Luke 22: 39-46 – Jesus’ Prayer on Mount of Olives

With the description of the arrival of the Jesus and his disciples on the Mount of Olives the evangelist Luke introduces a new phase in his narrative of Jesus’ passion. In comparison with its parallels in gospels of Mark (Mk 14: 32-42) and Matthew (Mt 26: 36-46), gospel of Luke 22: 39-46 is short and precise. Although considerably shorter than Mark 14: 32-42, and possibly an abbreviation of it, the Lukan account has its own distinctive features and emphases. It must be mentioned here that the traditional description, “the agony of Jesus in the garden” is not true of Luke 22: 39-46. For Luke neither describes Jesus’ agony nor mentions the word “garden” here. Gospel of John alone mentions the place as a “garden” where Jesus was arrested but with no description of Jesus’ agony (cf. Jn 18: 1-12; 12: 23-28). The agony of Jesus, and his intense distress and anguish when faced with the terrible ordeal of a violent death are vividly described in Mark 14: 32-42. But in the Lukan parallel the emphasis lies elsewhere. For Luke, Jesus on the Mount of Olives is at prayer, and he stresses the importance and significance of prayer in this narrative.

A brief comparison with its parallel in Mark 14: 32-42 will not only reveal the Lukan omissions and addition in Luke 22: 39-46, but also point to the distinctive features of the Lukan account. The Markan Jesus leaves for the Mount of Olives immediately after the supper and on the way foretells the flight of the disciples and the triple denial of Peter (Mk 14: 26-31). According to Luke, however, Jesus, after the supper speaks at some length to his disciples and during this discourse foretells Peter’s denials. Luke omits any reference to the flight of the disciples for the simple reason that they do not flee or abandon Jesus during his passion. Luke alone mentions Jesus’ “custom” of going to the Mount of Olives (Lk 21: 37). He speaks vaguely of ‘the place’ without giving the Semitic place-name “Gethsemane” (Lk 22: 40). Luke explicitly mentions that “the disciples followed” Jesus to the Mount of Olives (Lk 22: 39), and Jesus does not single out Peter, James, and John (cf. Mk 14: 33). Because according to Luke, the disciples are Jesus’ witness and all must witness what happens on the Mount of Olives. In Luke, Jesus tells his disciples to pray (unlike in Mark 14: 32 – “sit here while I pray”) and exhortation repeated verbatim at the end thus forming an ‘inclusion’ and framing the entire narrative on the need of prayer. Luke does not retain any reference to Jesus’ extreme emotional reactions of distress, sorrow, and anguish (cf. Mk 14: 33-34). In Mark, Jesus prays three times and returns to the three disciples after each time. But in Luke, Jesus prays only once and then comes back to the disciples. In other words, the Lukan Jesus does not interrupt his prayer to see what the disciples are doing or to look for human comfort. Prayer, for Jesus, is a moment of intense union with the Father (God) to draw strength and courage that will enable him to face the impending ordeal.

It is in this context of Jesus’ prayer that we must consider Luke 22: 43 and 44. These verses are proper to gospel of Luke, and, if they are authentic, they present the appearance of the strengthening angel as the Father’s (God’s) answer to Jesus’ prayer (Lk 22: 41-42). They describe also the intensity of Jesus’ agony.

Luke 22: 43-44 is read as: “And there appeared to him an angel from heaven strengthening him. And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like drops of blood falling to the earth.”

There is considerable doubt about the authenticity of these verses because the witness of the Greek manuscript and ancient versions is almost equally divided. While an impressive number of important manuscripts and ancient versions omit these verses from the text of Luke’s gospel, another set of manuscripts and ancient versions accept these verses as authentic. Similarly, experts in ‘Textual Criticism’ too are not agreed on the issue. Again, several modern critical editions and versions of the Greek New Testament omit these verses as later insertions into the Lukan text. Several others, however, retain them as part of the Lukan gospel text. In short, the decision to accept these verses as authentic or to omit them as later insertions is not easy. The weight of the better and more important Greek manuscripts and ancient versions would seem to tilt the scale in favor of omitting these verses as later insertions into the gospel. But then this is not the only criterion. For Catholics, these verses are considered to be part of the canonical gospel.

