And so Jesus is being arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane. The Temple police have shown up, armed to the teeth, Judas has carried out the most infamous act of betrayal in history, and the disciples have fled. Hundreds of sermons have been preached on this, because this is moment the cross really starts to cast its shadow, the moment that Easter begins.
And yet there are a couple of verses that, while fitting the narrative without a problem, stick out like a sore thumb:
“A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus. When they seized him, he fled naked, leaving his garment behind.”
Everything crashes down from the epic themes of treason, cowardice, non-violence and injustice to this, an anonymous young man slipping out of his shirt to escape arrest.
On the one hand, it’s understandable. Maybe the disciples have all gone, but this young man has got too close the action. There’s a brief struggle and he runs. The fact that he’s naked emphasises his cowardice and shame – running around with no clothes on was a pretty dramatic social no-no at the time. Heck, no-one would be keen on this today. It highlights the sheer abandonment of Jesus – the people following him have all gone, in one case even leaving their clothes behind. This is a pretty comprehensive desertion of Jesus.
Tradition states that the young man could have been Mark, the traditional author of the gospel. If that’s the case, maybe this is his confession – “You look at Judas with contempt, you look at Peter with anger, but I abandoned Jesus too. And maybe you’d’ve done the same thing in my place.”
And yet it feels like there’s more going on in this verse. The young man doesn’t seem to have been one of the disciples (past, present or future) so maybe it wasn’t Mark, maybe we shouldn’t have expected him to risk his neck for Jesus. But if he wasn’t a disciple, what was he doing there?
Well, he was wearing a linen shirt on a night where, not long afterwards, Peter was warming himself next to a fire; the guy’s not really dressed for the occasion. So maybe he wasn’t following Jesus, maybe he was a local kid who heard the noise, ran out in his night clothes to see what was going on, and ended up narrowly avoiding getting caught up in something far bigger than himself. Perhaps he’s an innocent young bystander who nevertheless can’t avoid becoming a part of the story, because when you encounter Jesus a response is demanded. You can’t stand on the sidelines, rubber-necking the story of Good Friday. That option isn’t really available.
I like that idea, but at the same time it feels a little tenuous. The anonymity of the young may be important, but important enough to warrant a mention here, as Jesus’s ministry approaches a climax? I don’t know.
The whole thing feels… I don’t know, liminal. While looking into this, I stumbled across something interesting – other than here, the only other use of this word for ‘linen’ in the gospels is when describing the grave clothes that Jesus will soon be wearing; meanwhile, the Greek word used here for ‘young man’, neaniskos, is only used once more in Mark – when describing an angel that announces the resurrection of Jesus. It might be a stretch, sure, but maybe there’s something else going on here, something visionary, something prophetic?
But then you’d expect Mark to make more of this. As it stands, the verse is straight-forward, almost feeling too…banal to be a vision or a prophetic enactment by an angel or something. Maybe there’s a key in pointing out that the man was young?
But then the disciples as a whole were probably teenagers and in their early twenties. We’re not talking a group of old men, despite all the art that gives them beards and receding hairlines. I always find it a little sobering that Jesus, standing before Pilate, nailed to a cross, was younger than I am now. The naked guy was young, but so were the rest of the disciples.
Maybe there’s something in what’s come before. People were expecting the Messiah to be a military ruler – that seems to be true even of the disciples who’ve been following Jesus for years. Even after Jesus has told them that he’s got to die, that this arrest is part of God’s salvation plan for humanity, the disciples still try to resist this – Peter cuts off a man’s ear with a sword, earning him a slap-down from Jesus. This isn’t the violent revolution that people were expecting, this isn’t about fire from heaven consuming their enemies. This is about the cross, and it seems as though this is the moment that the disciples realise this, their youthful impetuousness and desire to see the Romans kicked out falling about when confronted with the truth of the situation – that one of their friends has sold them out and that Jesus is going to die.
And, either because they can’t process this now it’s become a reality, or because they’re just plain scared, they run. And the young man, last one standing, flees in shame and nakedness. Rubber-necker, Mark, heck, even an angel, the end result is the same. Jesus faces the cross alone.
What do we do with this story?
I’m not sure. There are too many ‘maybes’ to draw any definitive conclusions. But I do know this – sometimes there are moments when we get scared and we want to run, no matter the cost to ourselves. And yet, later in the Bible, these people who have run end up becoming the founders of the church, great evangelists and preachers and gospel writers. What changed?
Jesus came back. The Holy Spirit came in power. And the world changed, but more than that, individuals changed, teenagers who once turned and ran became powerful men of God. And as we remember what happened in Gethsemane, with all its questions and confusion and fear, we need to remember what was about to happen just a few days later…