If parts of this week’s gospel lesson sound a little like déjà vu from last week’s lesson, you aren’t mistaken. Last week’s passage, Jesus jabbed his disciples with three sharp barbs: his prediction of suffering, death and resurrection, followed by Peter’s misunderstanding and repudiation of Jesus’ destiny, and his rebuttal to Peter with the command for his followers to take up their crosses. In today’s reading, the same pattern occurs: the prediction of suffering and death, the incomprehension of the disciples, and Jesus’ correction with a surprising definition of discipleship. And this duplication is no error on the part of Mark or the subsequent scribes copying the material.
A good teacher knows repetition is the key to understanding; but not just saying the same words over and over; but rather restating the message in different words and with different examples in order to find a way to make the lesson stick in the learner’s mind. And we know Jesus was the ultimate teacher.
So why did Jesus choose to reiterate this particular teaching? Two reasons. First, discipleship, as presented in Mark’s gospel is hard to accept. In his writing, Mark wastes no time getting down to business, with not a digression in sight. It’s as if he’s in a hurry to lay down the basics, before he forgets or before he is interrupted from this task. Mark states clearly and concisely, not once, but ultimately, three times, what Jesus told his disciples about his future and the implications for following him. That Mark, in his brevity, chose to recall and include all three episodes of this particular teaching, leads one to realize that this was a critical teaching that he wanted Jesus' disciples, then as well as now, to understand.
As we look at the larger context of the chapter, we find them continuing on the road toward Jerusalem. The disciples have listened to his teachings; they have witnessed his miracles. They have already seen how Jesus has been the target of the Pharisees’ trickery and cunning, but they have also heard and seen how Jesus has out-maneuvered them verbally. But wait! Now, suddenly, he’s talking about suffering and death? That’s not what they want to hear. They want to follow a leader who is successful and popular; the acclaimed teacher and miracle worker who outsmarts the opposition. This new teaching is not what discipleship has been about so far, and that’s not how they expect it to be. This is a hard saying, and hard to accept.
Imagine, if you would, if someone asked me about church membership. Suppose I said to that person “Sure, please join us. But a few conditions apply. First, be prepared to give up your good reputation in the community. You may have to give up your livelihood and all that is nearest and dearest to you. Our members regularly experience verbal and physical persecutions, and all sorts of humiliations from the folks in the neighborhood. Plan on physical and emotional suffering, and we’ll see to it that harassments come your way. And, oh, yes, can you fill out this pledge to die if the church asks you?” Anyone here want to sign up for that? In our modern day, this sounds more like a cult than a church, and while there might be a few who would choose to be a member, I rather doubt most folks here would have jumped at the chance if presented that way. I personally rather doubt I would be eager to join anything with those prerequisites. And maybe that’s why the disciples didn’t want to hear what Jesus had to say.
Second, in this Gospel, Jesus’ closest followers appear so dense that light bends around them, as one commentator remarks. They still do not understand, and what is more, they are afraid to ask any questions. Perhaps it’s because 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.
So, instead of asking questions of Jesus, the disciples change the subject, and 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”, just as the Son of God reverses their society’s ideas of messiah. Yet, given antiquity’s preoccupation with social status – not so very distant from our own – the debate is predictable, and in Mark’s gospel, nonsensical.
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 now 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, however, their vulnerability was magnified by the fact that they had no legal protection. A child had no status, no rights, no value except for their potential as they grow. 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”.
In hindsight, I think we have come to sentimentalize this verse, with the image of a little child on Jesus’ knee. But the definition of greatness? One might consider this a little crazy because it is, at its heart, utterly counter-cultural. It’s as if Jesus calls us, even in the here and now, to imagine that true greatness lies in service by taking care of those who are most vulnerable – those with little influence or power, those the culture is most likely to ignore.
This offers us a vision for our congregational life, but what if we apply it more personally? Are we measuring our success, our greatness, not by what we take in, but by what we give away; not by the influence we wield but by the service we offer; not by accumulating more but by sharing what we already have; not by being first but by being eager to work hard in order to see others move ahead?
If we take this challenge seriously, it’s hard stuff, absolutely and totally different from what the culture – whether in the first century or the twenty-first – tells us. And so, it was hard for the disciples and it’s hard for us. They didn’t understand what Jesus meant, and so fell into the trap of putting themselves ahead of everyone else. We will often do the same, looking out for ourselves rather than others, trusting less in God for our security, than we do our wealth, shutting others out rather than inviting them in, seeking our welfare rather than that of those around us.
But here’s the thing to note: the road on which the disciples are traveling with Jesus when they fall into their petty arguments about who is the greatest…is the road to Jerusalem. Even while his disciples misunderstand, don’t believe, or just plain ignore what he is saying, Jesus is walking the road to Jerusalem and the cross willingly in order to sacrifice everything for them…and for us.
Sometimes I think there are three short prayers that pretty much sum up the Christian life, and they come to mind as incredibly helpful to pray when we consider Jesus’ teaching. The first is in response to his counter-cultural command that the first must be last and that true greatness lies in service. It is as short as it is simple: “Lord, help us.” The second comes when we fall short of our ideals, giving in to insecurity and fear and looking out for ourselves first: “Lord, have mercy.” And the third is when we realize that even as we fall short, yet Jesus still died for us, still lives for us, still loves us more than anything: “Thanks be to God.” For Jesus does not give up on his disciples – not then and not now – and still offers us a different vision of greatness that can lead us to imagine and work toward a whole different world.So, let us hear Jesus’ words once again, and know they are still directed to Jesus’ disciples, both those gathered around him in Capernaum and those who are gathered here today. As St. Mark writes, “And so Jesus sat down, called his disciples and said, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last and be a servant to all.’” And all we can say in response is, perhaps, Lord help us. Lord have mercy. Thanks be to God. Amen!