Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 23, 2018

Mark 9:30-37 Commentary

Digging Into the Text:

Jesus and the disciples are “on the road again,” headed for Jerusalem.  But Jesus didn’t want anyone to know.  He didn’t want any more disturbances or interruptions because he was teaching the disciples, preparing them for what lay ahead.  Now, for the second time he tells them exactly what it is that lies ahead.

Strangely, whenever Jesus talks about his impending death in Mark, it’s with a certain obliqueness; it’s all in the third person.  It’s about what will happen to the “Son of Man,” who Jesus refers to as “he,” not “I.”  Terrible things will happen to the Son of Man.

Why does Jesus refer to his impending suffering in this way?  Scholars call this the “Messianic secret.”  I wonder if the reason is that Jesus himself us uncomfortable talking about it in so direct a way.  Yes, the Son of Man will undergo suffering, but that is still one short step removed from saying that he will be the victim.

I wonder if, in this strange locution, we are faced with the reality of Jesus’s human nature.  He is like us in every way, including the fear of suffering and death.  We too, find it easier to talk about death abstractly, but are much less comfortable talking about our own death.

On the one hand Jesus understands that he is the one that the Father has called to give himself for the life of the world.  On the other, he is still struggling with that call.  That comes to light especially in the Garden of Gethsemane when events are quickly moving toward the cross.  He still prays that he will not have the drink this bitter cup.

Not many preachers may choose to look closely on this strange, third-person way Jesus refers to his death.  However, I think it is important that we sometimes emphasize Jesus’ real humanity.  It is as a human just like us that he chooses obedience to the Father’s will.  As Hebrews makes clear, Jesus’s obedience to the Father does not come naturally.  “He learned obedience through what he suffered.” (Hebrews 5: 8)  This, of course, is not to question Jesus’s divine nature, but to preserve the reality of his human nature, and to hallow the mystery of his divine/human personhood.

Jesus uses a particular Greek word in this passage, and in the third prediction in Mark 10:32-34: paradidomai.  Interestingly, in the NRSV it’s translated here as “betrayed,” but in the later passage as “handed over.”  Of course, “handed over” and “betrayed” both have the sense of helplessness and passivity, but, as we will see, I think that in this passage the reference to children a little later may make the idea of being handed over more appropriate.

One of the most amazing things about the gospels, especially Mark, is that they do not hesitate to present the disciples as blockheads.  These men are later to be apostles, sent out by Jesus to proclaim the gospel.  They held places of honor and respect, and several of them died as martyrs.  If the gospels were written to impress, the disciples would certainly have been presented in a different light.

But they were blockheads.  Mark says that they didn’t understand what Jesus was saying, but they also didn’t dare to ask him any questions about it.  Does that sound familiar?  Ever been in a situation in which a discussion was going on that was over your head, but you didn’t dare to ask what it was all about?  They all wanted to look like good students to Jesus.  Asking him some basic questions would betray their stupidity.

But that’s not the end of it.  As they are walking along, ignorant as they are of what Jesus really means, they begin to argue about who is the greatest.  Which one is really Jesus’s right hand man?  Which one stands out as the most worthy and devoted disciple?  I wish I were privy to that discussion.

But then, maybe I have been, many times.  Not, of course, that I would actually assert my greatness to others, but I may have let drop a few instances of personal success.  It could be anything from a remarkably prescient stock pick to the pick-up in attendance since I came to the church.  Let’s face it, most of us know quite well where we might stand on the scale of “greatness” and find subtle ways to signal that to people around us.

Of course, it was all done in private.  They knew Jesus, their Master, frowned on that sort of thing.  But Jesus was not fooled.  “Hey, there was a lot of excitement back there on the road, what were you guys talking about?”  No answer.  They knew they were caught with their pride on display.

Jesus’ response is to set them down for a time of instruction.  In rabbinic Judaism of the time, the rabbi always sat down with his students around him.  The teaching takes two forms.  One is a pronouncement and the other is a demonstration.

The pronouncement takes the form of a pithy saying, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”  That is decidedly not the way things work in the world.  People do not get ahead by making sure they are last in line.  People do not rise to the top of the heap by making sure they have served everyone else first.  This is not a pronouncement about human wisdom, it’s a pronouncement about the up-side down Kingdom of God.

However many times we may have heard that statement, it’s impossible not to find it impractical and perhaps even offensive.  Things just don’t work that way in the real world.  It’s a prescription for being left behind and taken advantage of.

But it’s important to look at the one who is saying this audacious thing.  He was no push-over.  He was not always a nice man.  Time and again he stood up to the Jewish leaders, sometimes with cutting remarks and fierce judgements.  He called the scribes and Pharisees “whited sepulchers” and hypocrites.  He emptied the temple on a rampage.

