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Do You Really Want to Be the Greatest?

Scripture - Mark 9:30-37

Are you wise & understanding? Know that it comes not from hearing the word, but from embracing the word in humility, servanthood, & love.

The Bible is truly the Word of God, & the Word of God is true. Why do I say this? Because of passages like we have just read. If the Bible were the creation of human beings, we would sort out & eliminate the embarrassing parts & only include what makes us seem honorable, even heroic. But no, the Bible shows humanity as we are, warts, imperfections, pride & all. Therefore, Scripture must be God’s Word & not mans.

I do not know whether Mark wants us to feel sorry for the disciples at this point in his gospel, but I sure do.

Earlier in the gospel Jesus said things to them in code, & they did not get it. The parables were secret, hidden messages which they gradually learned – away from the crowds & in the quietness of a house – how to understand. For example, when Jesus warned them about the leaven of the Pharisees & Herod (in chapter 8) they thought he was making a comment about them forgetting to bring bread. They have struggled to get their minds around the fact that he often says things that have a clear meaning on the surface level, but what he wants is for them to look under the surface & find a hidden meaning somewhere else.

And now he tells them something which we, the readers, realize he means quite literally; & they, not surprisingly, are puzzled at because they are looking for a hidden meaning & cannot find it. This is not public teaching; it is part of the hidden, inner meaning of his entire ministry, the part that crowds will not see until it actually happens. Jesus does not, at this stage, even attempt to tell parables about his approaching fate. Nearer the time he will do strange things & say even stranger things about it; but at this point he is simply trying to tell them what he can see is going to happen. He will be handed over; he will be killed; & he will rise again.

Have you noticed that whenever Jesus speaks of his death he also speaks of his resurrection?

Why could they not understand? Basically, because no such end could possibly have been part of their game plan, their understanding of what a Messiah might do. You might as well expect a football player, preparing for the biggest game of the season, to explain to his friends that he was going to play with his legs tied together.

Now, probably not all Jews of the time believed that God would send a Messiah; but nobody at all believed that, if & when God did send one, that Messiah would have to suffer, much less have to die!

However - & this must have really increased their confusion – the language Jesus used for saying this contained 2 phrases which could have been used as code for something else. So, my guess is that the disciples were trying to decode things which Jesus meant in a very straightforward sense.

The first is the phrase son of man. Clearly Mark intends for us to understand that on this occasion Jesus simply meant himself. Of course, Mark knows that the phrase carries echoes of the great dream-picture in Daniel 7, where one like a son of man, correctly interpreted, refers to ‘the people of the saints of the Most High.’ But the phrase could also be used as an indirect way of saying ‘I’. That, of course, is how it was meant, & quickly understood, in 8:31: Jesus began to teach his disciples: the Son of Man must suffer many things & be rejected by the elders, chief priests, & legal experts, & be killed, & then after 3 days, rise from the dead. But after the sharp exchange at that point between Jesus & Peter the message still does not seem to have sunk in.

The second phrase that the disciples might have taken as code was 3 days after… he will rise up. As we read in Mark 9:10, though most Jews believed that God would raise the dead bodily at the end of the present age, they were not expecting that one person would rise from the dead while the present age continued on its way. They must have wondered what on earth – literally, what on earth – Jesus was talking about.

At this stage we can not only sympathize with the disciples; we must ask ourselves whether we do the same thing. When God is trying to say something to us, how good are we at listening? Is there something in Scripture, or something we have heard in church, or something we sense going on around us, through which God is speaking to us - & if so, are we open to it? Are we prepared to have our earlier ways of understanding things taken apart so that a new way of understanding can open up instead?

A sign that the answer may still be ‘no’ is if, like the disciples in the second scene, we are still concerned about our own status, about what is in it for us. If we are thinking that by following Jesus we will enhance our own prestige, our sense of self-worth, (so highly prized today, but so easily leads to a narcissistic sense that the gospel exists to make us feel good about ourselves) or even our bank balance, then we are very unlikely to be able to hear what God is actually saying. Certainly, Jesus must have been frustrated & disappointed that the disciples could only worry about their own relative status.

That is the problem of understanding only half the message – the half they wanted to understand. If Jesus is the Messiah, then we are all royal court-in-waiting! They will spend the next several chapters of Mark with this same idea in their heads, until the shocking truth dawns.

To try to jolt them out of their upside-down thinking, Jesus, & not for the last time, uses a child as a teaching aid. Aside from normal family affection, children were not highly rated in the ancient world; they had no status or prestige. The point Jesus is making here is that the disciples will not gain particular favor or social standing because they are his followers; anyone who receives even a child in Jesus’ name will receive Jesus himself, & thereby will receive also the one who sent me – a way of referring to God which may remind us more of John’s Gospel. In other words, anyone at all associated with Jesus can become the means of access to royalty, & even to divinity; the disciples are not special at all in that sense.

This lesson from Jesus resonates out into the centuries of church history in which so many have thought that being close to Jesus, even working full-time for him, made them somehow special. Those who have really understood his message know that things are not like that. As Jesus goes to the cross, turning upside down everything his disciples had imagined, he is also turning upside down the way people, including Christians, still think. If we feel sorry for the disciples in their confusion, we should ask ourselves just how confused we ourselves still are.


Let us not forget that the road to being greatest is marked by being least, & that generally means a lack of recognition resulting in no tangible evidence of how great we are. This is humility at its best, when we serve without need of human affirmation, recognizing that it is God who calls. Jesus says to be great we must be welcoming of those who can offer us nothing in return. This act of servanthood signifies our desire to welcome not only the least but also the one who is truly greatest—Jesus, himself. In radical hospitality, we are securely rooted in the knowledge that we are becoming the people we were created to be, working redemptively for the purpose of a kingdom that we will never rule (and should not want to) but a kingdom in which everyone is welcome.

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