A Sanctuary Betrayed
Where is your happy place? The spot you retreat to when you are tired, or…when the world gets too painful? My favorite place is a little farm in Lobelville, Tennessee. Whitten Hollow Farm is tucked into a little valley, and it belongs to my friend, Sherrill.
Years ago, Sherrill retired from corporate America, closed the door on some painful personal things, and began to look for a place to rest and heal. She told me that the day she drove down that gravel driveway lined with Maple trees for the first time, she knew she was home.
She bought the little farm, and she and her Chihuahua, Roxie, moved in. For a year, it was just the two of them watching as the sun set, and the moon rose. Listening as the quiet settled way down into their bones.
Then, they bought a Great Pyrenees puppy. The wiggly white ball of fluff that looked just like a teddy bear, so she named him, “Teddy.”
Next, she bought a few baby chicks. A stray cat showed up and adopted the clan. Sherrill’s grandson named him, “Tommy.” A bit later, two young goats joined the family too. Next, Sherrill restored an old log cabin on the property, and listed it on VRBO.
And that is how I met her. I rented it.
My official reason was that I needed to get some writing done, but truthfully, I was carrying around a shattered heart and I needed a place to cry, and pray, in peace for a while.
Each evening, as the sun set I walked the gravel road at the back of the property, crying and praying as I went. Strangely enough, I never walked and prayed alone. Teddy, full grown by then, lumbered up beside me and tucked his head under my hand. Roxie trotted along in front, leading the way. Tommy trailed along behind us too. Once I turned around and even found the goats joining in. We must have looked like quite a parade.
Whitten Hollow is a holy place for me. A place of love, shelter, and friendship. It is the retreat where God whispers healing over my soul.
The garden at Gethsemane was this kind of place for Jesus and his disciples.
A Retreat Violated
In his book, The Life and Times of Jesus, The Messiah, Jewish theologian and pastor, Alfred Edersheim, explains that Gethsemane was a place just outside the busy streets of Jerusalem that Jesus and his disciples most likely stayed whenever they were in the holy city and needed respite.
The word “Gethsemane” means “oil press” so it is very likely that the garden was walled, sheltering a grove of olive trees (and other plants) and a building that held an olive press. It would have been a convenient place for Jesus and his disciples to spend the night when Jerusalem swelled to many times its population during the feast days.
Judas, of course, knew this. He had inside knowledge of just where the high priest could take Jesus by surprise in the middle of the night.
Watch and Pray
Jesus knew that Judas was going to betray Him, and He spent the night praying in preparation for the terrible suffering he was about to endure. His time had come.
When Judas showed up with not only representatives from the high priest but a group of armed Roman guards, Jesus was ready and waiting for them. In the terror and confusion, some of the disciples scattered, running for their lives. Our friend Peter, however, had a moment of reckless, although misplaced, courage.
O’ Dear, There Goes My Ear
What happens next seems pretty weird. The Bible says Peter cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant, Malchus. As a child, I always heard pastors say that Peter was a pretty lousy swordsman, that he must have been going for Malchus’s neck and missed.
A little bit of research into the word for “sword” here, plus some understanding of Jewish history, puts the incident in a different light. First of all, the word is “macharia” which means, “short sword, or dagger” (Dr. James Martin, A Visual Guide to Gospel Events, page. 256)
(And don’t forget, Peter was a fisherman. He knew how to expertly wield a knife.)
Even more important is an event in Jewish history with which Peter was sure to have been familiar. During the Intertestamental Period (the years that filled up those blank pages in your Bible between the Old and New Testaments) there was a dynasty of Jewish rulers named the Hasmoneans. In 40 BC, they were in rebellion against Herod the Great and one of the leaders of the rebellion, Matthais Antigonus, was captured and brought before John Hyrcanus, a corrupt high priest appointed by Herod.
As Matthais stood in court, he decided it was the perfect time to make a statement about just what he thought about the corrupt high priest. He pulled a dagger from his robes (why they did not frisk him, I do not know) and leaned over and…
Sliced off John Hyrcanus’s ear.
What on Earth? Is this a Mike Tyson Moment???
Matthais knew that according to Levitical law, a priest could only serve if he was free of “physical deformities,” sort of like the way a sacrificial lamb was required to be without “blemish.”
In slicing off John Hyrcanus’s ear, Matthais disqualified him from the priesthood. Basically, he was saying, “I see you in all your pomp and pretense, but your heart is vile, unfit for the priesthood. So…I think I will just bring your disqualification out in the open for everyone to see. The masses may overlook your black heart, but I don’t think they will miss the fact that you only have one ear.”
Another Corrupt High Priest
At the time of Christ, the Sanhedrin (the priests who made up the Jewish court) was corrupt. They had all bought their positions from Herod the Great. What was meant to be a holy office, had become filthy with the thirst for power, and an insatiable hunger for wealth.
These priests lived really sweet lives in their mansions high above the masses of peasants in the streets below. They weren’t about to lose their positions because of the interference of this young rabbi, Jesus.
And so, they decided to falsify evidence, hold a dirty trial, and get him sentenced to death.
Peter saw what was happening, remembered his history, and in the absence of the high priest himself, he decided to cut off the ear of his servant, Malchus.
Malchus was having a really bad day at work.
The Upside-Down Kingdom
What Peter didn’t yet understand, is that Jesus had come to fight a bigger battle than that of Roman oppression, or even a corrupt priesthood, He had come to die to redeem all of creation.
And so, He ordered Peter to put his dagger away. Then, He bent over, picked up Malchus’s ear, and in a bizarre Mr. Potato Head moment, simply reattached it.
Choosing to Remain Blind
What happens next is sobering. Jesus has just picked an ear up off the ground and put it back on a man’s head, and…
The guards seize Him anyway, and take him off to His trial, and eventually, His flogging, and crucifixion. The high priests chose to remain blind to the Messiah right in front of them.
What does this all mean for us?
For me, it leaves me once again asking where I am choosing to remain blind in the face of undeniable truth. It prompts me to ponder the areas in my life in which I am building a kingdom that looks nothing like the one Jesus has in mind.
It leaves me crying out, in this Lenten season of repentance…
"Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting." Psalm 139: 23-24
Think About It…
- Did you know this is what was happening when Peter cut off Malchus’s ear? If not, what is your response to this new, deeper meaning?
- Why is it so hard for us to surrender the kingdom of our own making to embrace God’s bigger Kingdom instead?
- How can you slow down this Lent to take time to think about how you can join God in building a “kingdom not of this world?” (John 18:36)