I’ve had enough for one day, so I’m leaving the meeting early. After a few blocks of walking, I have almost arrived at my car when I am stopped short. A wave of scent washes over me, thick and sweet. The air is heavy with the fragrance; something nearby must be in full flower. I look all around, but I can see nothing—only evergreens and leafy bushes with no color or hint of blossoms. Where is that aroma coming from? And why didn’t I notice it an hour ago when I got out of my car in this same spot? Somewhere an out-of-sight, tree-sized bouquet is pouring its perfume onto the passing breeze.
I smile. This has happened before. It is just God’s way of sending me flowers and reminding me that He is always standing nearby.
I am struggling to concentrate,
to settle down and pray—
even to identify You
in the chaos around me.
I am surrounded by the new,
by the maybe-this-should-be-familiar,
by the I’ve-done-this-before-but-not-like-this,
by the I’m-not-sure-I-want-to-do-this-again.
My focus is scattered,
my attention sidetracked,
my loyalties divided;
it is hard to find You—
and then to hold on to the finding.
Please remind me that
even when my mind is distracted from You,
Yours is not distracted from me.
I am sorry when I miss your cues,
Your gentle nudges,
Your signs and maps
showing me which way to turn.
Mark on my calendar the Divine appointments
you have set for me;
show me the way
so that I may arrive on Your time.
Open my eyes to appreciate the wonders
with which You have surrounded me;
and let Your Shekinah glisten around me,
even when I fail to notice it.
So he asked them again, “Whom do you seek?” And they said, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus answered, “I told you that I am he. So, if you seek me, let these men go.” This was to fulfill the word that he had spoken: “Of those whom you gave me I have lost not one.” Then Simon Peter, having a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant and cut off his right ear. (The servant’s name was Malchus.) So Jesus said to Peter, “Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?”
We sometimes remember Peter as a coward for his denial, as, I suspect, he did himself until Jesus forgave and reinstated him on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. However, it was the same Peter who was afraid to identify himself with Jesus in the courtyard of the high priest, who, just a few hours before, had faced an armed cadre of soldiers in the garden “with lanterns and torches and weapons.”(1) In that moment, he was not only willing to claim Jesus but pulled out his one little sword and struck in His Lord’s defense. Peter was ready to fight for Jesus in an uneven battle that would likely have ended in his death or arrest. That doesn’t seem so cowardly to me. Yet the story of Peter’s brave, though somewhat reckless defense also leaves me wondering: What about the man he struck?
The target of Peter’s blow was the high priest’s servant; some translations call him the high priest’s slave. Who was he, and why was he there? Was he ordered to go to bolster the party’s numbers even though he would rather have stayed home to get some much-needed sleep?
Or did the servant tag along of his own volition? Life as a servant, even for a high official, probably wasn’t all that interesting, and Judas’ offer to turn in Jesus no doubt created an unusual level of excitement and intrigue in the high priest’s household. Maybe he was just following along for macabre entertainment.
Or did he build his own identity on whom he served and share his master’s disdain for this man who thought He could tell the people about God even though He was outside the official religious hierarchy? Maybe the high priest so trusted this servant that he put his underling in charge of the arrest party to make sure that nothing went sideways in his clandestine operation to get rid of this itinerant thorn in his side. After all, the high priest probably had good reason not to trust Judas very far; a traitor who turns once might just as easily turn twice.
And why did Peter strike him? Did Peter perceive him as a leader in the group and thus, an obvious first target in a fight? Maybe he just happened to be standing closest to Peter.
More importantly, what happened to the servant after this eventful night during which he had a front-row seat on the most world-shaking arrest in history? After this crazy weekend was over, and all the buzz about this Jew who was executed (some said as a criminal; others as an innocent; others went so far as to claim they had killed the Messiah) had died down, maybe the high priest’s servant just went back to being a high priest’s servant. He may have lived out the rest of his days doing whatever high priest’s servants were expected to do.
Maybe. But I don’t think so.
Luke adds to the story that the man's ear was not only cut off but also healed. Jesus put a quick end to the ensuing fight.(2) Then, in the middle of being arrested and facing all He knew was to come, Jesus paused to touch the man’s head and restore his ear—the ear of the man who, for whatever reason, stood among His enemies.
John pauses here in his telling of the story to note that, “The servant’s name was Malchus.”(3) Why did John care enough to name him? Why should we care what his name was? The story never mentions him again. This was just some inconsequential servant to the evil leader who ordered Jesus' arrest. In modern movie terms, he was an expendable on the wrong side—the side of the "power of darkness"(4) (Jesus’ words in Luke’s account).
Yet, Malchus is among a handful of the people whom Jesus encountered during His time on Earth whose names we know. We know the disciples, but then, they were major players. We know Mary Magdalene and the other women who went to the tomb on Easter morning. We know Bartimaeus and Zacchaeus and Nicodemus, but we don’t know the names of the woman at the well, Jairus’ daughter, the rich young man who asked Jesus how to gain eternal life, or the leper who returned to say thank you. Their names are forgotten by history (though not by God). Yet we know the name of this servant, and he has been remembered in many languages for two thousand years each time John’s gospel account of Jesus’ arrest is read anywhere in the world.
Could it be that for John’s contemporary readers, this man was not an incidental aside? Perhaps Malchus was not, as we presume, an expendable who no one remembered or cared about. Maybe, though he stood on the wrong side that night, he was a man about to cross the line.
