Watch and pray so that you may not undergo the test. The spirit is indeed willing but the flesh is weak (Matt 26:41).
Let’s examine the passage and explore what it has to say about us and to us.
I. Problem – Jesus comes to His disciples and finds them sleeping. A great showdown between light and darkness, good and evil, Satan and the Lord, is about to unfold—is unfolding! But the disciples, the first leaders of the Church, are sleeping at this crucial moment in human history. Disgracefully, things have not changed since that time.
Yes, this is too often still the case. And lest you think that I am singling out popes, bishops, priests, and deacons alone, let me be clear in saying that the phrase “leaders of the Church” includes parents and community elders as well.
We in the clergy too often remain sleepy and quiet while our people are undergoing severe trials and exposure to terrible sin and error. Well does the Scripture describe many of us clergy when it says, Israel’s watchman are blind, the lack knowledge; they are mute dogs, they cannot bark; they lie around and dream, they love to sleep (Is 56:10).
But many parents, the leaders of the domestic Church, are also woefully out of touch with the struggles of their children. They have little idea what their children are actually listening to or watching; they seem to have higher priorities than monitoring their children and teaching them with clarity.
Yes, for all of us Church leaders, at the parish level and at the domestic level, we too easily doze off and dream away, seemingly unaware of the great cosmic battle that is going on all around us, claiming our people and our children.
Or perhaps we do have some sense of the awful battle, but don’t know what to do about it. Overwhelmed and stressed out, we medicate ourselves. Perhaps like the disciples we drink some wine and doze off in the garden while the critical battle unfolds around us. Overwhelmed, we tune out. We veer off to diversions, watch fantasies on television, or lose ourselves in virtual Internet “relationships” while our real relationships languish. Reality is too painful, so we medicate ourselves and go off to sleep, a spiritual sleep, a moral sleep, even a physical sleep.
Only the pure mercy of God can save us. If the Church or the world depended on human leaders we’d be doomed. If the Church were solely dependent on human beings to keep her together, she would’ve lasted 20 minutes, at best! Yes, only the pure mercy of God can see us through. Without Jesus, awake and sober in the garden, we’re surely lost.
Yes, a serious problem is described here: while the cosmic battle between good and evil rages around us, too many of us are asleep. And while God’s mercy can help to close the gap, we must be willing to do what Jesus commands, what He now prescribes.
II. Prescription – Jesus says, Watch and pray! That is to say, “Wake up; come to your right mind; be sober!” To be sober is to have a clear mind, a mind that is aware of what is going on, and that can clearly identify the signs of the times. The sober mind is able to identify the tactics of the enemy, the drives of sin, and know their moves. The sober mind is also in touch with the remedies of grace and how to apply them prudently. We simply must watch and pray!
In particular, our prayer needs to be rooted in the Scriptures and the revealed truth of Jesus Christ. There’s just too much “stinking thinking” in our world today to believe that our mind is going to be anything but polluted if we don’t cleanse it every day with the Word of God.
Our minds are like sponges. Put a sponge in muddy water and the sponge is going to come out muddy. How then is the muddy sponge to be cleansed? It is plunged into clean water and rung out; then it is plunged back into the clean water and rung out again and again and again. Similarly, our minds—like sponges muddied by the polluted, confusing, and erroneous thinking of the world—must be cleansed daily by being plunged into the clear, clean water of God’s Holy Word.
It is a sobering fact that if we are not praying daily and being deeply rooted in God’s Word, it is very unlikely that we will make it.
The Lord’s prescription is bluntly simple: wake up and keep watch by praying! We somehow seem to find time for everything else. It’s time to wake up and keep our eyes focused on the Lord, to watch Him, to listen to Him, and to be deeply rooted in the relationship of prayer and obedience to His Word. Otherwise, a terrible peril is upon us.
III. Peril – We are told to watch and pray lest we undergo the test, lest we give way to temptation. The Greek word for temptation use here is πειρασμόν (peirasmon), which almost sounds like the English word “peril.”
Now don’t let temptation become something abstract. Temptation is the work of Satan to drag you to Hell. Are you clear on that? If you’re not watching and praying, you’re defenseless; you’re an easy target; you’re low hanging fruit; you’re probably not going to make it. If you do not pray, Jesus warns that you will give way to temptation. That is, Satan will be able to drag you off to Hell and probably others along with you.
If you don’t even care enough about yourself to pray, then at least do it for the sake of others, who are probably depending on you for teaching and example! No priest goes to Hell alone; he takes others with him. And no parents go to Hell alone; they take others with them.
It’s time to wake up and recognize the peril. You will give way to temptation if you won’t watch and pray. Satan can and will drive you to Hell. This peril is real. If you don’t think so, take it up with Jesus; He said it, I didn’t.
IV. Prevailing priority – Jesus goes on to say, The spirit is indeed willing, but the flesh is weak.
Sadly, most of us interpret this passage as an excuse, as if Jesus were permitting us to say, “Well, deep in my heart I want to do what’s right, but I’m really not able to do it because of my weak flesh. So it’s really not my fault. I should get credit for having good intentions in my heart.”
This is not only an incorrect interpretation of what Jesus says here; it is a sinful interpretation. Jesus is not saying that our flesh excuses us. He’s saying that our spirit is willing, that our Spirit (by His grace) has the capacity to prevail over the weakness of the flesh!
We are going to have to battle against our flesh; that is true; that much is clear. But our spirit, the part of us that is open to God, has the capacity to prevail, if we will permit God’s Holy Spirit to strengthen our human spirit.
In other words, our spirit is to be our number one priority, over and against our flesh. With this as our first priority, we will open our spirit to God’s Holy Spirit and will be strengthened. We will prevail over temptation. We will be victorious over Satan’s attempts to drag us to Hell.
There should be no excuses here. Jesus says that although the flesh is weak, and we’ll battle against it until the day we die, our spirit can “will” us to overcome the drives of our flesh. Our spirit can and must have a priority that will empower us to prevail over the flesh and over any incursions of the evil one.
We must make a decision; our spirit must be willing to watch and pray. We cannot allow the emphasis to fall on the weakness of the flesh. The emphasis must always be on the prevailing power and priority of the human spirit, graced by God’s Holy Spirit, to win the victory.
Not a bad prescription for life and for Holy Week, too!