"A mob came to arrest his teacher, so Simon Peter cut off one of the mobster’s ears to spite his face. This is pre-Van Gogh, so it wasn’t like Peter was trying to make the guy a fashionable, quirky artist. Peter was either Zorro, or meant to kill the guy and missed. Either way, Jesus’ response is unexpected: He touches the man’s ear and heals him (Luke 22:51). Then a naked dude runs off in the wilderness. (And he’s not a frat boy at halftime; he’s just scared.)" That’s the way the story is (sort of) told on Good Friday, but this telling leaves me with unanswered questions. Why did Peter go "Jackie Chan" (as it's often pitched) on the "mobster"? Why did Jesus heal the guy? And what’s the deal with the naked dude?
Our answers are found in the differences in the gospel accounts.
Luke, whose gospel is flavored with a love for the poor and often highlights Jesus’ ability to do miraculous things in intense situations, tells us about the healing of the mobster (Luke 22:51).
John is really good at recounting who did what. He is the only one who tells us that Peter is the guy who made the mobster look like Van Gogh (John 18:10). John’s portrayal of Peter as an overly zealous Christ-follower earlier on in his gospel helps us understand this story. This is typical, type-A, act-before-you-think, Peter behavior. (But don’t forget, in John’s gospel Peter is also the one Jesus calls to lead the church.)
Matthew, whose gospel often focuses on Jesus’ interactions with the upper class, tells us how Jesus puts the mobsters in their place: “Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not seize me. But all this has taken place so that the Scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled” (Matt 26:55–56). Jesus basically says, “You sleezsters. You couldn’t pull this off during the day because you know you would have an uprising on your hands. But either way, I’m really in control here. This is God’s will.” Similarly, Jesus says to Peter, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions (battalions) of angels?” (Matt 26:53). I tend to think that Jesus said this because Peter didn’t get it. Jesus was not a regular zealous leader who intended to overthrow the priesthood and eventually Rome—all in an effort to take back Israel for God’s people. Jesus was a different type of king. Peter likely thought, “Man, it’s on. I’m going Kung Fu on you son.” Jesus then responds, “Not a good idea Peter. That’s not really the point. Didn’t we go over this?” (At least that’s how I parse the story based on the Graeco-Roman context.)
Mark has one of the simplest accounts of the story. But he adds the story of the young man who attempted to follow Jesus after the disciples fled. The young man, though, is attacked by the mob and loses his clothes (Mark 14:50–52). Some have suggested that Mark is the young man who fled, since he is the only person who tells this particular part of the story, but that’s just a suggestion (not a fact).
What can we learn from seeing each account separate, and then putting the various parts back together?
Jesus is not a zealous leader: he is here to save people, not kill them.
Jesus saw good in a crazy band of rebels, so he must be able to find good in us.
Jesus died for more than one generation: his death was for everyone, for all time.
Jesus knows how to fight betrayal: he fights with healing and love.
Jesus’ followers may fail him at times, but he won’t give up on them.