Luke 22: 43-44 are, therefore, to be considered as inspired verses. But these inspired verses seem to disturb the thematic concern and the literary structure of Luke 22: 39-46. As a rule Luke does not emphasize the human emotions of Jesus or stress the anguished and distressed reactions of Jesus during his passion. The author of Luke 22: 43-44 emphatically presents the agony of Jesus. The appearance of an angel to strengthen Jesus is recorded as God’s answer to Jesus’ prayer. Jesus’ prayer then is an example of efficacious prayer. The observation that in his agony Jesus kept praying all the more earnestly is an exhortation to the Christian readers to imitate Jesus and pray earnestly in moments of anxiety and distress. As regards the “sweating of blood” in Luke 22: 44 (“His sweat became like drops of blood falling to the earth”), we may understand it as a graphic description. There is no identification of ‘sweat’ or ‘blood’ here for us to understand that Jesus sweated blood. The adverb (hosei = as like, about) does not mean identity but likeness or similarity. Furthermore, the principle ‘falling’ (katabainontes) agrees with (refers to) ‘drops’ and not with ‘blood.’ The sense of the verse then would be as follows: “His sweat was falling like drops of blood.”

Luke 22: 39-46 has a well balanced and carefully structured format. The literary structure of the narrative is somewhat disturbed with the inclusion of Luke 22: 43 and 44 which emphasize parenetically the efficacy of Jesus’ prayer and his anguish and distress. We shall present here the literary structure of this unit without Luke 22: 43-44.

      Luke 22: 39 Introduction, setting of the scene

A   Luke 22: 40 Exhortation to Pray

B   Luke 22: 41 Jesus withdraws from Disciples to Pray

C   Luke 22: 42 Jesus’ Prayer

B’  Luke 22: 45 Jesus returns to the Disciples after Prayer

A’  Luke 22: 46 Exhortation to Pray

That Luke 22: 39-46 is a carefully structured unit is clear from the above layout. Luke 22: 39 serves as introduction and it sets the scene or what follows. Jesus’ exhortation to his disciples: “pray that you may not enter into temptation” (A + A’) forms the narrative frame (Lk 22: 40, 46) of the unit. Similarly, Luke 22: 41 and 45 (B + B’) – Jesus’ withdrawal from the disciples to pray and his return to them after prayer – are also parallel to each other. At the center of the unit stands Jesus’ own prayer to his Father (God) (C; Lk 22: 42). The whole of Lukan narrative is concerned with prayer and the emphasis is on Jesus’ own filial prayer (Lk 22: 42). By his repeated exhortation to his disciples (Lk 22: 40, 46), Jesus emphasizes the necessity of prayer that they may not enter into temptation, that they may persevere in their fidelity to him in the coming test. The ordeal that Jesus is going to face shortly will also be a test for the disciples. Jesus, therefore, wants to strengthen them against the coming trial or temptation. This he does not only by his exhortation but also by the example of his own uninterrupted prayer (Lk 22: 42). This may be the reason why gospel of Luke says that Jesus withdrew from the disciples “about a stone’s throw,” that is, “a short distance,” “within seeing and hearing distance.”

The prayer of Jesus in Luke 22: 42 is substantially the same as in Mark 14: 36. Before facing the ordeal that awaits him Jesus turns to his Father (God) and prays. His human nature is totally avers to accepting his suffering destiny. Accordingly Jesus requests the Father (God) to remove ‘the cup of suffering’ from him. Yet Jesus totally submits himself to the will of the Father (God), “not my will, but thine be done.” Jesus’ prayer is thus a prayer of self-surrender, a prayer of filial submission to the Father (God) come what may.

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