Easter. The Passion of Jesus IX. Gethsemane part 7. Jesus Prays. How do we know? Our Prayers are Infected with Aristotle.

Part 10, here.
Part 8, here.

You can read the whole series here.

Gethsemane 7.

Jesus is coming into God’s presence, and Mark indicates it by saying Jesus falls to the ground. It’s Abrahamic. Luke doesn’t like this drastic picture: he has Jesus kneel—in control of himself always. Luke’s picture of Jesus in his trouble and finally his death is one that models the death of Christians in persecution. You see this in the death of Stephen.
Earlier, Mark reports that Jesus says (three different times) that he must suffer and die. But in prayer he now says, “And going a little further, he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. ‘Abba, Father, all things are possible to thee; remove this cup from me.'” This seems illogical. Why is he praying for the trial to go away, when he’s already predicted that it will come?

We ask this question (ok, I asked it) because our modern vision of prayer has been infected with the notion that God can’t change his mind—Aristotle.

Seems appropriate.

Seems appropriate.

Change only happens because of imperfection. That was never the Hebrew idea behind prayer. For Jews, God was very personal. He gets angry, disappointed, pleased, he can talk to people, and he can change his mind. We work hard to reengineer Abraham’s argument with God over the destruction of the cities in the Plain as something else but that was the Hebrew concept of God. Moses blackmails God frequently. It’s a mistake to discount this because it doesn’t fit our twenty-first century rationalizations of evil. (Well, God knew Moses would say this, he didn’t change his plan, and blah, blah, blah.) God is a movable object and Jesus’ prayer fits perfectly in this way of thinking about God. God is someone you can talk with, discuss with, compromise with, work with. Of course, he doesn’t always agree, and in this case God is silent. Mark: you could do it, if you want. Matthew changes this significantly: IF it is possible . . . . Luke: IF you are willing. All three have different perspectives that suggest learned prayer speech among Christians over the first century. It seems to move from whatever you ask in my name will be given, to, if it is your will. It’s the way we often pray today. It’s a hard-won knowledge.

It’s here in the Synoptics that an Aramaic word appears for father, and then a Greek word for father. Abba, Father. Abba is found in two other places in the New Testament: Romans and Galatians. It’s always this doublet: Abba, Father. Probably that’s the way early Christians prayed. Prayer seems to always preserve languages from the past where some sacredness is attached. For Mormons and many others, it’s the language of the King James Bible.[10][11] Jesus speaks one more prayer in Mark, and it’s in Aramaic. Eloi, Eloi lama sabachthani. “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.” The prayers frame Mark’s version of Jesus’ Passion, one at the beginning, one at the end, both Aramaic. But the last one has lost something intimate. It’s not “my Father.” It’s my God. Distant, less personal. Of course, it’s a Psalm (22:1), but the shift seems to deliberately play out the terrible events in between. Aside from any inferred meaning, it seems to also represent the Evangelists telling people that the words of Jesus in the Gospel(s) are fiction, in the sense that he did not speak Greek. It’s a kind of pastoral acknowledgement, a dipping in to authenticity in some sense. It makes things more real, vulnerable perhaps. It’s not historical proof of Jesus’ speech, but it has literary power even so.

Jesus spends some significant time proclaiming the value of the powerless, the poor, blessed are the poor, the meek inherit the earth, the gospel is preached to the poor, sell all you have, give it to the poor, a camel gets through the eye of a needle more readily than a rich man gets into heaven. It’s connected to the temptations of Jesus. They represented a distortion of kingdom as divine institution. The human drive for power is depicted in the temptations, it’s just the opposite in the Sermon on the Mount. Satan is rejected in the temptations, but he’s back in Gethsemane. It’s interesting that only Luke tells of an angel visiting Jesus at Gethsemane. The episode is meant to make it clear that the kingdom of God is not about power, it doesn’t come with power. That has always been the most difficult truth.

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[10] “Cup” turns out to be somewhat mysterious. The word appears in a couple of contexts in the Old Testament. One is the a cup of wrath God will make nations drink. Israel will drink a cup of judgement. Revelation has the metaphor. So is Jesus praying that he doesn’t have to drink from God’s anger because of the disobedience of the world? “My cup runneth over” is a positive reference. But there doesn’t seem to be a correlation of “cup” with death. When James and John ask Jesus for preeminent position in the kingdom, he asks them if they are prepared to drink from the same cup. This seems to make the cup one of destined trial. [Matthew, who doesn’t like negative references to Jesus and the apostles, has the mother of James and John ask for the highest place for them.]

[11] Matthew and Luke leave out the Abba. It’s not meaningful to their audiences. Though, early Christians may have used that pattern.

Comments

  1. I’ve heard that “Eloi, Eloi lama sabachthani” was a common hymn at the time, and one where things start out dark, but the tone of the Psalm brightens as things go on. A modern equivalent would be if someone were to quote “And should we die, before our journeys through”. Sounds sad on the surface, but when we think things through, we’ll arrive at memories of the MoTab Choir approaching 95 db with the last line “Oh, how we’ll make this chorus swell– All is well! All is well!”

  2. The psalm certainly forms the basis for much of Mark’s narrative. But he picks and chooses from it. As a complete text, it may have relevance to his work (70AD-ish) in the context of Rome.