The first half (1:1-8:30) seeks to acknowledge, or even prove, Jesus as the Messiah. The gospel opens right at the beginning with preparation for the public ministry—no birth stories in Mark. The ensuing text is packed full of miracles, healings and teaching. The word authority is used several times as the author continues to seek to reveal who Jesus was. This half of the Gospel ends with that declaration from Peter:
“[Jesus] asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.” (8: 29-30)
The second half of the Gospel is often thought of as the journey towards the cross. It begins with the words:
“Then he began to teach them that the Child of Humanity must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, “(8:31)
In this second half of the Gospel the author seeks to establish that the way forward is not in great, conquering strength as many were hoping for but by the path of suffering, of laying down one’s life even to death. Ultimately, this focus in Mark reveals the death on the cross as the greatest proof that Jesus was the Messiah.
I just wanted to set the text for today (9:30-37) into this context. Jesus is walking with the disciples providing an opportunity to re-emphasise the journey to the cross. The author of Mark records the words of Jesus as being very direct and clear:
“The Child of Humanity will be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise.” (9:31)
This is followed by the part of the text I want to focus on today. The reader is told that the party arrive at their destination. Once in the house where they are residing Jesus asked what they had been arguing about on the journey. The question silenced them perhaps these followers were a little embarrassed because they had been arguing about who was the greatest. It does feel a bit futile — they had just been hearing about the ultimate end of the journey was to be betrayal and death and they are arguing about who is the greatest.
I suspect this was included in the Markan text at this point to provide opportunity to emphasise again that this journey is not about greatness. I wondered is it part of the human psyche to want to be great? To want to be better than others. To make the whole of one’s life journey about competition.
I see it all around — this need to be greatest. It is visible in both the international and national arenas. Sometimes, as I read or listen to news it feels like the whole content reveals a huge competition about who is the greatest. I even see it on social media, posts full of self- promotion with the underlying assumption that their product or ministry or insights are the best. I wonder why can’t difference be celebrated without the need to be better than the other.
On this journey to the cross Jesus condemned this need to be better than others. The way to go was servanthood. In the final verses of today’s text Jesus illustrates this be taking a child and telling the disciples that welcoming such a child is welcoming Jesus. This is a very powerful image.
To comprehend it fully it is important to not think about children as they are thought about today — cute and sweet (in most cases!), innocent and vulnerable. In the first century children were often the marginalized. Many were street urchins who were considered expendable. A PBS document talks about how after a baby was born it was placed on the ground, if the father picked it up the child was kept, otherwise they were discarded.
Jesus, as a male, would not approach or hold the child. I suspect a collective gasp would escape from the first and second century audience. This behaviour was a little outrageous and would demand attention.
In contemporary times, to understand Jesus welcoming and taking a child into his arms within this whole context of the journey towards the cross, servanthood, refusing to think of oneself as better than others, it is necessary to imagine not a child but someone who is considered marginalized or an outcast and extend the same welcome to them. Not such an easy image as a child but a very soul-searching and powerful one.