Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

This is the third week of our “What if?” approach to texts from Mark.

September 20, 2009

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Commentary on Mark 9:30-37

This is the third week of our “What if?” approach to texts from Mark.

We’ve approached the encounter between the Syro-Phoenician woman and Jesus (7:24-37) and Peter’s encounter with him (8:27-38) through the lens of “What if” questions.

Between Peter’s confession in 8:29 and today’s text from 9:30-37, Jesus has been busy. He has been transfigured on a mountain before Peter, James and John (9:2-8), and he has healed a boy with a spirit when his disciples were unable to (9:14-29).

In today’s lesson (9:30-37), Jesus foretells his resurrection, chastises his disciples for arguing about who was the greatest among them, and points to a child as a model for discipleship.

Every text is a sandwich, with something before it and something after it. This text is the filling between two exorcisms. In the text before this, the disciples tried to exorcise a demon from a boy but failed, apparently because they didn’t pray (9:28-29). Jesus chastises them in harsh terms “How much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you?” (9:19). In the text that follows this, the disciples come to Jesus complaining that they had seen a man casting out demons in Jesus’ name. They whine to Jesus “We tried to stop him because he was not following us” (9:38). We didn’t give him permission; he didn’t have the right credentials, so how could he be a channel of healing?

Two “What if?” questions come to my mind when I look at this text in the context of what comes directly before it.
1. What if the disciples had prayed before they tried to exorcize the spirit from the boy (8:14-29)?
2. What if they had not been afraid to ask Jesus when they did not understand his prediction of his suffering and death? (9:32)

1. What if the disciples had prayed before they tried to exorcize the spirit from the boy? 
Would they have been able to be channels of divine healing and experience peace and joy? Would their spiritual understanding have increased? I don’t know. I only know what the text reveals: that their failure to pray is followed by their failure to understand Jesus’ prediction of his suffering and death (9:30-32). This, after Jesus’ promise that “to you has been given the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven” (Mark 4:11). Failure to pray is followed by failure to understand something Jesus has promised them they have access to. “They did not understand what he was saying and they were afraid to ask him” (9:32).

2. What if they had not been afraid to ask him?
I suspect they were afraid to ask him because their priority was how they would look to each other if they did not understand. I became afraid to ask questions in algebra II, geometry, and trigonometry in high school. I lacked aptitude. I tried, but it did not come easily, or really, at all. I remember the feeling of just not understanding something, of feeling like everyone was getting it but me. I felt stupid and frustrated.

There was a ray of hope on the first day of geometry class in the ninth grade. We had a new, young teacher who waxed eloquent about the “beauty of mathematics.” I felt momentarily enthused and energized, but after about my second question, she got an annoyed look on her face. I stopped asking and just muddled through with an anxious mind, memorizing formulas rather than understanding their derivations, grateful for the C at the end of the year. Why did I become afraid to ask? Because I didn’t want to look stupid in front of the teacher and my classmates. I didn’t want to risk public chastisement. Apparently, my fear of how I would look in others’ eyes was stronger than my desire to understand the mysteries of mathematics.

What if the disciples hadn’t been afraid to ask? Sometimes I think the Jesus of the Gospel of Mark is a little tough on the disciples. They are probably, like us, doing the best they can. He’s tough, but is he really the kind of teacher who would meet a sincere desire for understanding with annoyance and dismissal? Do we really need to be afraid to ask Jesus to help us follow him, understand to the limits of our human wisdom, and trust where it leaves off?

Throughout Mark’s Gospel, the disciples remain at about the same level of understanding, or lack thereof. It was partly because they were afraid to ask. But I think it was partly because their burning question was not, “How can I better understand and live out Jesus’ identity and mission?”, but rather, “How can I be the greatest?”

What if lack of prayer led to lack of understanding and fear of asking for help? We may not understand the mystery of prayer, what it does and how it does it, but we all know what happens when we don’t pray. We all know that not praying leads to a cycle of scattered thoughts, bad decisions and actions we later regret. This seems to be what happened to the disciples in this text.  In the text from 8:27-38, we saw how Peter’s rebuke instigated Jesus’ teaching about the way of the cross. Here again, the disciples’ mistaken priorities call forth a clear teaching from Jesus. This time it is about who is greatest.

In looking at the text, it seems to me that the disciples’ argument has four roots:

  • fear that they have fallen in Jesus’estimation (9:19)
  • insecurity at their failure to heal the boy (9:29)
  • resentment toward one another as Jesus chastises them
  • eagerness to compete to regain his approval

If I were preaching on this text, I’d remember the disciples negative responses because the first letter of each one spells out f-i-r-e. The disciples could not put aside these heated thoughts so that they could understand what Jesus was trying to tell them.

Their focus on their reputations, a priority each of them held inside, comes to the surface in an argument over who was the greatest that would make them all look small (9:33-37). It turns out that to be great is not to impress crowds with displays of healing, or to try to become the teacher’s pet of a Teacher who refuses to play favorites.

I’ve heard sermons on this text that make the point we have to become children to be great. They conclude by encouraging us to focus on our inward lives, on becoming more pure, more innocent, more humble, more spontaneous, more trusting.

It turns out that to be great is to be focused on something quite other than oneself. It turns out that greatness lies in welcoming one who is not viewed as great by the culture, the child, the one who is beyond the circle, who needs a welcome.

So here is the final “What if?” question. What if we actually did that?