Pentecost 17: 20 September Mark 9:30-37
Jesus is on the way. Last week we met him at Caesarea Philippi, far to the north. Now he is passing through Galilee – on the way to Jerusalem. The secrecy is probably about not wanting to be waylaid. Mark leaves us in no doubt about Jesus’ intentions. In 9:31 he has Jesus repeat the prediction of what would await him there: a path to suffering and death and then to resurrection. When 9:32 mentions the disciples’ lack of understanding, we are reminded of Peter’s confrontation with Jesus from last week (8:31-33). Afraid to ask questions (9:32)? Mark does not approve. But it also has the effect of intensifying the foreboding.
Mark 10:33 brings us already to lower Galilee, to Capernaum, home territory. It also brings us to another low point for the disciples. If in 8:31-33 it was Peter, their spokesperson, here it is the group. They are discussing who is the greatest. We assume they mean the greatest among their number, but the text could also be read more broadly. Certainly Jesus’ answer applies much more broadly than just to the disciples. His journey to Jerusalem embodies his answer. It is the way of Jesus, the way of discipleship which they are to follow.
It is nevertheless interesting that when Mark has Jesus comment, he explicitly mentions ‘the twelve’ (9:35). It certainly applies to leadership. ‘If anyone wants to be first, let them be last of all and servant/slave of all.’ The message will be repeated in 10:41-45, where Jesus contrasts this with leadership styles of the day where people love to flaunt their power and authority. The message is directly subversive of the norms of his day and the norms of ours.
Human beings have mostly attributed value to those who have power. At some levels that has been physical power: an army. It is equally about having wealth, political power, family power. It is having a sense of one’s own importance on the basis that you can make others inferior, putting yourself up by putting others down. Such powerful people are engaging in the subordination and demeaning of others. It can also be that some people are powerful and have authority without such motives. They may simply be physically strong. They may have been placed in positions of responsibility. People then attribute greatness to such people – because of their power and authority. They are saying such people are of greatest value. Traditionally in most societies this related also to gender: fathers and kings, although in principle and in practice the tendency is not gender specific.
Jesus is challenging both stances: people wanting to use power to establish their own value and people using power as the measure of value of human beings. Jesus subverts both. True greatness is not about either of these relations to power. True greatness is to be like Jesus, a truly powerful person, but who valued himself not because of power but because of his being and his doing the will of God, which meant lowliness, in his case including following the path to the cross. That is all implied in the context of Mark’s story. Jesus in Mark subverts the standard values. He is a king, but wearing a crown of thorns. He is the Christ, but broken on the cross.
When Jesus says the greatest is to be the slave (9:35; 10:43,44), that is a shocking contrast. The use of the Greek word ‘diakonos’ as well as ‘doulos’, both words for slaves, helps us to see that the focus is not only the status, ‘slave’, but also the function, ‘serving’. Greatness is being a loving and serving person. Mark 10:45 makes that clear: ‘The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many’. We should not assume double standards; disciples should be like that, but not Jesus. Or Jesus and the disciples are like that, but not God! If the latter were true, we would all the time be undermining Jesus’ message every time we tried to be like God or to value what we would be valuing in God. Such has been the experience in Christian history, because people have been unwilling to be fully subverted by Jesus’ values and have found ways of reverting to the old value system when talking of Jesus and God. Our poetry, our hymns, our liturgies are often very revealing. When we hail Jesus as king and mean by it the king of love, the servant king, we have to work very hard not to allow that to be subsumed under the more popular images of greatness which Jesus was trying to subvert.
The image of the child, in itself, throws the focus more on the lowliness than on the service. The child is vulnerable. But then the focus shifts from the child back again to caring, this time for the child. Caring for vulnerable human beings is part of what caring is about. To take on a child in this way is to take on Jesus and to take on Jesus in this way is to take on God. In Matthew 25:31-46 we see the thought spun out into the parable of the sheep and the goats.
Behind the thought is a sense of solidarity with lowliness and vulnerability and an affirmation that in acts of caring and love we come face to face with the divine. Elsewhere the same thought is applied to those whom Jesus sends and commissions in ministry. Verse 41 speaks of giving them a drink. When people take on lowliness like this they are going to need to be cared for. The Jesus tradition assumes communities where that kind of caring is real. This will have been fundamental in the early Christian communities where leaders (apostles) needed to travel and faced all kinds of dangers. It remains an issue today: real lowly service (both for people who have power and enormous responsibility, and for those who do not) entails vulnerability. Jesus is not promoting ‘heroic loners’, but speaking of community which provides mutual caring and support. His brokenness will become their food, the central symbol of divine presence and being – in communion and in community.
Epistle: Pentecost 17: 20 September James 3:13 - 4:3, 7-8a