Saving even at the point of death: Jesus in the garden of Gethsemani
A year ago, my friend Jackie died. She and her son Ian had contracted AIDS through a transfusion when her son was born. Together they struggled for nineteen years and then after many hospitalizations, he died. Jackie, who had always been much healthier than her son, died a month later. The remarkable thing about Jackie was how much she loved Jesus. So much so that even in her grief at the loss of her son and her last illness, she was preaching Christ to those in the hospital.
Her actions made me think about all those Christians who triumphed over death by bringing many to Christ—even in their final illness. If we are to be honest with ourselves, that is something that not many Christians do. Nor would I want to burden the dying with such nobility. And yet, I often think that Christians like Jackie learned this kind of near-death saving from their master, our Lord Jesus Christ.
During the Passion of our Lord’s suffering, many would encounter him and be given the chance to choose or deny Him. Those in Herod’s household, the centurion at the cross, Pilate and his wife, the “Good Thief”, Pilate and even Herod. But my favorites have always been Malchus and the naked young man of Mark’s gospel.
St John tells us that Malchus was a servant of the High Priest. Malchus had accompanied the temple guard to the Garden of Gethsemane when they went to arrest Jesus. We don’t know what he was doing there. Perhaps the high priest had sent him for a particular purpose. Perhaps he was just along for the excitement. Perhaps he wanted to see this Jesus whose name was being continually mentioned in the house of his employer. Whatever the reason for his entering the garden, Malchus got more than he bargained for. Peter was at his most daring. The king of Israel --and Peter’s lord-- was being attacked by evil political forces. Surely this was a time for political and warlike action. And he who had been too sleepy to use the sword of prayer earlier now reached for the power of a man-made sword. Whether Malchus was mocking Jesus, or merely being an “innocent” bystander, we do not know. (My own opinion is that Peter wouldn’t have aimed for Malchus if Malchus wasn’t mocking.) Peter’s sword caught Malchus by the ear and cut it off.
Malchus wanted to see who Jesus was and now he saw Him. Who was the Jesus Malchus saw? Someone being taken prisoner. But he also heard Jesus speak. He heard Jesus’s I AM. The temple guards asked “Are you Jesus of Nazareth?” Jesus replied “I AM.” And when he said this, the power of the Lord was so great, the guards fell backwards. Strange sight indeed. But then Malchus had a personal encounter with Jesus. He was wounded by Peter, one of Jesus' disciple and then Jesus miraculously healed him, even though Malchus stood with His enemies. It was a creative miracle only God could have done.
But what else did Malchus see? He saw a man who forgave His enemies. He saw a prophet who spoke with authority and said, “If you live by the sword, you will die by the sword. Let my followers go without harming or arresting them. Shall I not drink the cup which My Father has given me?” Malchus returned to the high priest’s house along with the guards. He must have known Isaiah’s prophecy of the suffering Servant. Caiaphas, the high priest had prophesied that someone should die for the people. Malchus probably also knew this. Malchus also knew St John who was a frequent visitor to Caiaphas’s house. When John went into the house and asked a servant girl to allow Peter into the house, Malchus knew who he was. But Malchus is mysteriously silent. Malchus had seen Jesus and a decision had to be made.
The naked young man
But the story is not over. St Mark tells us that after witnessing the incident with Malchus’ ear, the disciples of Jesus fled. Only one person remained: a mysterious un-named young man who had a linen cloth thrown around his naked body was hidden in the shadows. A group of young men with the arresting posse seized the naked young man who managed to escape them. However, in struggling to free himself, he left the linen cloth he had thrown over his body in their hand and fled naked.
Only Mark tells us about this certain young man. Why does Mark tells us about this shadow-follower whose story is almost like a parable? Yes, he wants to show us the hectic state of things that night. But Mark is not one to waste his words. His gospel is short and it contains only those things he considers necessary for our salvation.
So, who is this young man? Some attempts have been made to imply that the young man is none other than Mark himself. Perhaps. Or he may have been one of the twelve disciples, one of the seventy or some other contemporary believer in Jesus. Mark may have known the man’s name and for his own reasons simply chose not to reveal it. This young man’s lack of a name, however, follows in the great Biblical tradition of “certain persons” who are nameless.
What is this young man doing there in the garden? And why is he naked? Had he found out about Jesus' arrest and rushed outdoors naked? Jesus had made a point of choosing only his three best friends to pray with him. The young man was not called, but there he is: someone else who wants to see Jesus. Imagine him following Jesus and the chosen. He is not one of the group, but he follows where they go. This very image makes him a plaintive figure. The disciples had complained earlier that “There are some casting out disciples in your name but they don’t belong to our group.” One of Jesus’ response to this bit of exclusion was, “Those who are not against us are for us.”
This interloper seems to have been following Jesus, skulking in the shadows. But how long had this shadow-disciple been with Jesus? Before the last supper? After the decision to go to Gethsemane? How did he get his information? Did he find out from Jesus’ disciples? From Judas? From someone who knew the trap had been set? He was obviously not part of the high priest’s household or else the guards would not have tried to arrest him. Had the Holy Spirit led him to see what even Jesus’ disciples did not see? Did he seek a healing or a word from Jesus? Had he given up all --literally-- to follow Jesus? Whatever the circumstances, he wanted to see Jesus. And God, the Lord of Time and eternity, led him to where Jesus was. But again I ask, why is this young man naked? Did he dress in a hurry or had he nothing else to wear? But why naked yet covered in a fairly expensive piece of cloth?
These two men are juxtaposed for Mark’s readers as clearly as the good thief and the bad thief were. As starkly as Herod and Pilate were. So let us compare these who came out to see Jesus.
Both men really had unspoken reason for being in the garden. But both wanted to see Jesus. Malchus traveled with a horde of Jesus’ enemies. The naked young man traveled alone. Malchus was the servant of the high priest, God’s representative, part of the inner circle. The young man was naked, unchosen, an outsider from Jesus’ group.
Malchus had not heard the preceding prayers of Jesus. The young man was the only human who heard Jesus’ cries to His father. He also saw the comforting angel, although none of Jesus' disciples did. Malchus probably mocked and was in a superior position alonside Jesus' enemies. The young man was in an embarrassing fearful position and involved in a fight. Malchus is assaulted by a friend of Christ. The young man is assaulted by the enemies of Christ. Malchus received a physical wound. The young man received a more embarrassing wound to his ego. Both escaped their enemies.
The Bible tells us that no one can seek God unless God has sought that person first. The Song of Solomon tells us, “Draw me, we will run after thee.” Jesus told us to “Seek the Lord above all things.” Like us, he too belongs to God’s great fold, God’s other family who would serve Him throughout the ages.
Like us, the young man did not know Jesus by face. He was unclothed and not an immediate member of God’s family. But, like another intrusive woman, the woman with the issue of blood, he was to receive a great vision of Jesus. Ah what a blessing it is to search Jesus, even if our reasons are unclear, it is often best to search....God will reward us.
Mark 9:38, 14:47-52, John 18:10-16, Luke 8:3, Phil 4:22