As discussed in a previous post, Jesus and his disciples had come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover together. During supper, Jesus declared that one of the Twelve would betray him. Shocked, the disciples asked, one by one, “Surely, you don’t mean me, Lord?” Probably none of them, except Judas, really thought themselves capable of such a thing. But they had come up short so many times they couldn’t be sure. Was it possible to betray Jesus without knowing it? They had to ask.
When Judas realized that Jesus knew of his treachery, he was forced to act quickly. Gethsemane may have been mentioned during the meal, or it may have been the group’s habit to visit there. They may even have been through there just before the Passover, when they were sitting on the Mount of Olives looking out on the city. Whatever the case, Judas knew where they would be after supper, and scurried off into the night to set the crushing wheels of his betrayal in motion.
As the band made their way from the upper room out to the Mount of Olives, Jesus made his second prediction of betrayal:
Then Jesus told them, “This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for it is written: ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.” Peter replied, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.” “Truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.” But Peter declared, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” And all the other disciples said the same. (Matt 26:31-35, NIV)
“Fall away.” The word suggests stumbling, a moral lapse. Jesus wasn’t simply predicting they would run; he was telling them that they were about to fail him in a big way.
His other words might have offered some comfort, if they could hear them. The quote from Zechariah 13:7 would suggest that even the worst failures could be seen as falling under the eternal providence of God. Moreover, Jesus ends on the note of resurrection and an implied reunion in Galilee.
But how much of what Jesus said did they actually take in? Peter’s response reads as if Jesus had said nothing of Zechariah, resurrection, or Galilee–only the accusation that the disciples would fall away. “No way!” he insists. “I don’t know about these other guys, but not me!”
It reminds me of an earlier conversation, when Jesus first began telling his disciples that he was going to Jerusalem to suffer, die, and be raised back to life (Matt 16:21-23). There, too, Peter responded with an adamant, “No way!” Jesus rebuked him for being a stumbling block to him, and Matthew records no response.
Here again, Peter receives a stinging response, even if it might have been offered tenderly. “Truly I tell you,” Jesus answers, which is another way of saying, “Listen carefully, Peter, because what I’m going to tell you is important.” The word “disown” is a strong one: not only will Peter disavow knowing Jesus, he will do it vehemently, and not once but three times.
But this time Peter doesn’t back down. “I won’t! Even if I have to die with you, I won’t disown you! Never.” Not to be outdone, the other disciples chimed in similarly.
Jesus is predicting that they will abandon him. But they don’t have the ears to hear. They protest, defending their loyalty. And in a sense, in so doing, they have already abandoned him.
I wonder: when, if ever, does our desire to believe in our steadfastness, our ability to stand with Jesus, actually make us deaf to what he wants to say to us?