Today’s gospel reading from the 9th chapter of Mark has three parts to it: Jesus delivers troubling news about his death, which his disciples fail to understand; those same disciples quarrel and jostle for position; and Jesus brings a child into their midst, to illustrate just how different his new conception of power is from their tired old views.
Let’s look at these three portions, with an intention to experience the wisdom of Jesus in his day and in our day.
30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “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.” 32 But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
So what was it that the disciples – the ones who were with Jesus 24/7, who had seen all his actions and heard all his words – did not understand and were too shy or embarrassed to ask about? If I attempt to put myself into their place, it’s not hard to imagine why the disciples would be too shocked to pick up what Jesus is putting down. He’s talking, somewhat indirectly in “Son of Man” language, about being killed and then rising. Very few people are comfortable when a friend starts talking about their death, and it would be mortifying to hear this person who is making such inroads into the hearts and behaviours of people predicting, not just his death, but his betrayal and execution. Who would do the betraying? Would this circle of close followers also be threatened? And what about this rising? Even though it must have been clear to the disciples that the agenda proposed by Jesus was gathering enemies against him, to have him speak so openly about his death may well have left them speechless.
But there was something else going on, as spotlighted by the second section:
33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.
Each time I read this passage, I picture chastened schoolchildren who had been caught doing something naughty, or someone watching a Not Suitable For Work video on company time being asked by their boss how things are going. Jesus had just shared with them the hardest news he could possibly have shared, and their response was to make it all about them. Now, this isn’t James and John the sons of Zebedee, arguing about which of them would sit at Jesus’ left and which would sit at his right in the realm to come – that debacle comes one chapter later in Mark’s gospel – but it’s clear that at some level the disciples actually DID understand that Jesus was going to die and rise and that this was going to change their power dynamic. Were they wondering which of them would be taking Jesus’ mantle of leadership? Were they anticipating a post-resurrection new realm that, just like the way things are now, would have a hierarchy of leadership and they needed to figure out that pecking order right now? One way or another, their response to Jesus’ big talk about dying and rising was not to focus on the main points of his agenda of love, but to quarrel about which of them would be 1st and 2nd and 3rd and 12th in the new power structure. If this, truly, was their response to what Jesus had said, the disciples would have good reason to be embarrassed.
As is so often the style of Jesus, his response to this misstep is not to admonish them, but a visual illustration so powerful you could call it a living parable:
35 He [Jesus] sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Jesus brings the theoretical discussion about his sufferings and death and resurrection down to a very human level. Unlike the argument the disciples were having about which of them would have the greatest prestige (and perhaps the highest income?) in the new realm, Jesus dismantles their assumed power structure by saying that his new way is about vulnerability, servanthood, welcome – not the acquisition of power and position, and the assertion of dominance.
His use of a child to illustrate this point has evoked some debate amongst scholars: does he bring a child into their midst because children were universally beloved in that time and place? Or was a child the symbol of the opposite of that – one who did not yet have any rights or agency, a slave-ready commodity to be bought and sold? Does the child symbolize the innocence and openness they are called to have as followers of Jesus? Or, thinking back to the story of Sarah and Abraham, did this child symbolize the glorious future promised so long ago, and the disciples are being challenged to return to that vision of being a people of great number, unfettered by petty arguments about individual power? There are many possibilities here but one way or another, this object lesson presented by Jesus inverts the power structure that the disciples were squabbling about. The power of the new way, the power of the kin-dom of God, is rooted not in rank and privilege, but in addressing the needs of the vulnerable with God’s own life-changing, love-based, society-upsetting presence.
Ponder, for a moment, this sequence of thought that Mark places before us:
- Jesus says something upsetting
- The disciples turn it into a dispute about power and privilege
- Jesus challenges them to see a new way and a bigger picture.
That sequence is, to me, both so present and so helpful in our present times, for we are hearing upsetting things all the time. We are told something that we don’t want to hear, and there is immediate blowback, sometimes by “those people” whose actions are ruining everything, but at other times it’s my own heart and even my own words and my own actions that are recoiling. We hear about climate change, we read about COVID, we see protests by Black Lives Matter, we feel the heartbreak of Residential School discoveries, and in every case, someone – maybe even me – will feel threatened by it and will find a way to minimize it, or will present a false analogy, or will label the opponent as “woke” and thereby worthy of dismissal, or will find someone whose experience was different, or will deflect the overall thrust of the argument by raising issues about some minor aspect of it, or will bemoan the unfairness and the upset that would be caused by changing the status quo. Sometimes the rebuttal is legitimate – I hunch that mixed in with their self-interest the disciples will have had legitimate worries or questions to raise with Jesus – but so often, when necessary social change is spoken, self-interest speaks loud and clear, especially when privilege is threatened… and sometimes, I am ashamed to admit, the voice is mine.
And what I need to remember next, is what Jesus did when presented with these worried, self-centred responses. He didn’t start shouting, he didn’t demean, he didn’t just double-down and make the same exact argument again. He called the disciples together – gathering them in, in a way that I so want to be able to gather us together – and made a child the focus of attention. And however they understood what Jesus had just done, they would have seen in his words and actions the replacing of an old-fashioned top-down, power-laden conception of things, with a bottom-up, love-infused portrait of the way things can be now and will be in future, if we give ourselves completely to the new way of Jesus: the way of love; the way of justice and equity; the way of invitation and welcome; the way that draws us to the eternal heart of God.
In these days of divisiveness, in these days when a prolonged period of alarm is having its way, we are presented with this image that embodies both vulnerability and hope, and are assured of God’s total commitment to this new way. We are invited to break the cycle of self-interest and give ourselves to this new path of radically inclusive love. And we are invited at a deep soul level, to realize that this is not just somebody else’s good news; the arms of Jesus are open wide to those places where we are legitimately wounded, hurt, broken, for the hard stuff of your life and my life is not outside the loving concern of the Divine.
Jesus introduces us to a way of welcome, beginning with the tangible welcome of one child. Friends, hear Christ’s assurance of good news again and again and again, even as you read the morning headlines, even as you see the ridiculousness of self-interest, and especially as you make your decision on election day. Stay open to the message of equity and justice and, yes, resurrection above the death-dealing patterns of oppression and domination. May this be so, in the name of the God of all creation, whom we know as loving Parent and beloved Child and love-bearing Spirit, Amen.
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© 2021 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church.