengthen Jesus through his prayer of agony. Here, Luke uses the Greek word agōnia, which refers to the sort of struggle and exertion put forth by a wrestler. With this connotation, one can imagine Jesus persevering in prayer with such intensity that his sweat, instead of beads of water, is more akin to thick drops of blood dripping to the ground.
Here, Luke omits the thrice returned Jesus finding the disciples sleeping. (Mk 14:37-42). Instead, he expresses his amazement that they were asleep, and reminds them they should be praying for deliverance from temptation. By this, he mean to avoid succumbing to the evil power of temptation. In this format, Luke has created an inclusio around his instruction to pray to avoid temptation, which highlights the significance of prayer in dealing with sin.
Here, Jesus is in the middle of some of his worst moments in life. He is aware of divine providence and his role in it. He accepts what the Father wills to achieve it all. He understands that God is not capricious, and that divine providence must be fulfilled.
One sees how his human nature wants to avoid the pain and suffering, and how, in his divinity, he longs to fulfill the plan. One sees the love between Father and Son in the worst of all moments. The Father, who knows he cannot remove the cup is still compassionate in his delivery of an angel to strengthen him. It may seem like a small thing, but it was what it needed to be. One can see this in how Jesus rises up, and allows himself to be arrested. He is no victim. He needs no comforting. Instead, he is of comfort to the oppressor who was injured in the skirmish. Lk 22:51.
While this is the start of the climax of the story of salvation history, all humans during all periods of human history have their role to play. Some have minor roles, and some have major. No matter how trivial or major, each person has their part to play. The way in which one plays their part is all that matters. Some, will ad-lib, and some will take their part to heart. What matters is that one lives. God’s plan will prevail without infringing on one’s free will. Still, he sends the leading actor into the story at the perfect moment in time. For those who live in later moments, it is important to be an understudy to the master, and there is a lot of study that can be enlightening in this one snippet of the story.
From this snippet, one can learn that doing the will of God doesn’t always play to one’s strength, and that it is only through reliance on the Father through prayer that one can make it. It is only in connection with the Holy Spirit, who while not specifically referenced here has played a notable role throughout the story. He is no doubt there. This isn’t suggesting that Jesus is not God, but that the human contributor to the writing of this story was still struggling to find words to describe God’s mysterious plan.
Another lesson is that avoiding sin can only happen through prayer and dependence on God’s delivery. Only God saves. Only God can liberate one from sin. Jesus, who was God, left the example of complete surrender to the one who knows the rest of the story. No amount of self-discipline or sheer will power will get one over the finish line.
The problem is, humans are not divine, and will not always be successful. Humans will fail at avoiding sin in its entirety, but only because in wrestling with all that is within, one will not always successfully rely on God to deliver them. Humans will succumb to pride, indifference or some other human condition, and will miss their mark. It is ok. The story is about a journey. It is about a journey where one learns what it means to need a savior. One will learn how to release one’s expectations of the role of the savior. One will learn how to rely on God, even if at the worst of times, all he sends is an angel to strengthen us. One will learn that whatever is received is all that one needs.
Ms. Debra D. Weldon, O.P.
With a little help from: Fitzmyer, Joseph A. The Gospel According to Luke X–XXIV: Introduction, Translation, and Notes. Vol. 28A. Anchor Yale Bible. Yale University Press, 2008.