Commentary on Mark 9:30-37
Jesus goes through Galilee but he does not want anyone to know (Mark 9:30).
The reason Mark gives is that he is teaching his disciples. As he is traveling, he predicts his passion and resurrection for the second time (9:31). The language here is a bit different from Mark 8:31. Jesus’ rejection is absent. Instead, he speaks of betrayal: “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands.” Mark has previously named Judas as the one who betrays Jesus (3:19). However, Jesus does not specify into whose hands he will be betrayed. Given the rejection by the scribes, chief priests, and elders that Jesus prophesies in 8:31, it seems these will be the hands into which he will fall. Yet his fate will not rest solely in their hands. After three days, Jesus will rise again.
Although the NRSV translates the verb anistemi (to rise) in the active voice (it is future middle in the Greek), C.S. Mann notes that neither a Jew nor Jewish Christian would “regard the ‘raising’ as being self-induced.”1 The assumption is that God will raise Jesus from the dead. Here Mark juxtaposes human and divine action. Once human hands have done all they possibly can to Jesus, God will vindicate him through resurrection. The rejection, the betrayal, the execution, the religious leaders, and whatever else “human hands” do, they will not have the final word. The certainty of his passion is the same certainty behind his prediction of his resurrection. But, this certainty is not held by his disciples.
Unlike the first passion prediction, the second is met with silence. No one rebukes Jesus; no one questions him. However, their silence should not be mistaken for comprehension or concession. Mark is clear: they do not understand and they are afraid (Mark 9:32). Consequently, the disciples avoid the conversation with Jesus about his passion and resurrection. Perhaps they did not want what Jesus was saying to be true. Perhaps they do not want the abolition of society as they know it; they just want a better position in it. They want to be benefactors not the backs upon which others benefit. So, they begin to talk about “greatness.”
In a hierarchical society in which many are relegated to the bottom and few have access to the top, a desire for “greatness” is understandable. In many ways, “greatness” equals survival. “Greatness” equals having enough, or as is often the case, having more than enough. “Greatness” equals protection. “Greatness” means your life matters and you cannot so easily be removed.
In ancient Mediterranean society, “greatness” could be attained through the acquisition of honor. Honor rested upon the three pillars. The first value was wealth and wealth was usually connected to the acquisition of land. The final two, purity and humility, were maintenance values that preserved social boundaries. Purity demarcated the line between clean and unclean. It is important to note that the ability live by the purity codes required a certain level of economic means and a livelihood that enabled persons to remain “clean.” Humility insured that everyone knew and stayed in his/her place. These were values that people in Mark’s Gospel who occupied the governing class (the High Priest, chief priests, elders, Pilate, and Herod) and the retainer class (scribes, Pharisees, Herodians) could attain. Many who followed Jesus could not.2 Consequently, Mark narrates two feeding stories in which the crowd was solely dependent on Jesus for their next meal (Mark 6:30-44; 8:1-10).
The disciples, on the other hand, do not question the system. They do not deconstruct the values that keep over 90% of the population as peasants. Instead they argue about who might best participate in the system and rise above the rest. Their conversation is the antithesis of what Jesus has been trying to teach them. Yet, the subject of their conversation is not surprising given that oppressed people often aspire to societal rewards from which they have been excluded. However, by adopting the same standards of access to “greatness” (or whatever social and material rewards a society can bestow) without changing the standards or opportunities for access means that many will be consigned to the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder from which they escaped.
Therefore, Jesus calls the twelve to him. He seeks to correct their clandestine conversation, which revealed both their fears and their misunderstanding. In one sentence, Jesus completely reverses their concept of greatness: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35). “Great” is no longer primary and above. On the contrary, “great” is least and lowest. Mark gives us glimpses into Jesus’ definition of greatness by showing examples of service. Interestingly enough, the only characters in Mark’s Gospel who are characterized by service (diakoneo) are women (1:31; 15:41), angels (1:13), and Jesus (10:45).
Next, Jesus places a child before them (Mark 9:36). He puts before them a startling example of the least in their society. Children have the least social status. The child is devoid of any legal rights and has no societal protection or maintenance except that which the parent can provide. The child cannot offer patronage or other critical social benefits. Ultimately, children are dependent on the goodwill of others. S/he is completely vulnerable. To welcome such a one in Jesus’ name not only welcomes Jesus, but the one who sent him (9:37). To welcome one such as this is honorable. This is “greatness” according to Jesus.
I believe this discipleship lesson encourages us to ask ourselves a few questions: How do we measure “greatness,” especially within the Christian community? Have we, like the disciples, adopted our society’s standards? Who should “greatness” benefit? The individual that achieved it? Others? Everyone? I believe we need to wrestle with these questions because when “greatness” comes at the expense of other people, it breaks the spirits of those on top as it breaks the backs upon which it is built.
1 C. S. Mann, Mark: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (New York: The Anchor Bible Double Day, 1986), 343.
2 Raquel A. St. Clair, Call and Consequences: A Womanist Reading of Mark (Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 2002), 102-6.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
Holy God, on this Ash Wednesday we reflect upon our sin, our failings, and the harms we have caused. Remind us that, although we are dust, we are also your children, and your love never fails. Amen.
Create in me a clean heart, O God Various
Abide with me ELW 629, H82 662, UMH 700, NCH 99
Christ upon the mountain peak, William Beckstrand