39 On leaving, Yeshua went as usual to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him. 40 When he arrived, he said to them, “Pray that you won’t be put to the test.” 41 He went about a stone’s throw away from them, kneeled down and prayed, 42 “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still, let not my will but yours be done.” 43 There appeared to him an angel from heaven giving him strength, 44 and in great anguish he prayed more intensely, so that his sweat became like drops of blood falling to the ground. 45 On rising from prayer and coming to the disciples, he found them sleeping because of their grief. 46 He said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you won’t be put to the test!”
For those who would like to get a grip of how the Gospel writers treated history, this passage can be compared with the story in Mark chapter 14 which Luke used as his source. Yes, Luke’s version is substantially the same, but much of the detail has been changed in his editing.
Mark tells that this happened in the garden of Gethsemane, that Jesus took Shimon James and John with him, that he prayed three times and came back to his sleeping disciples three times, that in his prayer he called God, Abba, in his own language, that he especially warned Shimon about being tested, that the disciples were tired rather than grieved.
Luke edits out all these details, but adds that an angel ministered to Jesus and that his sweat was like great drops of blood falling on the ground.
Both versions are vivid, but not in detail the same. Luke suppresses the detail that Jesus prayed three times to be spared suffering. Probably he thought it improper for the son of God to ask repeatedly. On the other hand he gives a heightened sense of Jesus’ agony with the detail of the bloody sweat. Mark emphasises the human weakness of Jesus, Luke his endurance; Mark his longing for support; Luke his independence; Mark the disciples’ unreadiness; Luke, their grief.
Luke wants to communicate Jesus’ reluctance in the face of suffering; he is not rushing towards his death, but hoping that it may be avoided. Luke often mentions Jesus at prayer. Here he shows him testing God’s will and accepting the result with fortitude. All his support, even that of his disciples has fallen away. In the face of the ultimate test of his ministry, he rallies them. Here and in all that follows Jesus faces the test alone on behalf of his disciples.
Above all, Luke’s audience is left with his image of the Son of God, in agony over his imminent death, wrestling with his own reluctance so strenuously that his “sweat became like great drops of blood.” The phrase has passed into the English language when we say of someone making a great effort or awaiting a crucial decision, “He was sweating blood.” Clearly the image is not a realistic description, but the extremity of the image mirrors the extremity of this experience, and in the case of Jesus, links his obedience of God to his bloody death.
I have been reading an extraordinary book about Chernyobil by the Belarussian author Svetlana ALexievich who records the testimony of those who watched their loved ones die of extreme overdoses of radiation. Their bodies crumbled and dissolved while they are still alive. She speaks of a dying man spitting out bits of his own liver. These people suffered worse torments than Jesus, but in the comradeship of suffering there is no competition and they would gladly accept his solidarity with them.