Mark 9.30-37 | Trinity 16 B

John Michael Gutierrez, PhD

The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Mark

30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. And he did not want anyone to know, 31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.” 32 But they did not understand the saying and were afraid to ask him. 33 And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” 34 But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. 35 And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but he who sent me.”

Mark 9:30-37

The Gospel of the Lord

For this morning’s message, please turn in your Bibles, tablets or to the Lessons handout at Mark 9.

From the first time Jesus revealed his approaching death at Ch. 8:31ff. and today’s lesson, Jesus has been very busy. He, the Twelve, other disciples and the crowds walking around Caesarea Philippi have been discussing the Kingdom of God. But Jesus breaks away with Peter, James and John for a “Jesus-guided Holy Land climbing expedition” up Mt. Meron (9.2-8). Elijah and Moses have apparently left their Holy Land tours joining everyone at the cloudy, but soon to light up, mountaintop. And the Divine Voice, not heard since Jesus’ baptism (1.11), once again speaks approvingly of Jesus (9.7). While Jesus and the Three were on their “guided expedition”, the remaining Nine were at the foot of Mt. Meron. As we heard last Sunday, they tried to remove a demon from a boy but failed (9:28-29). Ironically in the scene after today’s reading, some of them see a man successfully casting out demons in Jesus’ name. They squawk “We tried to stop him. He’s not following us” (9:38). Jesus seems exasperated “Unbelieving generation, how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you?”. It’s a lot of things: the pressing crowds, the suffering folk, the aggressive religious leaders. And it’s the Twelve. I’m voting to read our present story as one that takes place with an atmosphere of tension between Jesus and the Twelve. The issue: What it takes to be useful co-players in kingdom ministry.

In our Lesson, they re-enter central Galilee eventually coming to Peter and Andrew’s house in Capernaum (vs.33).  But note carefully Mark’s Jesus “not wishing that anyone might know” is another example of his wanting to operate “under the radar” (vss.30-31). I suppose most of us find Jesus’ attitude puzzling.  In our society we have difficulty understanding anyone who has no regard for self-promotion, advertising, or creating his/her own brand.  Wherever we turn, our ever-present media is promoting someone (or to be a bit more balanced, taking someone down). It seems, even religious celebrities try to get as much media publicity as possible. So it seems reasonable to think Jesus should be something like a first century evangelist using television, sports stadiums or YouTube to “save” people. So why doesn’t Jesus shout from the rooftops? Stay tuned.

Notice Mark isolates Jesus and the Twelve from everyone in the scene. For the second time he tells them about his mission beginning with his self-designation “Son of Man” (cf.8.31-32 cf. 10.32-45). For the second time Mark also brings into focus a theologically complex identification – Isaiah’s Suffering Servant. Jesus says he is about to be killed. This time, however, he says he will be “betrayed”, that is, handed over to human hands. Still, he reminds them “he is to be raised after his death”. His point – you must grasp the heaviness of what I’m facing. There are larger forces, deeper purposes at work in the Father’s plan” (vs.31, cf. Isa. 52.13-53.12). 

Let’s think a little more broadly for a moment. The prospect of a Messianic king being taken and killed just does not compute with most Jewish folk. Surely when YHWH’s Messiah comes, he will conquer his enemies and not be handed over to men who will kill him.  Even early Christian Gentile readers of Mark’s Gospel struggled with what sort of a King would ever let himself get painted into such a corner. Conventional Gentile wisdom knew only kings who conquered enemies, not ones who suffered and died. Such a self-demoting king could hardly be trustworthy. 

 And Mark writes “The Twelve did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him” (vs.32). For the inner circle Jesus’ suffering and betrayal was so beyond their understanding, they dare not reveal their perplexity. So why don’t the Twelve simply question Jesus? Mark will use this like a swinging door to set the reader up for the visual/verbal illustration in Andrew’s and Peter’s courtyard.  But let’s pause here and focus on the tension.  Perhaps they don’t want to disagree. Remember the first time Jesus disclosed this mission, who he is and the death awaiting him (8.31-32), Peter scolded him. Jesus responded by calling him “Satan”! “Ok”, Peter thinks, “not going to do that again”! But let’s move closer in. Is their distress so deep, they fear addressing it?  Don’t we often think the closer we are to Jesus the more we are supposed to know about God, about prayer, about the Bible, about religious stuff? So why ask questions? Let alone hard questions. May I suggest when we bottle up questions, we do so at our own peril. In our time, no one wants to look uninformed, confused, or clueless. We pretend we don’t have questions, not even hard questions. Yet the deepest mysteries of life do indeed elude us. Why do good people suffer?  How can suffering be instructive? Why did God set up a world like this at all? If God’s own Son is betrayed and killed, then no one is safe. Right? 

Well, I have a hunch that American religious culture tends to equate intelligence with knowing things. I understand that impression from being self-conscious given my own education. Now let’s reimagine intelligence measured not simply by what we know but also by how eager we are to learn. It seems to me it is at the edges of what we know where learning occurs. Which is why questions are so important.  Here’s my take on this. Questions are the mark of a curious and lively mind. Perhaps a more ominous reason religious folk may not want to ask questions is they may think it is a mark of unbelief, faithlessness. Somewhere, sometime, many good folk were taught questions are a sign of doubt. And we all know doubt poisons faith. Right? Toward correcting this unfortunate turn of events, allow me to point out two things. Again, it seems to me, questions are often, far more often, a mark of perceptive curiosity. And second, doubt is not the opposite, the absence, the death of faith. In fact, I am proposing faith grows best in the soil of doubts and challenges. Absent doubt, we may talk of knowledge, but given faith is, as it were, “belief in things not seen,” doubt would seem to be an essential part in a life of faith.  The benefit of questions raised by doubt should make us entertain more questions, even uncomfortable ones.

