Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Discipleship in Mark is hard to accept

Toddler reaching hand into puddle
Photo by Andre Taissin on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

September 19, 2021

View Bible Text

Commentary on Mark 9:30-37

Last week’s Gospel lection, Mark 8:27-38, jabbed three sharp barbs:

  1. Jesus’ prediction of his suffering, murder, and resurrection (8:31)
  2. Peter’s repudiation of Jesus’ destiny (8:32)
  3. Jesus’ rebuttal of Peter and command that his followers take up their crosses (8:33-38).

This week the same pattern recurs:

  1. Jesus’ prediction of his betrayal, murder, and resurrection (9:31)
  2. The disciples’ incomprehension of their teacher’s teaching (9:32-34)
  3. Jesus’ correction of the Twelve with a surprising definition of discipleship (9:35-37).

In case Mark’s audience has failed as miserably as the Twelve to get the point, the same scheme unfolds in Chapter 10: prediction (verses 33-34), misunderstanding (verses 35-39a), readjustment (verses 39b-45).

Why this repetition? Two reasons. First: Discipleship in Mark is hard to accept. Second: In this Gospel Jesus’ closest followers are so dense that light bends around them. Both themes pervade Mark 9:30-37. This lection offers the preacher three options: dwell on one of these twinned subjects, or, as the Evangelist has done, creatively interlace them for your listeners.

Dopey disciples

“But they did not understand [Jesus’] saying [in 9:31], and they were afraid to ask him” (9:32). What’s not to understand? Jesus has already said much the same in 8:33-38. But the Twelve in Mark’s Gospel never understand Jesus (4:13; 6:52; 8:17, 21). In fact, the last words uttered by Peter, last of the twelve hangers-on, is, “I neither know nor understand what you mean” (14:66). This claim, asserted outside the house where Jesus is betrayed by his countrymen, is a chicken-hearted lie that captures the ironic truth. As for the disciples’ fear to ask (9:32), that too is true to form: throughout Mark they are scared spitless (4:40-41; 6:50; 9:6; 10:32; 16:8). Those with faith in Jesus have nothing to fear (4:40-41; 5:33-34, 36), but not once does Mark ever attribute faith to the Twelve (compare the usually nameless nobodies in 2:5; 5:34; 9:24; 10:52).

Immediately after Jesus has reminded them of his impending humiliation, his followers are shamed to silence: they’ve been quarreling over which of them is tops in their own pecking order (9:33-34). Given antiquity’s preoccupation with social status—not so very distant from our own—that debate is predictable. But in Mark’s context, it’s nonsensical, since Jesus is superior to them all. Disregarding the General, these foot soldiers bicker over their respective ranks. The picture is clear: those with the greatest benefit of Jesus’ instruction set for themselves low standards and consistently fail to achieve them.

The child embraced

Jesus’ teaching in 9:35-37 is as complex as it concise: an aphorism (verse 35b), followed by a pronouncement story in which the summons of a child (verse 36) sets up two punch lines, the second (verse 37b) an extension of the first (verse 37a). The hinge holding everything together is paidion, “little child” (verses 36, 37a), which in Greek has the double meaning of “immediate offspring” and “slave.” It is analogous to a “servant” (diakonos, verse 35b): an assistant who mediates for a superior. Jesus’ rejoinder to bickering over rank is a paradoxical assertion that parallels 8:35 (from last week’s lection) by turning social assumptions inside out: just as the saving of one’s life requires its sacrifice for the gospel’s sake, so too does primacy in discipleship demand taking a place last of all, as everyone’s servant (9:35). Matthew 20:16 and 23:11-12 drive home the same idea. (So did the rabbis, though their self-subjugation was to Torah: thus, the tractate Bava Netsia, 85b, in the Babylonian Talmud.)

Beware of sentimentalizing 9:36. A child epitomizes the most subservient human in ancient society, one with slightest status. In Jesus’ presence a little child literally has “standing” (estēsen, Mark 9:36a: obscured in the NRSV but clear in the NIV). Jesus’ embrace (verse 36b) recalls his compassion for another child’s father (9:14-29) and Jesus’ own standing, at the mount of transfiguration, as God’s beloved Son (9:7). Jesus’ embrace also captures a peculiar nuance in the doubled saying in 9:37, which reiterates the importance of dechomai: “receiving”/“welcoming”/ “approving one such child in my name” and, indeed, Jesus himself.

Like self-sacrifice for the gospel’s sake in 8:34-35, these qualifications for acceptance in 9:37 are important, steering interpretation away from sentimentality: the “last of all and servant of all” (verse 35) is received “in my name” as a disciple of Jesus who evinces the teacher’s own belittlement by betrayal (9:31). Welcoming such an ambassador of Jesus is tantamount to receiving Jesus, who himself is a mediating emissary of the one who has sent him (9:37; see also Matthew 10:40; Luke 10:16; John 12:44-45; 13:20).

Children will return in Mark as exemplary of discipleship (10:13-16), but the stress in 9:33-37 is different. Here Mark concentrates our attention, not on the child’s receptivity (compare 10:15), but on the necessity of a disciple’s welcoming other children in Jesus’ name. That’s the positive counterpoint of both Jesus’ rejection, emphasized in 9:31, and the Twelve’s aspersions cast on one another. In other words, the top-to-bottom reversal of rank in 9:35 realigns how listeners should receive those whom they have mistakenly regarded as beneath them (9:34, 36-37): a detail reiterated in 9:38-41 and developed in next Sunday’s Gospel lection.

This Sunday, whichever approach is taken with this lection, our work is cut out for us. Shall we consider with fellow followers our own stupid rejection of Jesus’ demonstrations of discipleship? Shall we reexamine the bogus bases of prestige that we or our communities confer on us? Neither prospect is appealing, but neither is surgery nor radiation nor chemotherapy when treating cancer. “The healthy have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came to call, not the virtuous, but sinners” (2:17, my translation). If we can look without flinching at the X-ray scripture affords, we’ll find the doctor ready to stand us before him, before taking us in his arms.