The Gospel according to Matthew uses much of Mark’s version of Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane. One of the most notable differences is the way Jesus refers to the cup from which he is about to drink.
According to Mark in the NRSV translation, Jesus says, “…remove this cup from me…” whereas in Matthew, Jesus says, “…let this cup pass from me…”
(In the NIV translation, it is, “Take this cup from me” in Mark and “…may this cup be taken from me…” in Matthew.)
In Mark it is a direct request, while in Matthew the request is in a passive voice. So what’s the difference?
Mark cuts right to the chase – Jesus asks God to act so that he will not have to go through what lies ahead of him. It would be like wanting to break up with someone and knowing that the other person also wants to break up, but hoping that they would break up with you first so that you won’t have to be the bad guy/gal.
Matthew nuances it a little bit – Jesus asks that he might not have to experience what lies ahead, but stops short of asking God directly to intervene. That would be more like wanting to break up with someone, but the other person doesn’t want to, so if you don’t do it yourself the two of you will just stay together.
It leads me to understand the crucifixion as a choice Jesus is making, and if he doesn’t actually pick up the cup himself, it will just remain on the table un-drunk. I’m not wanting to split any Christological hairs here, but in Mark it feels like the crucifixion is inevitable unless God acts to prevent it, whereas in Matthew Jesus chooses crucifixion for himself. Therefore, in Mark if Jesus just stays in the garden, it would still lead to crucifixion; in Matthew the consequence of inaction on Jesus’ part means there would be no crucifixion at all.
It may be a subtle thing that I am making too much of, but I prefer the way it reads in Matthew to Mark’s version. It means something more to me if I can think of Jesus’ crucifixion as something he chose rather than something inevitable. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” It makes a difference to me that Jesus laid down his life for us, rather than having it taken away.
And then, when Jesus finishes his prayer with, “…yet not what I want, but what you want,” it means two different things: in Mark it seems to imply, “I don’t want to, but I’ll go along with what you are making me do.” In Matthew, however, it feels more like, “What I might want to do is not as important as what you want, so I choose your way.”
This distinction makes a big difference in thinking about suffering. The suffering of Jesus is not something inflicted on a powerless victim, as if he was just a prop in the drama of the crucifixion. His suffering is something he chooses to experience on behalf of another, namely, us.
That’s what makes it possible for us to condemn the violence of, for example, domestic abuse or poverty or prejudice (gasp - sounds like social justice to me), flat-out not including such suffering in the kind of suffering the New Testament seems to affirm so often (i.e. Romans 5: suffering > endurance > character > hope). This "Christian" suffering is chosen, and is for the sake of someone else, to make another person’s life better somehow.
The cup of the crucifixion sat on the table in front of Jesus. He asked that it disappear, if possible, so that he would not have to drink it. But it didn’t – and he did. He chose it, picked it up on his own, and drank it – to make our lives better somehow.