Did he remain in the garden long after the soldiers had bound Jesus and marched away, and the disciples had fled? Did he look down at the blood drying on his fingers and remember the lightning bolt of pain as the sword slashed by his face? Did he reach up in amazement to touch the ear- made-whole-again? Did he stand in wonder as the recipient of an unprovoked blow followed by an unrequested and completely unimaginable miracle? Could such an experience fail to change a man?
Perhaps he didn’t watch the rest of the circus that night. Maybe he slipped home to recount the tale to his wife, who might not have believed him except for the trail of blood that stained his robe from his shoulder to his hem. Did he listen in horror the next day to the scuttlebutt about Jesus' trial and flogging and crucifixion? Was he fascinated and puzzled by the rumors that circulated the following week claiming that this strange Man, whose touch had taken away his pain and left him whole, had healed his own crucifixion wounds and risen from the dead?
Could he, like Nicodemus, have slipped out in the night a few weeks later after the fuss had faded to find one of Jesus’ disciples and ask the pointed question, “Who was this Jesus—really?” Was Malchus standing in the crowd around Peter on the day of Pentecost? Did he hear his long-forgotten childhood language spoken and join the throng of three thousand who found faith that day?(5) Was he, unbeknownst to his high priestly boss, a part of the fellowship of believers in Jerusalem who prayed and broke bread together?(6) Was the healing of his own ear merely the first of many miracles Malchus witnessed as he hung out with the apostles through whom “many wonders and signs were being done.”(7)
Did some of those who initially read John’s gospel know him well, not as an enemy who stood on the other side and helped to kill their Lord, but as a brother with whom they served that same living Lord side by side? Perhaps Malchus’ name is written because he was a slave who became a brother, just as we, who satan attempts to enslave and to slay with his sword of evil, are also brothers and sisters with Malchus and with one another in the blessed fellowship of the One who heals. Will we one day stand next to Malchus before the throne singing, “Holy, holy, holy?”
I look forward to shaking his hand…
. . . and maybe having a look at that ear.
1 John 18:3.
2 Luke 22:51.
3 John 18:10.
4 Luke 22:53.
5 Acts 2:4.
6 Acts 2:42.
7 Acts 2:43.
The Augustinian Ant
When we pass by something, failing to see it because it is so small that it has slipped our notice, we say that we have “overlooked” it. If, on the other hand, we pass by something, failing to see it because it so completely fills our field of vision that it is without edges or parameters, could we say that we have “underlooked” it? I fear that, often, this is how we see, or fail to see God. If He is indeed everywhere, then He is here, now, watching as we scurry around like unending lines of sugar ants, dutifully taking care of all the important and not-so-important details of our lives.
Or is He?
If I can pass through whole days without noticing Him, how can I know that He is here at all? Perhaps I am just a sugar ant, among many other sugar ants, busying myself with tasks that have little significance beyond the meaning I give them during my own short life. How can I know He is really listening when I pray?
Certainly, I’m not the first to puzzle over such a question. Great thinkers like Thomas Aquinas, Anselm of Canterbury, Blaise Pascal, and William Paley have struggled in trying to demonstrate God’s Presence. St. Augustine, who had great faith that God was with him, wrestled with many words in his attempts to understand and explain the God in Whom he so passionately believed.
Their struggles in confirming God’s existence should come as no surprise. Indeed, if God is as resplendent, as invincible, as omniscient, as pervasive as Christians believe, human intellectual tools and perceptions are wholly insufficient for the task of perceiving, much less proving Him. Even an intellect like Augustine’s would be like the sugar ant who, in the course of its daily routine of carrying supplies back to its nest, bumps up against the toe of a man standing in its path. The miniscule creature cranes its neck (if indeed, ants have necks) and strains its eyes toward great heights to catch a glimpse of the titanic human toenail. If that ant, with no more than its ground-level perspective and limited experience, were to attempt to convince the other ants that this toenail they thought they could just barely see when the light was right, was but the smallest appendage of a colossal and sentient being whose loftiness reached into the heavens, which of them would believe him?
If, however, this Augustinian ant was returning from the long and arduous climb up a near-by tree on which he had ascended to great height and looked this mythical human creature in the eye, perhaps his awe-filled account describing its sheer size and beauty and wisdom would prove more persuasive. If, in fact, many ants had taken such a journey in search of the human-beyond-the-toenail and returned with similar stories of its astounding Presence, would their combined testimony convince their fellows to at least consider the possibility that this mystical being did truly exist?
I can no more prove God than Augustine and Anselm could, but I can add my voice to theirs and join those who have told this legendary story for millennia, describing the God-beyond-the-toenail into Whose eyes we have peered, Whose voice we have heard, and Whose touch we have felt. But the Being we describe is not only a distant and colossal Presence. Though He is every bit as comparatively large and indescribable as the owner of the toenail our Augustinian ant encountered, He is also nearby and familiar—as close as my next thought. If I am standing before my classroom teaching, He is listening among my students; if I am writing on my computer, He is proofreading the text with me; if I am having coffee with a friend, He laughs at my silly puns; if I am doing laundry or washing dishes, He is sharing in my chores.
Most of the time, I am busy thinking about my daily responsibilities and the common minutiae of my life, and I don’t notice that He is hanging around. He is so big and so constantly present that He continues to slip my notice, but that doesn’t mean He isn’t there; only that I have underlooked Him.