When listening to Biblical passages from any given Sunday Gospel, the basic theme of doing good deeds and avoiding evil ones can more or less be understood on a rudimentary level. But every now and then, I personally come across a line from Scripture that forces me to scratch my head. Case in point, I was recently reading the Agony in the Garden, and I could not help but notice the irregularity of Matthew 26:38:
Then [Jesus] said to them, “My soul is sorrowful even to death. Remain here and keep watch with me.” (New American Bible Revised Edition)
The words that give me pause are “even to death.” What did Jesus mean by that? I initially interpreted it as if the approaching of one’s death should rather instill upon the soul a state of non-sorrow. Joy perhaps? Indeed, he was going to be with his Father again shortly. That would have been a cause for tremendous joy. Regardless of what the state of his soul theoretically should have been, it still was not, which opens the door to further research. My goal here is to give a single interpretation, but also to invoke a discussion about this particular verse, the Agony in the Garden, and the nature of suffering as a whole.
I would like to start by giving a literal translation. The Greek word in question is ἕως which in this instance the New American Bible translates as “even to.” In most contexts, ἕως is translated as “until,” and in some cases as “maybe.” Because of its awkward translation into English, many debates have been sparked over the usage of this word in other verses as well, such as Mary’s perpetual virginity in Matthew 1:25.
Next, I would like to further contextualize our verse by illustrating the surrounding verses. To be clear, all three synoptic gospels contain slightly different variations of what appear to be the same version of the Agony in the Garden (if you buy the “Q source” argument that is). The gospel of John includes this scene as well, but is thoroughly different in his seventeenth chapter, which focuses primarily on Jesus’ prayer to the Father before Judas’ betrayal.
The section from Matthew goes as such: Jesus enters the Garden of Gethsemane after the Last Supper with his apostles to pray. He delivers our passage in question, then endures an experience that we regular humans will never fully grasp. Jesus witnessed all the sins of every human throughout all of history. The magnitude of Jesus’ grief was so intense that it caused him to sweat drops of blood, a real medical condition called hematidrosis: a rare condition seen in some individuals undergoing copious amounts of stress. In his full humanity, Jesus asks the Father if it is possible to allow his cup of suffering to pass. Jesus walks over to where the apostles are supposed to be praying, only to find them sleeping. Jesus returns to pray, then goes back to find the apostles sleeping again. This pattern of prayer/finding the apostles sleeping occurs a total of three times in Matthew. After the third time, Judas approaches and delivers his kiss. One of the apostles (Peter) cuts off the ear of the servant of the high priest. Jesus rebukes the apostle, and is then taken into custody to be put on trial before the Sanhedrin.
Given this context, does anything provide us a clue that would help to clarify Jesus’ sorrow “even to death”? What seems most plausible is Jesus’ upcoming passion and death. Knowing that he was going to suffer an excruciating death, perhaps Jesus was nervous to the point of sweating blood. One could make this argument by juxtaposing Jesus with a criminal on death row. Certainly the knowledge of one’s impending suffering and death is enough to cause a “sorrowful soul even to death,” right? Well, maybe for the latter example, but according to St. Jerome, the sorrow for Jesus was much more profound.
St. Jerome, a Doctor of the Church, arguably understood Scripture better than any other person who walked the earth. He is most well-known for translating the Bible into Latin in the fourth and fifth centuries. Additionally, he composed several commentaries on books from both the Old and New Testaments that are used in scholarly settings even to this day. His commentary on the gospel of Matthew has an interesting take on our passage in question:
“My soul is sorrowful.” The cause of our Lord’s grief was not the fear of suffering; since he took upon himself human nature, to suffer and to die for us; but the cause of his grief was the unhappy state of Judas, the scandal his disciples would take at the passion, the reprobation of the Jewish nation, and the destruction of the miserable Jerusalem. Our Lord also suffered himself to be thus dejected, to convince the world of the truth and reality of his human nature. (George Haydock’s Catholic Bible Commentary)
Jerome seems to be suggesting that Jesus’ sorrow could not have been caused by the knowledge of the physical pain that awaited him. Rather, what gave him grief were the spiritual hindrances. These are what made him sorrowful “even to death.” This interpretation carries potential when weighed under the pretenses of the Catholic idea of redemptive suffering. Allow me to explain further.
There are multiple instances throughout the gospels when Jesus tells the apostles that they are lacking in faith (Matt 8:26, 14:31, 13:58, and many more). If Jerome is correct, his reasons for Jesus’ grief were not his impending physical suffering, but rather the world’s lack of faith. I would argue that this is codified when Jesus witnesses his apostles sleeping. True faith always demands a readiness for action (1 Peter 3:15). Peter had faith, but lacked the proper understanding to express it correctly. The sleeping apostles represent a sort of spiritual complacency perhaps attained from being around Our Lord as often as they were. Aiden Wilson Tozer, a well-known American pastor once said, “Complacency is the deadly enemy of spiritual progress. The contented soul is the stagnant soul.” The apostles were therefore unprepared for what was about to befall Jesus. As a result they fled and left Jesus to suffer alone, with the exception of his beloved disciple John.
In short, I personally agree with St. Jerome. Jesus’ sorrow “even to death” was produced by the continuous lack of faith displayed by his followers despite the many miracles they had seen him perform. The authentic faith which demands action could only be attained by Christ’s passion, death, resurrection, and ascension, followed by the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Likewise, Judas embodied the other important reality that Jesus underwent. Namely, that many people would reject him, and thus his sacrifice. Jesus teaches us to accept our own cross (Matthew 16:24). By doing this, we avoid complacency by living out a life of authentic faith.