The Gospel According to Mark
When Jesus returns to the sleeping Peter, James and John in Gethsemane (Mark 14:37), he literally says, “Are you asleep? Are you not strong enough to watch for an hour?” There is considerable irony in this verse, as the disciples had turned accusingly to Jesus in the boat on the Sea of Galilee in the storm when he was comfortably asleep on the pillow in the stern and asked him, “Master, don’t you care?!” (4:38). Jesus’ reply was to chastise them for their lack of trust (pistis, usually translated as faith), and to show by calming the storm that everything was, indeed, under control. Now, in Gethsemane, Peter is asleep, and matters are not in their control at all. Within minutes, they will abandon Jesus in order to save their own skin. When their moment of testing comes, they will not be ready. They will not be strong enough.
In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is presented as the Stronger One as soon as he is mentioned by John the Baptist: “The Stronger One is coming after me” (1:7). Indeed, Jesus is the ‘stronger one’ who plunders the ‘strong man’s house’ in the little parable in 3:27. Jesus demonstrates his strength at the beginning of his ministry by immediately casting out a demon (1:25), soon followed by many more, as well as by healing many sick people. Yet he only does this after his time of testing in the wilderness.
As the Gospel account develops, the motif of strength appears in some key places. Certainly Jesus demonstrates his strength often, but the word “strong” is used in relation to the inability of others to do the same works Jesus does. In 5:4, we are told that “no one was strong enough to subdue” the man with the demons. When Jesus descends from the mountain, he finds that his disciples “were not strong enough” to drive the ‘demon’ out of the epilectic boy. (Often in our translations we miss this recurring word, as it is usually translated by such phrases as “they could not do so” (9:18 NRSV), instead of (literally) “they were not strong enough.”) There, Jesus teaches his disciples that “this kind” can only be driven out by prayer (9:29; “and fasting” is only added in later manuscipts and is not part of the original Gospel).
As Jesus’ moment of testing approaches, he warns his disciples to “watch,” and “stay awake.” However, when he is struggling with his moment of decision in Gethsemane, and asks them to “keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial” (14:38), they are not ready. They fall asleep, so that Jesus effectively asks, “Were you not strong enough to even keep your eyelids open?” (see 14:40: “their eyelids were so heavy”).
In contrast, Jesus does pray, and he prays the perfect prayer: “Father … not what I want but what you want” (praying the opening words of the “Our Father”). Because he prays, Jesus is transformed. At the commencement of the Gethsemane scene, he is deeply distressed and collapses on the ground. After his prayer, he is depicted as being at peace, and ready for his arrest (see 14:41). From that moment, he is strong enough to face the moment when he will proudly proclaim his identity under questioning from the authorities (14:62). In contrast, the disciples who were not made strong through prayer flee at the first sign of trouble (14:50), and Peter denies his identity when he is ‘tried’ by a mere slave girl (14:66–72).
Well might Mark have been teaching his readers about the need for strength. At any moment, a member of Mark’s community could be arrested and executed by the Roman authorities, just for being a Christian. No defence was possible during the interrogation before the magistrate, who would often arrange for the accused to be scourged to obtain information. Certainly, Mark’s readers would have needed to be strong when the time came for them to answer the magistrate’s simple question, “Are you a Christian?” To say ‘Yes’ meant certain death.
It is not necessary to be facing martyrdom to learn from this teaching by Mark. Our moment of testing might come at any moment (whatever that test may be). Mark teaches that strength is only attained through prayer, as prayer gives God permission to work in the circumstances of our lives. Pray, say ‘Yes,’ and be strong.