All who take the sword

Knowing that his betrayal and arrest would happen soon, Jesus took his disciples up the Mount of Olives and into a garden to pray. Being human like us, he balked at the intense suffering that was his destiny. He pleaded with his Father for an alternative to the agony and shame, for some other way to accomplish his mission. But there was none. As Paul would later write, Jesus therefore “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8, NRSV).

Thus, in Gethsemane, Jesus prayed in anguish. But as he did so, his disciples, just a few feet away, were taking a nap.

It’s not that they didn’t care. Far from it. They were just emotionally exhausted by the news that one of them would betray Jesus, which sent them into a flurry of anxious questioning. And one can only guess how Peter took the news that he would deny even knowing Jesus, not once or twice, but three times. By the time they reached the gloom of the garden, the disciples were spent. Jesus asked Peter, James, and John to stay near and keep watch. But as much as they wanted to, they just couldn’t stay awake. Three times Jesus went off by himself to pray; three times he came back to find them asleep.

You’d think the embarrassment alone would be enough to snap them to attention: Come on, guys. Couldn’t you stay awake with me for just an hour? But it wasn’t until the third time that they awoke to full alertness, and for good reason.

Judas appeared with a mob of people trailing behind, carrying torches and weapons; the religious establishment had turned out to forcibly silence a heretic. The gospel of John adds that they were backed by an entire detachment of Roman soldiers. It seemed like overkill, like using a bazooka to rid yourself of a housefly. In response, Jesus’ question to the crowd was pointed and, I imagine, tinged with a bit of sarcasm: “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit?” (Matt 26:55). It was like saying, What were you expecting, an army of terrorists? It’s just us. Surely Judas could have told you.

Then again, you could never know with a guy like Jesus. Not only did he have a reputation for doing ridiculously powerful things, but there also seemed to be thousands of Jewish pilgrims in Jerusalem ready to proclaim him king. Better to arrest him under the cover of darkness and with enough force to put down any possible resistance.

John’s account of the confrontation is quite different than that in the other gospels. Jesus strides forward to meet Judas and the mob, asking who they want. When they say “Jesus of Nazareth,” he replies, “I am he” (John 18:5). But John’s Greek can be translated as merely, “I am” — did some in the crowd understand Jesus to be speaking the unutterable name of God? That would help explain what happened next: “they stepped back and fell to the ground” (vs. 6).

Who knows? But whatever the truth of the matter, John paints Jesus as fully in control of the situation, telling the mob to arrest him and let the others go.

And perhaps they would have done so. At the time, Jesus’ opponents had no real interest in the disciples; get rid of the leader, get rid of the movement. Done.

Unfortunately, that’s when Peter decided it was time to play bodyguard. John tells us that Peter drew a sword and managed to cut off the right ear of a man named Malchus, a servant of the high priest.

He does not tell us whether Peter was aiming for something else.

According to John, Jesus rebuked Peter, then allowed himself to be arrested. But the disciples didn’t simply trudge away in quiet defeat. Matthew and Mark say that they fled, presumably for their lives.

According to Matthew, Jesus told Peter, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (26:52). He reminded him that he could call legions of angels to his defense if he wanted to. But having submitted his will to the Father’s, having prayerfully committed himself to the suffering to which he was ordained, Jesus would not be deterred from the cross.

Peter, of course, had other ideas. Had he followed Jesus’ lead, he and the others might have been allowed to leave peaceably. But the fly foolishly confronted the bazooka, and had to flee instead.

We have our own hopes about how things should go, about what God should do. And when what we thought were godly plans seem to go sideways, we may willfully and impulsively try to assert control. Truth be told, we may end up looking as clownish as a fisherman with a sword.

May God give us the wisdom to know when we need to lay down our weapons, our instruments of power and control, and follow the lead of Jesus.