Commentary on Mark 9:30-37
Jesus was now spending more time with his disciples and teaching them. He was teaching them things that the crowds were not yet ready to hear. As we will see, his disciples were not too ready either.
Today we have the second of three predictions of Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection which he communicates to his disciples. On each occasion, the pattern is exactly the same:
- a prediction of what is going to happen to Jesus
- total lack of comprehension of the meaning of what Jesus is saying on the part of the disciples
- a teaching of Jesus arising out of their lack of understanding.
The prediction is stated simply:
- Jesus will be “handed over into the hands of others”. This is the standard term used many times. John the Baptist is handed over; Jesus is handed over; the disciples later on will be handed over; and, in the Eucharist, the Body of Jesus is handed over for our sakes (“This is my Body, which will be handed over [tradetur] for you”).
- he will be put to death
- three days later he will rise again.
They arrive in Capernaum and, in the house, Jesus asks them a question. (Once again we have a reference to the ‘house’ with overtones of the church, the place where God’s people gather, as they do here to listen to the Word of God.) Jesus asks his disciples what seems an innocuous question: “What were you arguing about on the road?”
Here we have another important word of Mark’s: “road” (Greek, hodos, ‘odos). In the context of the Gospel it has theological overtones. Jesus is the Way or the Road and Christians are those who walk on this Way or Road. The disciples arguing then has implications about Christians arguing among themselves as they follow Christ ‘on the road’.
Jesus’ question is met with an embarrassed silence because they had been arguing among themselves which of them was the greatest. The minute the question was asked they knew they were in the wrong. Why were they arguing about this? I once heard it suggested that, as Jesus had now for the second time announced his coming death, they were beginning to accept the possibility of it really happening. They began to wonder what would happen to them as a group without Jesus. Who would be in charge? Which of them had the best qualifications? Hence their argument. If that was the case, then Jesus’ question was even more embarrassing. They could hardly say, “Well, we were wondering which one of us would take over when you are no longer with us.”
Jesus, of course, knew exactly what was going on in their minds so he gave them some guidelines if they wanted to be truly his followers. “If anyone wants to be first, he must make himself last of all and servant of all.” This is quite a hard saying and most of us find it difficult to put fully into practice. It is, of course, totally in opposition to what goes on in the secular world where “success” means being on top, being in charge, being in control, calling the shots.
Yet, who are really the greatest people in our society? Is it not those, especially those who are especially talented intellectually or in other ways, who use their talents totally for the well-being of others to the point of even sacrificing their lives?
Apart from the obvious example of Jesus himself, we have many of the great saints. In our own times we have marvellous people like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Oscar Romero, Jean Vanier, Mother Teresa. It is a long list but they all have one thing in common: they put themselves totally at the service of their brothers and sisters. Success, promotion, status, material wealth, executive power meant nothing to these people. They served and in serving was their power, a power which inspires in a way that no mere politician or business tycoon or dictator could ever do.
To serve is not to be submissive or weak; it is not putting oneself on a lower level than those being served. It is simply to be totally committed to the good of others and to find one’s own well-being in being so committed.
Jesus then takes a little child, as a symbol of all those who are vulnerable, weak and exploitable. Children are used by Jesus as symbols of the anawim, the lowly and weak in our society. They are the ones who are most of all to be served and protected and nurtured. In so doing one is recognising the presence of Jesus and the presence of God in them.
As Christians, we have much to be proud of in our record of service to our brothers and sisters, especially those who are weak and vulnerable. But we also have to confess that within our Church and in our dealings with the “world” we have had our fair share of hungering for power, status and position. And we have so often argued bitterly with each other “on the Road”, about just such things.