Matthew 26: 36-46 Jesus and the Disciples in the Hour of Testing

19th Century Ceramic from the Rosary and St. Martin Chapel in Bruley, France

Matthew 26: 36-46

Parallels Mark 14:32-42; Luke 22:39-46

36 Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” 37 He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated. 38 Then he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” 39 And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” 40 Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? 41 Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial;  the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” 42 Again he went away for the second time and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” 43 Again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. 44 So leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words. 45 Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. 46 Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.”

Jesus grieves. God has often been described using Greek philosophical concepts or the enlightenment idea of a detached God, but the God of the scriptures grieves. Jesus does not embrace his upcoming death calmly, like the Greek teacher Socrates, nor is Jesus portrayed as a warrior motivated by honor. Contrary to the Stoics who attempted to live self-control, discipline, and modesty becoming free from passion through apatheia this is the narrative of the passion (pathos) which means it is a narrative of suffering.[1] The God who is with us in Jesus is not a detached God unable to feel but is the God of scriptures who grieves over the situation of the world and God’s people.[2] This window into Jesus’ emotional state and prayers at Gethsemane gives us a strong contrast to the view of the heroic in the Greco-Roman world and instead gives us a look at the life of Jesus and the Father who are wrapped up in the messiness and the suffering of the world.

Jesus has already indicated that he is soon to be handed over to the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders and has also indicated that his closest disciples will all be scandalized because of him and one of the twelve will hand him over to the chief priests. Even Peter, who has insisted he will die if necessary to remain faithful to Jesus, will prove not only to be one who denies that he even knows him but also one who is not strong enough to even keep watch. Jesus goes off alone to pray, but his prayers hang in the air of Gethsemane unanswered. Jesus still refers to God as my Father, but this is a time of testing. Jesus encounters the emotion that the disciples have felt when he has indicated that he would be handed over to the authorities. During their final meal, the disciples were greatly grieved and now Jesus begins to be grieved and distressed.[3] Jesus asks for there to be another way forward. Using the metaphor for the upcoming suffering as a cup that must be drunk, Jesus uses a common image in the psalms and prophets for both judgment and consolation for the people.[4] Yet Jesus subordinates his will to the will of the Father and the option of the cup passing without being drunk remains an unanswered petition.

Peter, James and John have been unable to keep watch, even for the first watch of an hour. They prove that they are not strong enough[5] even to fulfill this request of Jesus, and they are not ready for the time of testing.[6] Jesus encourages them to pray as they keep watch and departs a second time to pray. Only Matthew includes the words to the second petition to the Father, which continues the cup metaphor but indicates that if the contents of this cup must be consumed that Jesus will submit to the will of the Father. Jesus, upon seeing the disciples sleeping on watch again, releases them[7] and departs for a final prayer. This three fold repetition, familiar to those who have read through these reflections on Matthew’s gospel, completes the cycle of prayer and prepares us for the rapid transition to the handing over of Jesus. The transition is abrupt as the disciples are roused with the announcement that the hour has ‘come near/is at hand’ when the Son of Man is handed over into the hands of sinners. It is interesting that Jesus, often accused of being a friend of tax collectors and sinners[8] now turns the accusation towards those who are coming to take him into custody. The transition between the prayers at Gethsemane and the handing over of Jesus has come near with the approach of the disciple who will hand Jesus over.

For a different style of reflection upon this passage and the upcoming crucifixion narrative see my poem Golgotha.


[1] Pathos which is behind both the English word passion and its opposite, apathy, can mean suffering or experience or emotion. When referring to rhetoric pathos was to persuade by emotional means, but when referring to the passion (pathos) narrative it is referring to the primary meaning of suffering. This is also the root of the English word pathetic.

[2] See for example Genesis 6:6, Psalm 78:40, Isaiah 63:10

[3] In verse 22 the disciples are lupeo sphodra (greatly grieved) while here Jesus is  moulupeo kai ademoveo (grieved and distressed/anxious) in verse 37 and peripupos estin e psyche my eos thanatou  (deeply grieved, the psyche/soul of me being like death) in verse 38.

[4] There are too many examples to list all of them, but some representative passages would include: Psalm 75:8, Isaiah 51:17-21, Jeremiah 25:15-28, and Ezekiel 23:31-33.

[5] The Greek iskuo means being strong, powerful, or able and gregopeo means to keep watch. While the disciples do fall asleep, the Greek text focuses more on the disciples not being strong enough to fulfill their task of keeping watch.

[6] Periosmos is the same term used in Matthew 6:13 in the Lord’s prayer.

[7] Aphiemi is a common word in the gospels. It can mean let go, release, but also forgive which has an interesting resonance here.

[8] Matthew 9:10-13, 11:19

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