Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

First, I assume you will read the excellent commentary on this passage from 2009.
Please do.

September 23, 2012

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Commentary on Mark 9:30-37

First, I assume you will read the excellent commentary on this passage from 2009.
Please do.

First, I assume you will read the excellent commentary on this passage from 2009.
Please do.

First, I assume you will read the excellent commentary on this passage from 2009.
Please do.

Context in Mark

Mark 9:30-37 occurs within the second major section of Mark (8:22-10:52), which contains a threefold pattern that appears three times. Jesus predicts his passion and resurrection (8:31, 9:31, 10:33-34), the disciples don’t understand (8:32-33; 9:32; 10:35-41), and Jesus then gives the disciples further teachings (8:34-9:1; 9:33-50; 10:42-45).

In the narrative arc of Mark’s gospel, 9:30-37 furthers the revelation of Jesus’ identity, using the title “Son of Man” (Daniel 7:13) There can be no doubt by now in Mark’s gospel that Jesus is no ordinary rabbi. Yet still the disciples are confused.

Here it will help to remember that this entire section in Mark’s gospel is framed at the beginning and end by accounts of blind people who are given sight (8:22-26, 10:46-52). This stark image of going from blindness to sight is a big literary clue. As the blind man is given sight, however gradually, so the disciples, who are blind to Jesus’ mission and identity, are given sight, albeit gradually.

Knowing and not knowing, understanding and not understanding are woven throughout chapters 8 and 9 of Mark: from Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?”  (8:27) to the transfiguration (9:1-13) to Jesus explaining yet again what lies ahead for the Son of Man (9:31).

Focus on 9:32

Verses 30-37 are chock-full of sermons: Jesus revealing he will suffer, die and rise; disciples’ embarrassment at being caught in a power struggle; a child as the model for discipleship. I will focus on verse 32, the disciples’ lack of understanding, and unwillingness to ask Jesus questions.

This is not a new role for disciples. Throughout Mark, they are the knuckleheads who just don’t get it. The pattern is set early and often. Even in the face of the miracle feeding of the five thousand the disciples don’t get it (6:52). Jesus rebukes their lack of understanding several times (7:18, 8:16-21), and perhaps most poignantly, in 8:33 to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan, for you think human thoughts, not the thoughts of God” which could be read as “Boy, you really don’t get it!” Even though they make up Jesus’ most private inner circle, the disciples seem to be the last to know that Jesus is Messiah, even denying this knowledge at the end (14:66-71).

By the time we get to verse 32, Jesus has just imparted a crucial teaching, telling them who he is, and not for the first time. The prospect of the Messiah being taken and killed just does not compute. When God comes in glory, it is surely to conquer his enemies, not to “be handed over into the hands of men, and they will kill him” (31). So, “they did not understand what he was saying and they were afraid to ask him” (verse 32).

It’s not just that they don’t understand some piece of information. It’s that they don’t understand this specific teaching, at the very heart of the Incarnation. How is it possible for the Son of God to suffer and die? And why should it happen?

The question that the disciples are afraid to ask is the question that propels so many early Christian attempts to construct an intelligible, if misguided, Christology. Maybe Jesus didn’t really suffer and die (Docetism) or maybe only the human part of Jesus suffered but the divine part was untouched (Gnosticism). Early Christians struggle with what sort of deity lets her/himself get into a corner like that? They needed an almighty God who conquers enemies, not one who suffers and dies. Underneath verses 31-32 are the basic questions of who Jesus is, and of the nature of God. Such a self-demoting God could hardly be trustworthy.  

Ask Hard Questions

So why don’t the disciples simply ask Jesus to explain? Probably because they don’t want to appear as confused as they are. Or, their distress at his teaching is so deep they fear addressing it. Besides, the closer we are to Jesus, the more we are supposed to know (about God, about prayer, about the Bible, about religious stuff), right?

In our own time, no one wants to look uninformed, confused, or clueless. We withhold our toughest questions, often within our own churches and within Christian fellowship. We pretend we don’t have hard questions. Yet the deepest mysteries of life do indeed elude us. Why do good people suffer? Why are humans so brutal to one another? Why does evil succeed? If God’s own Son is betrayed and killed, then no one is safe. Why did God set up a world like this?

Why ask our hard questions? Because we withhold these questions at our own peril.

Verse 34 reveals what happens to the disciples when they sidestep the real questions they are afraid to ask — they turn to arguing with each other, squabbling among themselves over petty issues of rank and status (verse 34). There is a direct line drawn from verse 32 to verse 34. When the disciples avoid asking hard questions, they focus on posturing about who is right.

We know this too well in the church. How would this story be different if the disciples had asked Jesus their questions? What kind of conversation might have ensued between Jesus and the disciples? What kind of relationship would it have engendered with each other?

How would our stories be different if we ask Jesus our questions? What kind of conversations might we pursue with Jesus? How would our life as disciples together be different as a result?

Interactive Strategy for your context

Stop and invite the congregation to brainstorm out loud a list of questions they think disciples might have wanted to ask Jesus at that point.

You know the forms these hard questions take for your congregation. As part of sermon preparation you can survey folks through a social media platform. Ask, “What questions are you afraid to ask God?” or “What questions do you wish you could ask at church?” and see what range of responses you get. These may be useful as you frame this part of the sermon.

The good news is that Jesus welcomes us even when we do not understand or do not know. This pericope closes with Jesus embracing a child, the ultimate symbol of not knowing, not understanding, immature and undeveloped. We need not fear our questions, our misunderstandings, our confusion or our curiosity in the presence of One whose “perfect love casts out all fear” (1 John 4:18).