Well, back to our lesson. Mark opens the gate to the Capernaum house revealing what happened when the Twelve sidestepped questions they were afraid to ask. They began butting heads over pecking order amongst themselves “who will be the greatest” (vs. 34). As our scene unfolds we realize the disciples have a hierarchical misunderstanding of status. The ancient world had no middle class. Most of the wealth accumulated at the very top of the social structure. The rich and powerful flaunted their status and authority by exercising control over others. In the ancient world, Jesus’ humility, lowliness were not virtues but signs of weakness, lack of honor and status.

Mark seats Jesus with the Twelve to begin the lesson challenging cultural norms about status and honor. He says “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all, not only that, servant of all” (vs.35). Their dispute “who the greatest will be” is about to make the Twelve look inferior. The kingdom of God is a way of life lived out being a “servant of all”. Jesus insists kingdom status must be understood in a radically different way. Anyone who wants to be a kingdom co-player must not stop at “last of all” but push past to become “servant of all”.  There will be no making oneself look good at the expense of another. Sometimes all anybody needs is a human touch. This is a bold point you don’t want to miss. Jesus brings co-player usefulness out in the open by reaching out, wrapping his arms around a child and saying “Whoever takes into their hands one such child in my name takes me into their hands. Whoever takes me into their hands takes not only me into their hands but the One who sent me” (vss.35-36). In this visual/verbal act, Jesus skillfully illustrates kingdom mission and lifestyle – crosscutting theirs and our status conventions. 

Allow me to explain. Now words are like chameleons. They tend to take on the colors of the words in the sentences around them. Languages and their cultures tend to shade the colors of words that may at first glance seem straightforward. And when you put “plays-on-words” into the hands of a craftsman such as Jesus, then the Twelve’s misunderstanding about participation in ministry is sharp, indeed. The phrase “one such child” in vs.37 is a “play-on-words” with “servant of all” in vs.35. This requires explanations to help us as modern readers get a clearer sense of Jesus’ verbal/visual lesson. Firstly, without question, children were loved. But the ancient world was not child oriented. It was adult oriented. Children had no status/rank. No one expected to gain anything socially from a child. Estimated at about 30%, both infants and small children were likely to contract an illness and die before age six. Here’s the everyday factor – children participated in labor from a very early age. It was a matter of family survival. Not yet fully productive, such as an adult, they were something of a liability.  Children were the first to suffer from famine, war or disease. Bottom line, they were an uncertain mouth to feed. Broadly, the child who was a member of the “family household” did have a status/rank which a slave, in most cases, was unable to attain.  He/she represented the future.  It was conventionally hoped, children would eventually produce the next generation. And certainly, if they were male, and if they lived, they would eventually have status and carry on the family inheritance. But all things considered, children were the weakest, most insecure members of society.  

Secondly in Mark’s Gospel Jesus’ “one such child” is not one of the commonly used words for children but a rather provocative one. This “held in his arms” child is a young servant. Allow me to tweak the status tension in the scene a little more. The phrase indicates a young slave. Slaves have low status. Slaves take direction to serve others from a household authority. So please notice the bite in Jesus’ words. He chooses a provocative description for co-player usefulness and drives it home – slave – subjected, largely invisible, taking direction from an authority. You get the stinger. To be a useful co-player in kingdom ministry you must tumble down the rankings. This is Jesus turning conventions and expectations upside down. In the Twelve’s self-serving view, they wanted to be “greatest”. It turns out a useful co-player is to be focused on something unconventional, that is, being a slave, subject to others. Someone who does not get to be “greatest” at the expense of others. So there’s a jab directed at the Twelve’s jockeying for position over status and authority.  “Servant of all”, “one such child” is the lowest order on the social scale – always under authority and direction by others. In the kingdom, being a “servant of all” requires choice, faithful submission and obedient actions. Saying that the way to gain “usefulness” is to identify with those who are lowly goes against the logic of that ancient society and ours, if you will allow me to say that. 

According to Jesus, then, the Kingdom evaluates co-player usefulness differently than society–at-large. So in this scene vs. 37 becomes an ironic invitation. “Whoever takes into their hands one such child in my name takes me into their hands. Whoever takes me into their hands takes not only me into their hands but the One who sent me”.  Choosing to take on the role of “one such child” or “servant of all” will give a person access to authority beyond their wildest expectations. In other words, the one taking up a “servant of all” role, representing the messiah, will be delegated the Father’s authority, status and honor. Without question it’s a new community with a scale of values differing from conventional society. 

So why doesn’t Jesus shout out from the rooftops?  Well, kingdom ministry is not about exploiting passions, brewing status and bottling up fame. Smack dab in the middle of Jesus’ statement about the heaviness, the fast-approaching horror of his death, our lesson revealed what was on the Twelve’s mind “being the greatest”. But Kingdom ministry involves letting go of prestige, branding and authority. Choosing to be a co-player means choosing to be a servant, that is, someone with delegated authority and lowly status. Our Gospel lesson is a glimpse into what turns out to be an oxymoron: servant leadership. Jesus, the visible representation of Isaiah’s suffering servant, is at the center of this topsy-turvy world (Isa. 52.13-53.12). Jesus’ embrace of the Servant’s lowliness, humility and fate models the deepest mysteries of status, honor and authority. There must be suffering before significance, brokenness before usefulness, humility before authority and the bitter cup of pain before promotion. May I suggest, then, the Servant still walks among us calling into question our perceptions of “co-player usefulness” with his submissive suffering pushing against our attempts at being the “greatest”. 

Now may the Lord richly bless my Beloved.

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