This is the twenty-fifth installment, comprising Act 4. Scene 4, chapter 9: 30-50, in the online commentary on the Gospel of Mark, which I am blogging on throughout the liturgical year. Please see the twenty-fourth installment here. Links to the entire series are available in one spot at The Complete Gospel of Mark Online Commentary.
This is my division of the Gospel:
Act 1, 1:14-3:6;
Act 2, 3:7-6:6;
Act 3, 6:7-8:26;
Act 4, 8:27-10:52;
Act 5, 11:1-13:37;
Act 6, 14:1-16:8(20).
30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, "The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again." 32 But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him. 33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, "What were you arguing about on the way?" 34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." 36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37 "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me." 38 John said to him, "Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us." 39 But Jesus said, "Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40 Whoever is not against us is for us. 41 For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward. 42 "If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. 43 If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 44 45 And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. , 46 47 And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, 48 where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched. 49 "For everyone will be salted with fire. 50 Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another." (NRSV)
Act 4, Scene 4 is a long scene, not because of descriptions of travel or increased activity, but because it is one of the few spots in the Gospel of Mark in which Jesus spends time substantial time teaching. This is not to say that Mark is bereft of teaching, for instance, see the parables in chapter 4, but in comparison with Matthew and Luke, the other Synoptic Gospels, and John for that matter, Mark drives the action forward with physical travel, events and change of scene rather than with in-depth teaching. Here, however, we find the second Passion prediction, followed by Jesus instructing his disciples privately about the significance of the prediction itself for their life as disciples and as a community.
Jesus and his disciples moved on through Galilee and Jesus’ desire to keep their travel private has to do in this case with his private teaching of them. This might be related to the larger theme of secrecy in the Gospel, for as with the first Passion prediction, the issue is not Jesus’ identity but his destiny (9:30-31). The initial teaching, so similar to the first passion prediction is stark and straightforward,
"The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again" (9:31)
Mark presents the response of the disciples in a straightforward and stark manner as well: “but they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him” (9:32).
It is precisely in a scene such as this, that Mark is drawing us as an audience deeper into Jesus’ mystery. Why are they afraid? Fear is often contrasted with faith in Mark; do they lack faith? What do the disciples not understand? The words themselves? No, those must be clear enough to them: betrayed; killed; rise again. It is the necessity of these words, it is the purpose of these words that confound them. Why must Jesus die? Why should Jesus die? We, too, should be asking these questions: what is the purpose and necessity of Jesus dying? What does it mean that he will rise again? How does that fit the messianic prophecies and understandings which the disciples share and which we as hearers might share? How does suffering Messiah fit with transfigured Messiah? If they did not understand the first Passion prediction it is not because the words are so complex, it is because they cannot wrap their heads around why the Messiah must suffer and die. This is the real Messianic Secret.
That they did not understand Jesus' teaching the first time was made clear by the fact that Peter rejected Jesus’ revelation to them. That they did not understand it the second time is made just as clear by their behavior on the way to Capernaum following his second private revelation to them: “‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest” (9:33-34). Mark has structured Jesus’ Passion predictions brilliantly, for following each one of these revelations of divine necessity – the Messiah must suffer and die – the disciples either reject it directly or indirectly by their behavior. What was on their mind after Jesus told them he must suffer and die? They argued about who was the greatest disciple. It is a human desire to be great and the way one is great is manifested through power, wealth, intellect, brilliance, honor, esteem…
Jesus, however, is teaching them, and us, another way. It is a private teaching – Jesus alone amongst “the twelve” – but Mark invites us to listen:
"Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me" (9:35-37).
Jesus eschews power, wealth, intellect, brilliance, honor, esteem, all these things that bring human praise and success, and says that whoever will be first will “be last of all and servant of all” (9:35). It is a child who serves as a model for such smallness and for servant hood. This is not because children were not loved amongst the Jewish people, they certainly were, but that children were not recipients of honor, praise or worthy of acclaim; they were incipient adults, who when they reached the age of majority could take on the responsibilities that would bring acclaim and praise. (See my book Let the Little Children Come to Me for more on the role and place of children in the ancient Jewish and Greco-Roman worlds.) The child, however, is not only the model for the disciple, but the model for whom the disciple must welcome into their midst, into the Church.
To welcome a child is to welcome Jesus himself; to welcome Jesus is to welcome God in their midst. Again, it is not that children were unwelcome as such, but for disciples of the Messiah, great men, prestige comes from welcoming other great men, or besting them in argument, or boasting that the Messiah had chosen you to be a part of the inner circle. Welcoming a child offers no prestige, no honor, no wealth, no accolades; all that welcoming a child offers is…well, what does it offer? A child is vulnerable, weak, naïve, trusting, impressionable, helpless. A child offers nothing but the knowledge that you have cared for one who is helpless, that you have offered love to one in need. But, Jesus says, this is the way of my disciples and in helping the weakest amongst you you are welcoming me and the one who sent me (9:37).
Do the disciples understand? (Do you understand? Mark is asking.) Apparently not, for the first question has to do with maintaining the prestige and role of the disciples. John, we must suspect that this is John who was witness to the Transfiguration, responds to Jesus in this manner:
“Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”
Their prestige has been damaged in two ways. Whoever was casting out demons was not a chosen member of Jesus’ disciples, the Twelve, but also Mark has slyly demonstrated the weakness of Jesus’ own disciples in Act 4,Scene 3, when they were unable to cast out a spirit from a boy. Yet, here, someone who was not an “official” member of Jesus’ entourage was able to cast out demons. Jesus tells John not to worry about it, for “whoever is not against us is for us” (9:40). And as we have just learned: to aid those in need is to aid Jesus; and to aid Jesus is to reveal his Father. Those who battle evil are on the side of God. Those who aid the disciples of Jesus - “whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward” (9:41) - are aiding Jesus’ mission.
This whole interpolation (9:38-41) practically interrupts the discussion of children, which will be taken up again in 9:42, but in fact shines a light on how little the disciples truly understand Jesus’ mission. John interrupts Jesus’ teaching not to inquire of its meaning, but to cement his own prestige and honor. Enough, he seems to be saying, of this suffer and die, and welcoming children; tell us, who is the greatest amongst us and could you stop the riff-raff from doing deeds of power which we have been sent out to perform?
The last of Jesus’ teaching takes us back to the “little ones,” which I believe refers in the first instance to the children whom Jesus has mentioned and in the second instance, and by extension, to anyone in need, anyone who lacks the power, wealth, honor and prestige necessary to care for themselves. Jesus’ warnings about their mission are blunt. If the leaders of the Church, the Twelve, skandalizo, scandalize, “put a stumbling block, cause to fall away or lose trust,” one of the “little ones” who follow Jesus, it would be better that they were dead (9:42-48). That simple. Jesus gives a number of examples of how it is better to lose material well-being, a part of the human body, even this human life, than to lose one’s eternal reward. And this reward, especially for the leaders of Jesus’ Church, is seen in how they treat the smallest and weakest amongst them. The last two verses suggest that all will go through a trial at the end of time (“salted with fire”: 9:49) and if one remains faithful to Jesus’ mission – in Act 4, Scene 4 this is outlined as being one of the little ones and aiding those who are the little ones, including children – there will be a reward. But if if you go astray from Jesus’ mission – if “salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it?” (9:50) - you might find yourselves asking over and over again: who is the greatest? Jesus warns them once again, “have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another” (9:50), which I interpret as “follow me and do not strive for what the world sees as greatness or success.” Only this will bring peace. Do they all understand? Do we?
John W. Martens
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