So, taking the last place and being a servant of all is not being a milquetoast.  It has more to do with strength than weakness.  The attitude of servanthood is the mark of a person who knows who he or she is.  Such a person is not ignorant of their worth, but knows their true worth.  It comes from the heart of a person who knows she is loved and valued, who is deeply aware of his identity.  The more we become identified with Jesus Christ and sure of God’s love, the more we will be able to drop the pretense of greatness and assume the role of servanthood.

Jesus was not a guru for modern corporate leadership theory, but it’s interesting how his concept of servanthood has been been picked up in some leadership circles.  Servant leaders lead by putting other ahead of themselves.  Their authority is the bi-product of their love for others.  Others follow them because they know that in doing so they will not be abused or abandoned, but because they know their welfare, success, and wellbeing are the focus of their leaders concern.

In the context of corporate leadership, Robert Greenleaf, author of the best-selling book Servant Leadership writes,

It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first.  Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead.  The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant—first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served.  The best test is: Do those served grow as persons; do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?  And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society?  Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?

It’s important to note that Jesus’ statements on servanthood are not true because they happen to be popular with certain corporate types.  They are true because Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life.”  Putting others first is not just wise leadership advice, it is the truth about human life from the one who embodied it.

But Jesus doesn’t just say it, he acts it out in a dramatic parable.  He takes a little child who happened to be hanging around the house, picks the child up (the pronoun is neuter, so we don’t know it if was a boy of girl), and embraces him or her in his arms.  From our vantage point, this act seems cute.  “Aaawh, Jesus picks up and hugs a child.”  But it was not likely cute to Jesus’s disciples.  In his day, children were definitely “seen but not heard.”  Children weren’t worth much until they grew up and proved themselves.  They were considered nobodies.  Their worth was tied up in their potential as adults, not in their being children.  One Rabbi, a contemporary of Jesus, said, “Morning sleep, mid-day wine, chattering with child, and lingering in the places of the common people destroy a man.”

But here Jesus places a child in the center of the disciples’ attention and says, “Whoever welcome one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”

What does Jesus mean by welcoming one such child in my name.”  “In my name” means something like because of me, or having learned it from me.  Here we might go back to the Greek word I highlighted above, paradidomai, handed over.  This is one of the key characteristics of children, they are not so much actors as those who are acted upon.  They do not hold the place of power, but are acted upon by the powerful.

This is, perhaps, what ties the first part of this reading with the last.  First, in his oblique way, Jesus said that he will be handed over to the authorities and will be acted upon.  He will be powerless before the combined authority of the Jewish religious authorities and the all-powerful Roman state in the person of Pontius Pilate.  Now he hugs a child and tells the disciples and us, whoever welcome the powerless welcomes me and the one who sent me. Welcoming the powerless we welcome God because God has chosen this way to show his redeeming love to the world.

The way of discipleship is not seeking personal greatness, but servanthood.  The way of discipleship is not seeking power over others, but accepting servanthood and giving up power for the sake of others.  The way of discipleship is the willingness to be acted upon rather than being the actor.  It is the way of love.

This is what Mark picked up from Jesus’ great kingdom teaching, the Sermon on the Mount–turning the other cheek, praying for enemies, forgiving other’s sins, and going the extra mile.

Preaching the Text:

1). Cormac McCarthy’s dystopian novel, The Road is the story of a father and son constantly on the move through a post-apocalyptic landscape. They face constant hunger, menacing, dangerous people, and a survival mentality in others that will stop at nothing, even cannibalism, for self-preservation.  The Father is constantly teaching the boy that they must not sink to that level of existence, no matter what.  One of the principle themes throughout the novel is that the father keeps telling his son to keep carrying the fire.  It becomes clear that the fire is not actual fire, so they can cook their food.  It is the fire of love which the boy must keep alive in his heart so that even in this severely diminished existence he can maintain his humanity.

2). Not everyone will dare to do this, and it depends on your congregation.  You might choose the clearest example of the disciple’s argument about who is the greatest.  Our President often points to his own greatness, whether it’s the success of his policies, his political achievements, or the size of his inauguration audience.  Ask whether he actually achieves greatness by his boasting, or whether he reveals his weakness in having to point to his own greatness?

The same is true of the slogan, “Make America great again.” Does this mantra actually make America great in the eyes of the world or does it point to our doubts about our own greatness?

3). Jesus’s statement that when we welcome children we welcome him can seem trite to many of us today.  There is a deep upper middle-class infatuation with children, but it is probably more shallow than we might think.  Millions of children we profess to care about so much are warehoused in inferior schools, malnourished, stalked by diseases we could easily cure, and more or less swept under the rug of social amnesia.  Politicians talk a lot about how important “our children” are.  But in our society, generally speaking, tax breaks and military spending seem to hold a lot higher priority than children do.

Note: CEP Director Scott Hoezee is on sabbatical during the Fall semester 2018.


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