Portable Commentary

19 September 2021

Thought for the day  
Jeremiah, who knew a thing or two about the human condition, wrote: The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse— who can understand it? (Jer 17:9) A healthy introspection (it need not be introversion!) is essential, if we are to become free from inherited drives and free for service.

Lord Jesus, let me know myself and know you, and desire nothing except you alone. Let me hate myself and love you. Let me do everything for your sake. Let me humble myself and exalt you. Let me think of nothing except you. Let me die to myself and live in you. Let me accept whatever happens as from you. Let me banish self and follow you, And ever desire to follow you.

from St Augustine

Mark 9:30
  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.

Mark 9:33   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.”

Initial observations
This is the second of the three Passion Predictions, which serve to structure the teaching found in Mark 8-10. It is found within the longer section 9:30-10:31. The divisions here are very clear: first you have the prediction (30-32), followed by misunderstanding (33-34), followed by a positive teaching and example (35-37).

Kind of writing
See the box below for the Markan pattern across chapters 8, 9 and 10. The first scene in Sequence 2 is a passion prediction. Jesus surely foresaw his death. However, in the tradition, the details have been added after the event to make the predictions clearer. The instance in today’s text, however, may reflect a more primitive form of the tradition (“hand of sinners”, “killed”) precisely because it is less detailed.

The middle scene illustrates the hand of writer. The disciples are silent and remain so, presumably because they are ashamed. The writer himself has to supply the information in an explanatory note. Such explanatory asides abound in this Gospel: Mark 1:16, 22; 2:15; 3:10, 21; 5:42; 6:17-18, 20, 31; 6:52; 7:3; 9:6, 31, 34;10:22; 11:13, 18, 32; 12:12; 14:40, 56; 15:10; 16:8.
The last scene is an action chreia, whereby a teaching is dramatised and then expressed in words, for greater clarity. It constitutes a prophetic gesture, familiar from the Old Testament and, of course, from the ministry of Jesus himself.

Stacks Image 107

Old Testament background
He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Mic 6:8)
When pride comes, then comes disgrace; but wisdom is with the humble. (Prov 11:2)

New Testament foreground
Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” (Mark 10:15)

If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” (Mark 6:11)

Now at the festival he used to release a prisoner for them, anyone for whom they asked. Now a man called Barabbas was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection. So the crowd came and began to ask Pilate to do for them according to his custom. Then he answered them, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” For he realized that it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed him over. But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead. Pilate spoke to them again, “Then what do you wish me to do with the man you call the King of the Jews?” They shouted back, “Crucify him!” Pilate asked them, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Crucify him!” So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified. (Mark 15:6–15)

St Paul
For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, as though sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels and to mortals. We are fools for the sake of Christ, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honour, but we in disrepute. To the present hour we are hungry and thirsty, we are poorly clothed and beaten and homeless, and we grow weary from the work of our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we speak kindly. We have become like the rubbish of the world, the dregs of all things, to this very day. (1 Cor 4:9-13)

When we had finished the voyage from Tyre, we arrived at Ptolemais; and we greeted the believers and stayed with them for one day. The next day we left and came to Caesarea; and we went into the house of Philip the evangelist, one of the seven, and stayed with him. He had four unmarried daughters who had the gift of prophecy. While we were staying there for several days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. He came to us and took Paul’s belt, bound his own feet and hands with it, and said, “Thus says the Holy Spirit, ‘This is the way the Jews in Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.’” When we heard this, we and the people there urged him not to go up to Jerusalem. Then Paul answered, “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be bound but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” Since he would not be persuaded, we remained silent except to say, “The Lord’s will be done.” (Acts 21:7–14)

Brief commentary
Verse 30 They are on the journey to Jerusalem and the public ministry in Galilee is over. Jesus’ desire for anonymity is typical of Mark’s Gospel. As was observed before, this may well reflect a real desire of the historical Jesus, which was strengthened by the evangelist for his own purposes. Mark is answering a difficult question: after all the preparation, how was it that most Jews did not recognise Jesus as Messiah? His answer is also difficult: this happened on purpose in order that salvation might thereby be extended to non-Jews.
Verse 31 “Son of Man” is Jesus’ own self-designation, taken from the book of Daniel 7:13-14. The word “betrayed” in Greek has two meanings: it means to be betrayed and it means to be handed over. Because the verb used is in the passive voice, God is taken to be the acting subject. Believers do not normally think of God as “betraying” Jesus, but rather of God as “handing over” Jesus. This is the earliest usage, found also in Paul with no reference whatsoever to Judas Iscariot. The lack of detail is quite noticeable here and perhaps we are closer to the earlier tradition at this point, as noted above.
Verse 32 It is a feature of Mark that the disciples do not understand. This must seem historically improbable after the previous instruction (!), but, of course, Mark’s purpose is to show up the disciples in a very bad light. The argument would go something like this: if even those closest to Jesus did not grasp the place of suffering in his destiny and in their own discipleship, how much more…?
Verse 33 Presumably we are meant to think of Peter’s house at Capernaum. Characteristically, teaching for insiders is given indoors.
Verse 34 Silent: see the range of occurrences in Mark 3:4; 4:39; 9:34; 10:48; 14:61. Greatest: a very normal question in society, then as well as now. We are not yet talking about who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven, but more nakedly, who is the greatest, pure and simple.
Verse 35 The introduction to the teaching and action is quite formal. The teaching itself can be found in different contexts in the Gospels: Mark 10:43-44; Matt 20:26-27; 23:12-12; Lk 9:48; 22:26.
Verse 36 The elaborate introduction again prepares us for the illustration of what is meant. A child in this culture is a symbol of powerlessness (cf. My point is this: heirs, as long as they are minors, are no better than slaves, though they are the owners of all the property; but they remain under guardians and trustees until the date set by the father [Gal 4:1-3]). Both the Aramaic and the Greek behind the word “child” could mean servant as much as child.
Verse 37 To welcome a child means to serve the weakest and most powerless. In this way, the disciple encounters the Risen Lord. The idea behind it is that in welcoming an emissary you welcome the sender: in a child you welcome Christ and in Christ you welcome God. “The one who sent me” becomes almost a name for God in the Gospel according to John..

Pointers for prayer
1. Jesus uses the time they are travelling along the road to teach his disciples what it means to be one of his followers. Think of the wisdom you have acquired about life, about faith, about what it means to be a Christian. Who have been your teachers? Remember them and give thanks for them.
2. One of the lessons Jesus gives them is that there is a dying to be endured as we move to a fuller life. That was the road he would travel. It is also our journey, not only at the end of this earthly life, but also in small ways through life. When have you found that by dying in some way you came to a fuller life?
3. Achievement, affirmation, recognition and status are attractive and enjoyable when they come our way. Yet we can be in trouble if, like the disciples, we become caught up in pursuit of them. Jesus tells them that true greatness lies in service of others. What has helped you to appreciate the value of loving service of others? When have you experienced the service of others to you?

O God, protector of the poor and defender of the just, in your kingdom the last become first, the gentle are strong, and the lowly exalted.

Give us the wisdom from above, that we may find in your servant Jesus the pattern of true discipleship and the grace to persevere in following him, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.