True Greatness: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Eighteenth Week after Pentecost
Eighteenth Week after Pentecost (Year B): Mark 9:30-37
1) This week’s reading is the second of three successive cycles through a distinct pattern: a) Jesus predicts his suffering and resurrection; b) the disciples clumbsily misinterpret; and c) Jesus offers a teaching on discipleship. The first time through this pattern was last week’s reading in Mark 8, and the third time is in the next chapter, Mark 10. As the repetition suggests, what Jesus has to say here is both crucial and challenging - and this week’s reading goes right to the heart of why it’s so difficult for his disciples (including us!) to accept.
2) In the immediately preceding episode, the disciples are unable to heal a boy possessed by a spirit; Jesus comes to their aid, explaining that “this kind can come out only through prayer” (Mark 9:14-29). Their failed attempt creates for the disciples an atmosphere of insecurity and self-doubt - an emotional tone that lays the groundwork for this week’s story, in which the disciples “protest too much” about their “greatness.”
3) Throughout his Gospel, Mark repeatedly defines the essence of faith by contrasting it with fear: “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” (Mark 4:40); and again, “Do not fear; only believe” (Mark 5:36). For Mark, faith is about fortitude, courage, chutzpah; and in the face of Jesus’ teaching about his suffering and resurrection, the disciples are afraid - as they will be again, during the third time through this cycle (Mark 10:32). All of which presses the question: What exactly are they afraid of? This week, we find out.
1) Now back in his home territory of Galilee, Jesus wants to keep his presence a secret, so as not to attract crowds. Why? He has a difficult teaching to convey, and judging from how it went last time, he figures some time and space - and some peace and quiet - would help him get across what he has in mind. He repeats the basic teaching about the Son of Humanity having to suffer, but now adds a new detail: he will be “betrayed into human hands” (“delivered” or “handed over” are also legitimate translations). Note that he does not say, “betrayed into the Jewish authorities’ hands,” or even “betrayed into Roman hands.” He says, “betrayed into human hands.” The culpability rests with no particular subgroup of humanity, but with all of us.
2) The disciples don’t understand, and are “afraid to ask him” any questions (Mark 9:32). Where is this fear coming from? Perhaps they share Peter’s view that the Messiah is a glorious conqueror, not a “suffering servant” (Isaiah 53) - and yet they’re reluctant to press the point because of Jesus’ stern response to Peter (Mark 8:32-33). But Jesus has just emphatically explained that, on the contrary, he “must undergo” suffering and rejection, and what’s more, to be his disciple means walking a path that will include some of the same. So perhaps the reason the disciples are afraid to ask him questions is their growing sense of dread at what’s to come. What suffering will they be asked to undergo? What advantages will they be asked to give up?
3) In a nutshell, Peter’s initial reaction revealed that for him, a “Messiah” is a conqueror who delivers the longsuffering people of God to a commanding victory, vanquishing enemies and coming out on top - in effect flipping society’s ladder of power and prestige upside down, but still preserving the ladder. The disciples in this week’s story have a similar mindset, defining greatness in terms of worldly power, honor, and prestige. And now Jesus, this dazzling wonderworker on whom they’ve pinned their hopes, is saying not only that he will undergo suffering and rejection, but that his disciples will as well! Remember, by the world’s standards, these disciples come from the supposedly lower end of that social ladder - and by now they’d graduated into the privileged entourage of God’s Anointed One, drawing great crowds, teaching and forgiving and casting out demons, heralding the dawn of the kingdom of God. Think of how this must have felt to them, indeed how far they had “come up in the world”! But now Jesus seems to be saying the opposite: that following him will bring suffering and rejection, not honor but dishonor, not greatness but disgrace. As we’d guess, the disciples find these ideas strange, confusing, and unacceptable.
4) As if to underscore that competing visions of “greatness” are at the heart of this exchange, in the next scene, as they walk along the road to Capernaum, the disciples fall into an argument about “who was the greatest” (Mark 9:34). And so Jesus sits them down for yet another heart-to-heart. Their resistance to the “suffering servant” understanding of the Messiah and their argument on the road share a common root: a vision of greatness as marked by the conventional trappings of power and prestige. Associate with the relatively powerful, and thereby gain power. Look down on the relatively powerless, and thereby lay claim to a position on a rung above them. Conquer and win, and you climb. Be vulnerable and lose, and you fall.
5) But true greatness, Jesus says, knows better and acts otherwise. You have heard it said, “Conquer and be great!” - but I say to you, God will redeem the whole world not with a mighty army but through a suffering servant. You have heard it said, “Be dominant, be strong, and get what’s yours!” - but I say to you, live your life in gentleness and love, not as a master but as a “servant of all” (Mark 9:35). You have heard it said, “Consort with the powerful, and gain power!” - but I say to you, welcome the powerless, the outsider, the ones whose supposedly low status offers you no promise of conventional gain in return. Otherwise your hospitality may well be a thinly-veiled, self-serving maneuver. Take this child, for instance, a person with perhaps the least social status in the neighborhood. “Whoever welcomes one such child welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me” (Mark 9:37).
1) Along with last week’s reading from Mark 8, this week’s passage helps illuminate what Jesus is all about, and what it means to follow him. In a sense, both of these stories respond to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29). Peter answers, “A conquering deliverer!” - but Jesus counters, “No, a suffering servant.” Likewise, the disciples mistake discipleship for an ascent up a ladder of worldly greatness - but Jesus counters, “No, it’s a graceful descent into true greatness, that is, into being a servant of all.” This idea of “descending” helps clarify the meaning of the cross: it’s about God saving the world through vulnerability and love, not domination. But this keystone idea isn’t only about the cross; this is Jesus’ mission as a whole, his modus operandi. Think of the Incarnation itself, God coming to dwell among us, born to a poor family in a backwater town. It’s a graceful descent into vulnerability for the sake of love. That’s what true greatness looks like, as one of the oldest hymns in the Christian treasury puts it: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God… emptied himself, taking the form of a servant” (Phil 2:5-11). This is nothing less than Jesus’ signature move. And he calls us, any who would follow him, to make it ours as well.
2) How might we make it ours? By intentionally, creatively, courageously acting in ways that counter the conventional view of “greatness.” In our personal and professional lives, for example, we can identify ways to act not with a conqueror’s spirit, but with a brave servant’s. Like our ancient forebears, our lives, too, are largely constructed through class associations, “networking” with the relatively powerful, connected, and well-to-do, and sidestepping the relatively powerless and isolated. How can we imagine and build new networks of relationships? How can we reach out in new directions? After all, Jesus spent most of his time consorting with supposedly “low-status” outsiders, with “sinners” and the “unclean,” with the sick, with the disabled, and with children - much to his disciples’ chagrin (Mark 10:13-16). Wouldn’t following him mean, well, going where he actually goes, and building relationships like the ones he actually builds?
3) The good news is that God calls us to true greatness - not the counterfeit greatness of dominance and status, but the genuine greatness of love, generosity, and the fortitude of faith. God is dismantling the logic of self-centered, grasping domination, and revealing the deeper physics of gracious, courageous, neighborly love that underlies creation (as we saw last week). Jesus’ predictions of his passion and resurrection help illuminate this deeper reality: Want to save your life? Lose it! That is, turn away from obsessively focusing on “saving your own life” and turn toward your neighbors in love and generosity. Want to be truly great? Quit the climb! Seek instead to be “last of all and servant of all,” reaching out especially to the lost and left behind, the downtrodden and disinherited. That’s where Jesus will be, after all, and the Holy Spirit, too, lifting up and transforming the world from the outside in. Come one, come all - true greatness awaits!