Proper 20 · Mark 9:30-37 · September 20, 2009
By David Schmitt
Literary and Liturgical Setting
Our reading is the second of three passion predictions in Mark. In the literary context of Mark, these three passion predictions are held together. First, they span the period between the Galilean ministry of Jesus (1:14-8:30) and his Passion (11:1-15:47), between the revelation of who Jesus is and what Jesus has come to do. Second, they are framed by the only two healings of the blind in Mark (8:22-26 and 10:46-52), suggestive of the disciples’ blindness in following Jesus. Third, they each display a similar pattern of passion prediction (8:31; 9:30-32; 10:32-34), misunderstanding on the part of the disciples (8:32-33; 9:33-34; 10:35-40), and teaching on the nature of discipleship (8:34-9:1; 9:35-37; 10:41-45).
While Mark has set these passion predictions together, the lectionary has taken them apart. Earlier in Lent, one encounters the first (Lent 2) and the last (Lent 5) of these passion predictions. Now, in the midst of Ordinary time, the lectionary offers the second for our contemplation and spiritual formation. While this prediction has been separated and displaced from the larger patterns established by the literary context of Mark, the lectionary has retained the smaller pattern in where it has opened and ended the reading. The hearers are offered the passion prediction, the misunderstanding, and the teaching on the nature of discipleship.
One might be tempted to take any one of these units and preach a sermon on it as an isolated theme, yet holding the three together honors the pattern of Mark and also the focus upon discipleship voiced in the introit, the collect, and the verse for this day. Here, in the literary pattern of the text and the liturgical setting, one sees how the strange work of God (his rule in weakness) is the source of our trust (committing our way to him) and the ground of our service (being willing to serve as least and last of all) in the kingdom of God.
Revealing a Hidden Hope
Introduction: Earlier in Mark, Jesus had promised his disciples that “nothing is hidden except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret except to come to light” (4:22). This promise, heard in the context of his parables and the beginning of his ministry in Galilee, raised hope on the part of the disciples. They could anticipate a glorious revelation of the Messianic kingdom and were standing in awe as they witnessed Jesus casting out demons (1:21-28), healing the sick (1:29-34), ruling over creation (4:35-41), and even raising the dead (5:21-43).
Now, however, his promise was less obviously associated with hope, for the things that Jesus was revealing to the disciples were things they would rather not see: his death and resurrection (9:31); their quarreling over greatness (9:34); and the servile nature of discipleship (9:35). It is within this difficult and dangerous revelation, however, that Jesus offers the truest hope that anyone could find, for in his death is true life, in littleness is greatness, and in receiving the least is the promise that one receives God himself.
1. Revealing the Will of God: This passion prediction is the shortest of the three that Jesus offers in Mark and yet it contains the widest scope. Whereas, in the other two passion predictions, Jesus names those who kill him with a frightening specificity (“the elders and the chief priests and the scribes” in 8:31 and “the chief priests and the scribes, and . . . the Gentiles” in 10:33), in this passion prediction he uses an even more frightening generality (“be delivered into the hands of men”). Jesus implicates not just the religious leaders or the ruling Gentiles but all humanity in his death.
The ways of God are opposed to the ways of humanity and the gracious work of God is hidden in his violent rejection by all. Our world’s fascination with things spiritual tends to identify love with tolerance and replace forgiveness with acceptance. Our Lord’s revelation, however, reveals the depth of the love of God. Jesus does not tolerate sin nor accept it, rather he dies for it that those who kill may be forgiven, those who persecute may be loved, and those who live with superficial understandings of faith and discipleship may be awakened to the depths of love and life within God’s kingdom.
2. Revealing the Ways of God: Earlier Jesus discerned the hearts of the religious leaders and sought to teach them the ways of the kingdom (2:1-12); here Jesus perceives the hearts of his disciples and again seeks to teach. While they were silent and unwilling to admit it, the disciples had argued with one another about greatness. Using human standards of greatness, they found that they were being driven apart. Jesus, however, brings them together and uses their sinful conversation as an occasion to teach them about the ways of God.
The human heart has not changed over the centuries and greatness is still often measured in ways that turn people against one another, even in the church. Our Lord, however, uses this occasion to lead us into the ways of God. He reveals that the search for greatness hidden in the human heart will separate us from one another but the gift of greatness coming from the heart of God brings us closer to one another, inspiring humble service that forms community and builds up the fellowship in love.
3. Revealing a Hidden Hope: Later, Jesus will take children into his arms and bless them, encouraging each disciple to receive the kingdom like a child (10:13-16). The popularity of that scene makes it hard to hear what Jesus is doing in this portion of the text. Here, Jesus is not blessing children or holding children up as examples of faith and he is certainly not tapping into contemporary sentimental notions of the innocence and simplicity of childhood. Rather, Jesus is bringing into the midst of a divisive argument something about which everyone could agree—this child is nothing. While they might argue over who is the greatest, they can all agree that a child is the least. Yet, Jesus identifies with this child, this one valued least, holding the child in his arms, and he promises that others will come to receive God when they receive that which is least in his name.
His gestures are puzzling and his words are a mystery until that day when he radically identifies with that which is least in this world, becoming the crucified one, rejected by the world, rejected by religious leaders, rejected by his own heavenly Father, and yet fiercely and faithfully holding on to every last sinner, that his death might be the way that the least of all enter into the kingdom of God. Here, Jesus silences all argument and reveals the radical mercy of God, the hope that lies hidden in his suffering, death, and resurrection and in the suffering service of all who follow in his way.