Leaving the upper room of the Last Supper, Jesus leads his disciples across the Kidron Valley onto the Mount of Olives to a place called Gethsemane. Here Jesus will pray and then suffer betrayal and arrest. That is an answer to prayer none would relish.
Several trajectories are at play in this narrative that take the reader from the table to a trial. One thread is the total disintegration of Jesus’ discipled community. Despite their protestations, they all forsake him and scatter. At his trials, Jesus will stand alone. The narrative moves from vehement denials of the disciples (14:31) to “everyone deserted him and fled” (14:50). Another trend is the sense that the story is scripted. I don’t mean that the actors in the drama are puppets, but that the movement of the story is shaped by the Hebrew prophets. “The Scriptures,” Jesus says, “must be fulfilled” (14:49). A third thread is a sense of climatic drama. Jesus endures a night of prayer as he waits for the “hour” to arrive. When Judas arrives with the arrest party, the “hour” has also arrived. These threads are entangled as they weave a narrative that moves us from table to trial, from communal intimacy to abandonment.
Jesus recognizes what is coming. While Zechariah 14 looms large in the hearts of hopeful Jews as they stand on the Mt. Olivet (since that is where the triumphant Messiah is expected to reclaim Jerusalem for God), Jesus takes them to the Mount to pray in darkness and anguish. There is no triumphalism. Even though Jesus has just spoken of the kingdom of God once again at the table, the disciples follow him as he walks into a trap laid by the betrayer.
Rather than Zechariah 14, Jesus quotes Zechariah 13:7. The shepherd will die and the flock will scatter. While they do not believe the latter, no one denies the former. They protest their innocence and loyalty, especially Peter. But his subsequent denial highlights how they all abandoned Jesus in his “hour.”
Reaching Gethsemane (“oil presses”) Jesus left the majority of the disciples behind and took Peter, James and John deeper into the Olive trees. This is Jesus “intimacy group”—it is the three with whom he has shared previous private moments (e.g., the Transfiguration). Jesus shares with them his deepest emotions. He allows the three to look into his soul (“intimacy” is allowing others to “see into me”).
He reveals the depth of his angst. As the “hour” approaches, he becomes “deeply distressed and troubled.” His grief is unbearable. He sees no other option than to spend the evening in prayer. Sometimes praying is more important than sleeping. He asks his intimates to “keep watch” while he prays privately. He hopes they will pray with him, but, alas, they sleep…another abandonment.
Mark has a dual purpose here. On the one hand, the narrator stresses the anxiety of Jesus which is ultimately resolved by a determination to meet the “hour” at hand. On the other hand, the narrator stresses the disloyalty of the disciples. Jesus, determined to do the will of God, moves through the grief to a decision for God. The disciples, blinded by their own interests, sleep.
The very disciples who protested the loudest are the three whom Jesus finds sleeping. James and John, who said that they could drink the “cup” that Jesus drank (Mark 10:32-45), sleep and then scatter with the other disciples. Peter, who protested the loudest that he would die with Jesus, also sleeps and will shortly deny his Lord three times. The “cup of suffering” is something that the disciples refuse to drink while Jesus, after the struggle of prayer, takes the cup from God and drinks it. Mark parallels the three moments of prayer by Jesus with the three denials by Peter. Whereas Jesus pursued God in prayer to drink the cup, Peter (along with the other disciples) were afraid to drink it.
Jesus has given his disciples every indication that this is a serious night: betrayal, the striking of the shepherd, the abandonment by the disciples, the anguish of his soul, his sorrow to the point of death…. And yet the disciples sleep. Three times Jesus approaches them and three times they are asleep.
Spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. Jesus also had “weak” flesh but the determination of the his spirit meant that he pursued prayer rather than sleep. The spirit of the disciples, weakened by the flesh, faltered.
Even the disciples are dumbfounded by their behavior or befuddled by Jesus’ seriousness this evening. They don’t know what to say in response to Jesus. They have no words. They are not fully aware that Jesus’ “hour” approaches. But the “hour” does come when the “betrayer” comes.
Judas, again identified as “one of the Twelve,” appears with an armed “crowd” sent by the temple authorities. They may have expected some kind of violent encounter. One of the disciples responded with the “sword,” but Jesus immediately rejects any thought of resistance by dismissing the need for an armed party. Was he not in the temple courts where they could have arrested him?
The disciples desert Jesus and flee. Curiously, one of their number is singled out for explicit comment. It is a rather enigmatic reference. Identified simply as a “young man” who followed Jesus, he, too, flees, but he does so naked as some of the crowd attempt to seize him like they did Jesus. Why does Mark highlight this moment? Some think that the young man is Mark himself, though this is highly speculative. Perhaps he is merely a representative disciple–the guards try to arrest him, but he flees “naked.” This notation suggests the shame that comes over all the disciples.
But the significance of this moment is lost on the reader until we reach chapter sixteen when the “garment” (sindona; cf. Mark 15:46) and the “young man” (neaniskos) apparently make another appearance in the narrative. This episode, perhaps, is not simply a specific example of how the disciples fled, but is also a narrative clue for the future that awaits the disciples. A “young man” will appear again in Mark’s narrative but this time sitting in an empty tomb with an announcement that Jesus will meet his disciples in Galilee (16:5). This is the same hopeful expectation that Jesus announced earlier as the disciples come to the Mount of Olives (14:28).
This young man, perhaps a youthful John Mark, also (and more importantly) represents the disciples as a whole. They all run away “naked” because they left their “linen cloth” behind. But Jesus is wrapped in this “linen cloth” and the “young man” appears in the empty tomb. Though the disciples scattered, they will yet meet Jesus again in Galilee as Jesus promised (14:28) and the “young man” in the tomb promised (16:5). The “young man,” then, is a narrative marker of movement from despair to hope, from scattering to gathering.
As we move from the table to trial, Jesus is abandoned to his fate by the disciples. They failed to discern the significance of the night. They failed their friend. But the narrative never loses sight that a new day is about to dawn and the failures of the disciples are transformed into something much more glorious.