Formations 03.13.2016: Learning from Failure

Luke 22:47-62

Israel von Meckenem, The Kiss of Judas, c. 1503–08

Israel von Meckenem, The Kiss of Judas, c. 1503–08

Is our success-oriented, results-driven culture setting us up for a life of disappointment? In a recent column in the Independent, Gerard Gilbert wonders if this might be the case. Citing a number of therapists and educators, he makes the case that many in the Western world have inadvertently taught their children to fear failure—and in so doing, have blocked their surest path to success.

Psychotherapist Phillip Hodson agrees, stating, “I do think it’s important not to over-cushion our children, not to pretend everything they produce is glorious.”

Gilbert also points to Wimbledon High School, a high-achieving girls’ school in the UK that has sought to include this idea in their curriculum. In 2012, Wimbledon introduced a “failure week” to teach students about risk, resilience, and learning from mistakes. Headmistress Heather Hanbury explains, “The girls need to learn how to fail well and how to get over it and cope with it. It is completely acceptable and completely normal not to succeed at times in life.”

The reality—even the inevitability—of failure is good to keep in mind as we ponder this week’s text. Luke 22:47-62 casts a harsh light on Jesus’ disciples. One betrays Jesus, another denies him, and all of them abandon him in his hour of need. Though hard to read, the Gospel writers seem determined to remind us that no one is above such moral failure. At the same time, the ending of Luke tells us that no one is beyond being redeemed and restored.

Gerard Gilbert, “How to Be More Zen about Our Failures and Learn from Our Disappointments: From Charlie Brown to Eddie the Eagle,” Independent, 22 February 2016 <>.


• What do you think kept the disciples from meeting Jesus’ arrest with faith and courage? Do you think their abandonment of Jesus surprised them?
• With whom in this story do you most identify, and why?
• What responses to failure have you observed in yourself or others?
• How can we learn from our failures? What attitudes or behaviors are necessary for this learning to take place?

Reference Shelf

Judas Iscariot

Judah from the city of Keriyot—known to us as Judas Iscariot—is a character in the NT Gospels who, for 30 pieces of silver, betrayed Jesus with a kiss. The NT narratives, however, cannot agree on many of the details about why Judas did this. In Mark, there is no logical explanation for Judas’s actions, and it is definitely not greed (Mark 14.10-11). In Matthew, Judas is motivated by greed to hand over Jesus (Matt. 26.14-15). In Luke, the motivation is not greed but Satan (Luke 22.3), thus rendering Judas powerless in the whole affair (and, some argue, blameless). In the Gospel of John, Judas betrays Jesus because he is told to (John 13.27).

Zeba A. Crook, “Judas Iscariot,” Dictionary of the Bible and Western Culture, ed. Mary Ann Beavis and Michael J. Gilmour (Sheffield UK: Sheffield Phoenix, 2012), 268.

A Close-up on the Crowd

Picture the scene: Jesus and Judas are at the center, standing close together, and just behind Judas, a crowd. Around Jesus are his followers, who only a moment before were sleeping. They “see what was coming” and ask, “Lord, should we strike with the sword?” Without waiting for a reply one of them strikes the high priest’s slave, cutting off his right ear (a left-handed disciple, most likely, although that is hardly the point Luke is making). Jesus warned them earlier that they should pray lest they fall into temptation; sure enough, the moment of crisis has caught them unprepared, and they react, not like their Lord, but like any other armed person might if he felt threatened. Luke leaves the identification of the sword-wielder completely ambiguous; we know there were at least two swords among the Twelve, and only one struck the blow. It could have been any of them—that’s the point. It takes a lot of self-control to maintain a stance of nonviolence in a crisis; Jesus’ disciples should have been praying rather than napping. And what did the blow accomplish? The violent disciple wounded a slave, whom Luke’s audience would have assumed was unarmed and probably carrying a torch or a lantern. “Enough of this!” says Jesus, and heals the slave’s ear.

Now Luke chooses to do a close-up on the crowd. “Jesus said to those who came out for him, the chief priests and officers of the temple and elders….” “Chief priests” are the heads of the priestly families or divisions, serving as advisors to the high priest; the “officers” are perhaps the heads of the temple guards or police; the “elders” are the heads of the leading Jewish families in Jerusalem. In other words, Luke’s “crowd” includes the big shots with whom Judas made a bargain in 22:3-6. They are armed with swords and clubs “as if for a bandit”; he is no brigand, but by disobeying his teachings on nonviolence, his disciples have given the big shots some justification for coming with weapons. Jesus reminds them that he was in public view for days in the temple—right in their headquarters—and yet they chose instead to seize him in secret. If their cause is just, why must it be carried out in the dark?

Jesus is thus surrounded by people who reject his teachings. The crowd of authorities, armed as if to seize a dangerous warlord; the disciple who, under Satan’s prompting, has conspired with them to arrest him; the rest of his disciples who sleep rather than praying and who strike out rather than accepting God’s will—nobody is following him now. “This is your hour,” he says, “and the authority of darkness.” They asked him, in the temple, where his authority came from; now he exposes where theirs originates.

Richard B. Vinson, Luke, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2008), 695–96.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


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