Mark 9:30-37. Who is the Greatest Among the Disciples?

The Gospel reading for the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, (17th Sunday after Pentecost), is Mark 9:30-37. The first half of the reading has a parallel in Matthew 17:22-23, and the second half of the reading has a parallel in Matthew 18:1-6.

The Second of Three Predictions of the Passion in Mark

In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus predicts, in three different chapters, that the Son of Man will suffer or be killed (Mk 8:31-32;  9:30-31; 10:32-34). In each of these passages, Jesus also predicts that he will rise after three days. John’s Gospel also happens to parallel Mark with the triple-prediction of the Passion. But in John’s Gospel, the prediction is worded differently. John tells us that the Son of Man will be lifted up, (John 3:148:28, and 12:32. See my blog post on this topic). The Sacred Authors wish to convey that Jesus understood that the cost of his ministry would be high. Yet at the same time, he also predicts his own resurrection. In this passage, it interesting to note that the disciples can’t fathom or process the prediction of his death and resurrection. We may well imagine Peter responding to Jesus, Lord, that’s too much information!

The Disciples are Afraid

When Jesus says the Son of Man will be handed over, we should hardly be surprised the initial response of the disciples is fear. In Mark’s Gospel, we encounter the term afraid eight or nine times. In Matthew’s Gospel, it is used even more frequently – perhaps seventeen times (lexicon). The Sacred Authors tell us that fear was something the disciples experienced from time to time.  The faith experience of the disciples was anything but mundane. The preaching and works of Jesus were not always received with enthusiasm. Jesus was falsely accused by the leadership, beaten and condemned to death. Most of his disciples fled when he was arrested.

In the Old Testament, awe and fear are two typical responses to an encounter with God. But Jesus, who is also very human, often tries to reassure the disciples. The phrase, be not afraid or have no fear occurs in each of the four Gospels, approximately 12 times in total. In  this particular passage, there is no attempt to reassure the disciples, since the Passion is a reality that the disciples must learn to accept (and, in fact, to share with others through their preaching and their own witness).

The Greatest Among the Disciples

In Mark’s Gospel, there is an awkward transition to the next pericope. Mark’s account of the “greatest among the disciples” is interrupted by a digression at verses 38-41. Nevertheless, let’s look at the theology. Jesus reminds his closest disciples that they ought not seek high position or compete with each other for accolade or recognition. In fact, this sort of careerism is the very opposite of the type of service that Jesus expects of his disciples.

“Jesus and the Children.” Lucas Cranach, 1585. Wittenberg.

Jesus very astutely uses children as a teaching tool for the disciples. He reminds the disciples to be attentive to the least among them, including children. Jesus tells the apostles that to welcome young children is akin to receiving the Father in heaven. His point? Ministry is not only directed towards the powerful, the influential or the wealthy.  In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus continues and expands upon the pericope. Jesus knows that children learn by example, and he insists that the disciples set a good example for children. He warns the disciples not to scandalize the innocent with their own behavior. Jesus tells the disciples that it would be better if such a person had a millstone tied around their neck and were thrown into the sea, rather than cause a “little one” to sin.

This same sentiment is picked up in Mark’s Gospel further along in chapter 9, at verse 42. But the theology in both Matthew and Mark are the same. Jesus wants his disciples to be less converned with prestige and more concerned with the welfare of others… without taking into account the relative wealth, power or influence of those they serve. Jesus then presses the analogy, warning that the disciples that they should never scandalize the innocent,, especially children, by their own conduct.

Gospel Mk 9:30-37

Jesus and his disciples left from there and began a journey through Galilee,
but he did not wish anyone to know about it.
He was teaching his disciples and telling them,
“The Son of Man is to be handed over to men
and they will kill him,
and three days after his death the Son of Man will rise.”
But they did not understand the saying,
and they were afraid to question him.

They came to Capernaum and, once inside the house,
he began to ask them,
“What were you arguing about on the way?”
But they remained silent.
They had been discussing among themselves on the way
who was the greatest.
Then he sat down, called the Twelve, and said to them,
“If anyone wishes to be first,
he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.”
Taking a child, he placed it in the their midst,
and putting his arms around it, he said to them,
“Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me;
and whoever receives me,
receives not me but the One who sent me.”

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