Willing but Weak: Mind over Matter?

The Bible in the News

Leonard Greenspoon

In his column The Bible in the News, Leonard J. Greenspoon examines the usage of Matthew 26:41 in modern culture.

It is Jesus to whom we are indebted for the thought that lies behind the well-known saying, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41). Jesus’ exact words, spoken in Aramaic, were translated into Greek by the writers of the New Testament and from there into many other languages. It is to William Tyndale, via the King James Version, that we owe our gratitude for this phrasing in English, which is as memorable as it is apt.

It is then perfectly appropriate that we begin our foray into the myriad uses of this expression in the popular press with an example that relates to translation. “We know it’s an old one, but we liked [former Secretary of State for Scotland Sir Malcolm Rifkind] recalling the British minister speaking in Moscow at the height of the Cold War who declared in a speech: The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. He was surprised to see the speech translated into Russian as: We have lots of vodka, but we’re rather short of meat” (so The Herald of Glasgow, among other newspapers).

This might be the moment for a digression of sorts, simply to note that an Irish newspaper (The Irish Times) lists “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” as number 5 in its “A History of Ireland in 100 Excuses.”

Back to vodka and meat: In another iteration of the story, the language is Danish: “ ‘The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak,’ expounded the [English diplomat]. There was a pause from the Danish translator, who finally came out with, ‘The vodka’s good but the meat’s gone off’ ” (as related by a purported witness to this event in The Daily Telegram of London). Weak-fleshed (though strong-spirited) that I be, I was unable to uncover the “original” of this story, if indeed one exists.

Alas, weakness of flesh is something to which all humans are prone, especially athletes of a certain age—or so the popular press wishes us to think. Thus, Australia’s Sunday Tasmanian: “If the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak—weak enough to give you tennis elbow, seized rotator cuffs and gammy knees—chances are you’re a Comeback Kid, one of those Australian blokes over 35 who suddenly wants to reprise his former sports career.”

Humans aren’t alone in these efforts, however. The athletic willing-but-weakness of pets takes us to a story, provocatively titled “Mole Mayhem and Machine Guns,” in Farmers Weekly. The author of this story, while recounting many of the recent goings-on at his home, ends with this recollection: “On the pet front, Bramble, our border terrier, appears to have taken up mole-hunting on our lawn, in the past few weeks. For a while I hoped Bramble could forge a new and lucrative career as a mole catcher. However, despite all her efforts, Bramble has caught a grand total of zero moles to date. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Or, to put it in other terms, Moles: 1,000,000, Bramble: 0.

From the outside of the home to the inside is this story, titled “Dirty Secrets Mar Domestic Perfection,” from Australia’s Courier Mail. As one cleaning expert put it, “ ‘We know what we should be doing, but sometimes the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.’ Some other dirty habits included stuffing clutter into carrier bags and hiding them behind the sofa, and using the vacuum cleaner to suck crumbs from the fridge instead of cleaning it.” Now, that’s something I never thought of before!



Based on Leonard J. Greenspoon, The Bible in the News, “Willing but Weak: Mind over Matter?Biblical Archaeology Review, September/October 2012.

Posted in New Testament.

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