Mark 9:30-37

What True Greatness is Really About

Jesus and his disciples are on the move again this time heading towards Capernaum the little village along the Sea of Galilee that is home of Peter and Andrew.  Along the way many conversations are being had and numerous questions are being asked.  I want to address this week two questions: one which the disciples should have asked and one which they should not have asked.

#1 The Question That Should Have Been Asked

30They went on from there and passed through Galilee. And he did not want anyone to know, 31for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.” 32But they did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him.   Mark 9:30-32

Mark does not record precisely where Jesus and his disciples are.  We know that he has recently returned from some high mountain where he was transfigured before a handful of his disciples.  He then rejoined the rest of his disciples where he cast out a demon and now he is on the move again.  We have seen Jesus seek a reprieve from the relentless presence of the crowds in the past so that he and his disciples might rest.  Here he seeks seclusion, not specifically for rest, but so that he might teach his disciples.  This after all is what we would expect a rabbi to be doing.

Mark does not record much of the content of that teaching, but he does give us a summary.  If you are keeping track, this is now the second time in Mark’s Gospel that Jesus has explicitly told the entire group of disciples that he will suffer, be killed, and later be raised from the dead.

Notice that Jesus once again refers to himself as the Son of Man. This is a title that for Jesus’ contemporaries would have been mostly free of the military and political baggage which was associated, for instance, with the title of Messiah.  This is not the first time we’ve heard Jesus speak of the Son of Man.  This title is found 14 different times in Mark and each time from the lips of Jesus.  The majority of the time (9 out of 14 uses) this title is connected with the suffering of the Son of Man.

Indeed, this is the case here.  The Son of Man will be delivered into the hands of men.  The one who will bring about salvation for men will be given over to men.  Left unspoken is exactly who will be doing the delivering over.  We know from the rest of Scripture that this was no mere human act.  It came from the hand of the Father just as Isaiah says “it was the will of the LORD to crush him (53:10).”  Not only will be handed over, he will be killed and three days later he will rise again.

This was a clear yet confounding thing for the disciples to hear.  What did it all mean?  The disciples had not been shy in the past about asking Jesus questions.  We just saw them question him over why they failed to cast out a demon.  They’ve asked him for the meaning of his parables.  But here they are silent.  Isn’t it ironic that the very ones who have the most access to Jesus fail to use that access to gain a proper understanding?  They chose instead to live in ignorance.  Apparently, even Peter who we’ve seen be so quick to speak up before remains silent.  Perhaps the disciples remember that last time Jesus spoke about his suffering, death and resurrection — and Peter did speak up.  Now to be fair, he did more than just speak up on that occasion.  He actually pulled Jesus aside and rebuked him.   The disciples should have asked Jesus what this all meant.  But they are afraid.

# 2 The Question That Should Not Have Been Asked

33And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” 34But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. 35And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” 36And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, 37“Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.” Mark 9:33-37

As they continue to make their way to Capernaum, conversation continues.  It seems likely that with a group this large they walked in pairs or in small groups. Jesus perhaps was leading the entourage from the front and it’s possible the disciples assumed he could not hear their conversation for along the way someone must have asked a question that should not have been asked.  Who is the greatest?  Now this was no abstract question such as “Who is greater Moses or Elijah?”, but as Luke’s account makes clear (c.f. Luke 9:46) they were discussing who among themselves was the greatest.  Jesus had just finished teaching about his life being given up and they are discussing how they might be built up.  Jesus was focused on his martyrdom while they are focused on their stardom.

One can’t help but wonder if this was brought about by Jesus’ selection of Peter, James and John to be on the mountaintop with him.  Or by the failure of the other nine disciples to earlier cast the demon out of the epileptic boy.  Had the disciples accepted the fact that Jesus would be killed and now were wondering who was next in line to lead the movement forward?

They arrive at the house in Capernaum which perhaps was the home of Peter and Andrew.  The disciples had failed to question Jesus so now Jesus will question his disciples.  We should not think they Jesus was actually ignorant of their conversation.  He poses this question as a means to instruct his disciples.  Their silence is a confession of their guilt.  Jesus then pulls “the twelve” aside from the other people who were likely with them.  Notice that Jesus does not entirely repudiate the idea of pursuing greatness, but he shows them the proper way to go about it.  “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.”  This is a two-fold direction to be last and to be a servant.  Both demonstrate humility and lowliness towards others.  Instead of sharing a parable to explain his point, Jesus summons a child to himself.  In the next chapter of Mark, Jesus will share the importance of becoming like a child but here the focus is on receiving a child. We should remember that unlike our own day where we all seem to assume that of course children should “come first”, in Jesus’ day the exact opposite was the case.  Children had no status.  They were secondary members of society.  And Jesus says to his disciples in essence, “The way you demonstrate humility is found in how to receive someone as ‘unimportant’ as a child.”

Discussion Questions

  1. What reason did Jesus have for not wanting anyone to know about his presence (v.30)?
  2. For the second time in Mark’s Gospel Jesus explicitly tells the disciples about his future suffering, death, and resurrection.  Do you think the disciples had a difficult time accepting this?  Why?
  3. Why do you think the disciples are afraid to ask Jesus for an explanation of his teaching (v.32)?
  4. What does their conversation on the way to Capernaum reveal about the disciples?
  5. Rather than simply rebuking his disciples for pursuing greatness Jesus shares with them what true greatness is really about.  How did Jesus explain what it means to be great?
  6. Why would receiving a child in that day be such a radical demonstration of being last and servant of all?
  7. Jesus’ lesson on greatness in this passage is often applied to leadership.  Why is Jesus’ model of leadership so countercultural to what we find in the world today?
  8. What hindrances do we face in seeking to live out Jesus’ call for us to be last and servant of all?
  9. In what ways does Jesus both model and empower us to be humble?
  10. What is one thing you want to be sure to remember from this passage?


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