While praying in the garden, Jesus knew where the next few hours were going to lead him. He had poked at religious and political authority throughout his short career, and as as we all know, authority tends to poke back. The Jewish ruling council did not have the power to execute their criminals, since that right was reserved for the Romans, so Jesus likely knew that any attempt at killing him would involve an appeal to their power. Rome didn’t particularly care about Jewish squabbles, however. Their denominational conflicts not only bored the Romans, they annoyed them, which meant that Jesus’ enemies would have to convince the Romans to do their dirty work.
Cicero, the famous orator, once wrote that no decent Roman citizen should ever say the word ‘crucifixion.’ He considered the topic taboo, too offensive to be on the lips of a proper Roman. I suppose there were many reasons for this prohibition, but it really comes down to two: First, crucifixion was a horrible process, designed to maximise the pain and humiliation of the victim so that any other potential criminals would be deterred from causing trouble. Second, crucifixion was typically reserved for enemies of Rome – rebels, rioters, and political enemies of the empire… which is why Jesus himself suffered this fate.
A single line from Jesus’ prayer right before he was arrested says it all:“Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me.” These words resonate with me. They are filled with agony on the border of despair, as Jesus stares down the barrel of immense suffering. And so we also pray, “God please take this away… I can’t take it anymore. I simply can’t move forward.”
I have been sick since October, first with pneumonia that refused to go away, and then, as a twisted denouement, kidney stones requiring multiple surgeries (and resulting in so many complications that I stopped keeping track). In the midst of the excruciating pain, I asked, begged, and pleaded that God would take this cup of suffering away from me as my ability to cope diminished.
But going back to Jesus, right before he was arrested, did you noticed that God’s answer to Jesus’ request is an obvious “No”? Jesus pleaded with God that his suffering would stop (or never start)… and God told him no. I find that funny, because God frequently gives me that same answer. Jesus and I have something in common.
God’s answer to pain, throughout the Biblical narrative, is never ‘not pain’. He never simply takes it away. In that sense, God is decidedly not like the painkillers that I had clung to over the last couple of months to keep me from going insane with agony. He is not percocet, prescribed to numb us from our brains down to our feet, and it always makes me nervous when God is used simply to cope with pain.
Karl Marx famously called religion the “opiate of the masses,” though I suppose I could update that translation and say that religion is the oxycodone of the masses. But the hope we read about in the New Testament is decidedly not pain management.
Instead, the hope of the Bible, of Jesus, is the transformation and redemption of pain by the promise of his presence. God is present in our suffering. He does not feel threatened by it, and he is not afraid of it. He is patient as we suffer and understanding while we mourn. He redeems. Think about it: when Jesus was crucified, it was a dark moment in human history. And through it, God explosively brought redemption and reconciliation into the world a few days later.