Ethics in the Shadow of Gethsemane

Every year at Harvard Divinity School, there is an annual competition for 2nd and 3rd year MDiv students called the Billings Preaching Competition. Being raised Catholic, preaching was never really a thing for me to think about, since women cannot be ordained to the priesthood yet, and never really entered my mind. However, I decided to give it a try. Here is what I came up with.

A reading from the Gospel of Matthew:

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.” He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated.  Then he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.”  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.” Again he went away for the second time and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” (Matthew 26:36-39, 42) 

The Gospel of the Lord

The character of Jesus has enthralled the world for over two thousand years, inspiring a major world religion, contributing to others, and providing a subject for debate and scrutiny for centuries. Scholars and theologians have offered interpretation after interpretation of who, exactly, this figure was—God, human, both, neither, and to what degree of each. The Gospels, being one of our most readily accessible texts regarding the Life and Times of Jesus, offers precious little in terms of figuring out in any definite terms who Jesus was. This is, very broadly speaking, what Christianity attempts to answer: who is this Jesus guy? What does it mean to say that he is the Son of God, the Messiah, the Savior? And what makes him such an influential figure in our lives today, religiously or otherwise?

The scene at the Garden of Gethsemane serves as a focal point for many of these Christological debates, as the narrator of the Gospel offers us a rare glimpse into Jesus’s mind. The text is opaque, at best, on the divinity question as it applies to Jesus. What we are able to see, however, is a powerful moment of all-too-human anguish for him.

Jesus has arrived at a crossroads in his story, and he seems to be aware of it: he knows that he is being betrayed, he knows that he is considered an enemy of the state and a dangerous heretic, and he knows that, very soon, he will be put to death. In his anguish, he cries out for God to take this cup away from him—to make it so that he does not have to make an impossible decision.

He could go one of two ways: he could continue on his trajectory and be completely decimated by the forces of this world, or he could turn away from his ideas and messages to save his life—possibly the only life he has.

It’s very easy to say that Jesus, through his divinity, was able to make the decision that he did—to stay, and allow himself to be destroyed. By characterizing Jesus as something beyond human in this moment, we are able to distance ourselves from the practical implications of this moment. We’re able to continue wandering from the true path of righteousness because we were led astray through human weakness; no matter our own shortcomings, we cling to our human frailty and mourn the original sin with protests against personal responsibility on our lips until the end: “It’s not my fault.”, whatever “it” is.

The sun, over the next millions of years, will eventually burn itself out, and take the earth with it, as a result. Anything created here will be dust scattered about the universe, and no one will be around to remember Aristotle, Shakespeare, or even Jesus. We are all doomed to oblivion, and it is this doom that absolves us. When we inherit an irreparably broken world, we are absolved of any real responsibility to it. What does it matter if such atrocities as genocide, forced migration, endemic disease, starvation, and human trafficking exist if we choose to view them as evidence of our fallen nature? What meaning at all could these horrors garner if they are cheapened by our perceived helplessness to stop them?

In the face of such overwhelming systemic suffering, we cannot intelligently and, more importantly, ethically, rest in our blamelessness through human weakness. We are not called to disown this world, irreparable thought it may be, for our own emotional security. As broken as it is, this is our only world, and as fleeting as it is, this is our only life. As weak as we are, we are our only selves. As desperate and hopeless as it may seem, this is where we must make our stand.

How then to make this stand? Is it possible to be truly just as mere mortals in a society that traps us in such systemic evil, especially where it seems that in order to provide for the many, we must deprive the few? It is natural to compartmentalize and turn our concerns inward and default to caring for our own. But how is this anything more than shallow altruism, and is this even desirable? Is there anything we can actually do in response to ethical problems? What can we give that could enact real change?

One answer is beautifully simple. Like Jesus, we can give ourselves. Active engagement with injustice offers us a transcendent moment beyond the self—to be open to all possibilities, including real change. When reactionary emotional politics, uncritical intellectualism, and entrenched biases impede our ability to relate to one another as humans, we are called to act. When war, hunger, and disease claim the lives of billions and expose inadequacies in humanitarian action, we must act. When ideologies of fear and misconception are utilized by those who would hate and murder innocents, we must act. We must act, like Jesus, with steadfastness and conviction, even at the cost of our lives. In the end, we must act, because not to act would give our consent to injustice, and add our own complicity to the burden of original sin.

If we are truly to follow Jesus—Christ or otherwise—we cannot afford to languish in our own self-pity and doubt in the face of evil. We must be willing to reckon with our own moral responsibility in our personal Gardens of Gethsemane, and act in accordance with our values regardless of the cost to our very selves. Only then can we truly live up to the phrase “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.”

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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