Commentary on Mark 9:30-37
Jesus keeps trying to escape notice.
In the Gospel text two weeks ago (Mark 7:24-37), he traveled to the region of Tyre and then to the Decapolis. In this week’s text, he is back in his home territory of Galilee, but “he did not want anyone to know it.” The reason he did not want anyone to know of his presence? He had some critical teaching to do with his disciples (Mark 9:30).
Some very important things have happened in the meantime. Jesus has begun teaching his disciples about what awaits him in Jerusalem and about the cost of following him (Mark 8:27-38). Jesus has been transfigured on a mountain before Peter, James, and John, appearing in dazzling white clothes conversing with Moses and Elijah (Mark 9:2-8). Jesus has told his disciples that Elijah has already come, “and they did to him whatever they pleased,” referring to the death of John the Baptist and clearly implying that he himself is the One for whom Elijah has prepared the way (Mark 9:9-13). He has cast a demon out of a boy that his disciples were not able to cast out (Mark 9:14-29).
Now, passing through Galilee, Jesus tries to escape notice while he continues teaching his disciples. And oh, do his disciples need teaching! The obtuseness of the disciples in Mark’s Gospel is downright comical at the same time that it is deadly serious. In spite of all that they have witnessed and heard from Jesus, they still do not seem to have a clue what his mission is about.
Jesus announces once again, in a briefer form than in Mark 8:31, what is to happen to him in the near future: “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again” (Mark 9:31). Yet the disciples still do not understand, and what is more, they are afraid to ask any questions (Mark 9:32). Perhaps they do not want to understand this confusing message about a Messiah who suffers and dies. Or perhaps they are afraid to reveal their ignorance. Maybe they remember the rebuke Peter received at Caesarea Philippi and want to avoid similar humiliation. In any case, their fear of asking any questions means that they stay in their state of ignorance and confusion.
Instead of asking questions of Jesus, the disciples turn to arguing with each other. When they arrive in Capernaum, Jesus asks what they were arguing about along the way. They are silent, too embarrassed to admit that they had been arguing with each other about who was the greatest among them. Jesus, of course, knows exactly what they have been discussing, and tries once again to teach them that the reign of God reverses the world’s ideas of “greatness.”
True greatness, Jesus says, is not to be above others, but to be least of all and servant of all. It is not to ascend the social ladder but rather descend it, taking the lowest place. It is not to seek the company of the powerful, but to welcome and care for those without status, such as the child that Jesus embraces and places before his disciples.
In any culture, children are vulnerable; they are dependent on others for their survival and well-being. In the ancient world, their vulnerability was magnified by the fact that they had no legal protection. A child had no status, no rights. A child certainly had nothing to offer anyone in terms of honor or status. But it is precisely these little ones with whom Jesus identifies. “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me” (Mark 9:37).
There are, of course, many possible trajectories for a preacher to take with this text. One might be to explore the questions that the disciples are afraid to ask. While we cannot know with any certainty what they would have asked, it seems likely, given what Jesus has just announced about his impending suffering and death, that they would have wanted to know why the Messiah must suffer and die. Not only was this idea completely foreign to Jewish messianic expectations, it was existentially threatening for those closest to Jesus.
Christian theology has attempted to provide explanations for the “why,” and certain of these explanations have been read back into the Gospel texts. But the fact is that Jesus does not explain the “why”. We can only deduce the “why” in reading the Gospel narrative.
In this narrative, Jesus arrives proclaiming that the reign of God has come near, calling for repentance, healing diseases and disabilities, and forgiving sins. Throughout his ministry, he associates with the last and the least in society — Gentile women (Mark 7:24-30), bleeding women (Mark 5:24-34), lepers (Mark 1:40-45), raging demoniacs (Mark 5:1-20), tax collectors and other notorious “sinners” (Mark 1:13-17). He even welcomes and makes time for little children, much to the disciples’ consternation (Mark 10:13-16).
For all of this, he is condemned as an outlaw and blasphemer by the religious authorities, who decide that he is too dangerous and must be eliminated. Here it is important to emphasize that Jesus does not die in order for God to be gracious and to forgive sins. Jesus dies because he declares the forgiveness of sins. Jesus dies because he associates with the impure and the worst of sinners. Jesus dies because the religious establishment cannot tolerate the radical grace of God that Jesus proclaims and lives.
The radical grace of God that Jesus proclaims and lives completely obliterates the world’s notions of greatness based on status, wealth, achievement, etc. Perhaps that is one reason we resist grace so much. It is much more appealing to be great on the world’s terms than on Jesus’ terms. Greatness on Jesus’ terms means being humble, lowly, and vulnerable as a child. Greatness on Jesus’ terms is risky; it can even get a person killed. But as Jesus teaches repeatedly, his way of greatness is also the path of life.