They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 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.” But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” (Mark 9:30-37 – NRSVCE)
We find similar texts predicting the passion in Matthew 17.22–23 and Luke 9.43b–45 and similar texts concerning who is the greatest in Matthew 18.1–5 and Luke 9.46–48.
This text in Mark follows immediately upon the story of the transfiguration (9:2-13) and the healing of the boy with the “spirit” (9:14-29). The journey to Jerusalem is about to begin in earnest and Jesus needs some privacy so he can talk intimately with the disciples. There are some profound and difficult truths he needs to impart.
Jesus refers to himself as “Son of Man” here as has done in Mark 8:31 and Mark 10:33–34, the two earlier predictions of his passion. He is thus identifying himself with the coming of the glorious Son of Man figure on the day of the Lord – see Mark 13:26. Jesus is making it clear that God’s plan is unfolding – see Isaiah 53:6, 12.
In the first prediction of the passion, Peter objects – see Mark 8:32. There is no objection here from the disciples. What are we to make of this? Are the disciples simply unable to grasp the reality? Or do they perhaps grasp it – in some beginning sort of way – but are too afraid to go there? Whatever the truth of it, a gulf is developing between Jesus and the disciples with regard to what is about to happen. Jesus is becoming awfully isolated.
Capernaum was home base for Jesus and his first disciples in the early stages of his public ministry – see Mark 1:21 and 2:1. Before the final journey Jesus returns “home” for a brief period.
The verb dialogizomai (διαλογίζομαι) can suggest something neutral like “consider” or “ponder”. Mark generally uses it in a stronger sense meaning “argue” – see Mark 2:6, 8; 8:16, 17; 11:31. The silent embarrassment of the disciples before Jesus’ question – “What were you arguing about on the way?” – might suggest a power struggle and some egotism abroad in the group since there was obviously some emotion and conflict in their interchanges. The silence of the disciples here also echoes Mark’s description of the silence of the Pharisees when Jesus healed the man with a deformed hand – see Mark 3:4.
There is perhaps some irony that this unseemly behavior happens “on the way” – in what sense are the disciples “on the way”? Maybe they are yet to begin.
This “arguing” over who is the greatest follows immediately after Jesus has predicted his passion for the third time! We are left speechless. What part don’t they get? Probably the part where “the kingdom” is not of this world.
But, even as we ask these questions of the disciples we are forced to ask similar questions of ourselves: Do we really get it?
G K Chesterton’s quip comes to mind: Christianity hasn’t failed it’s just not been tried yet.
Chesterton might be a little hard on us there. But it is interesting to note that what we know about the lives of the followers of Jesus until the 4th century is remarkably edifying. What we know about the lives of the followers of Jesus in subsequent centuries is too often remarkably unedifying.
In 313 Constantine allegedly had a vision of the Cross with the message: “Under this sign you will conquer”. He did conquer. He then gave Christians favoured status in the empire. Hitherto Christianity had been an outlawed sect and adherence to it could incur the death penalty. By the end of the 4th century, Christianity had become identified with the empire and – tragically – took on a whole new way of being in the world.
Frequently in the subsequent centuries, the once persecuted sect became the persecutor. I can find nothing in the person and teaching of Jesus that could possibly justify the Crusades, the persecution and execution of “heretics” or the persecution of the Jewish people. So where did it come from? I suggest it came from a religion too closely identified with worldly power. When Christianity loses its focus on people and relationships it loses its focus on Jesus Christ.
We have a huge task ahead of us as Catholics to work through the Constantine-effect. Pope Francis is leading the way. He is emphasizing people and relations rather than doctrine and law. This sounds very much like Jesus’ observation that we are not made for the Sabbath, the Sabbath is made for us – see Mark 2:22-28. In Evangelii Gaudium he slams “worldliness” – a word he uses no fewer than 11 times in the document. For example:
#93: “Spiritual worldliness, which hides behind the appearance of piety and even love for the Church, consists in seeking not the Lord’s glory but human glory and personal well-being. It is what the Lord reprimanded the Pharisees for: ‘How can you believe, who receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?’ (Jn 5:44). It is a subtle way of seeking one’s ‘own interests, not those of Jesus Christ’ (Phil 2:21). It takes on many forms, depending on the kinds of persons and groups
into which it seeps. Since it is based on carefully cultivated appearances, it is not always linked to outward sin; from without, everything appears as it should be. But if it were to seep into the Church, ‘it would be infinitely more disastrous than any other worldliness which is simply moral’.”
Pope Francis approaches the same challenge from a different perspective in his homily at Casa Santa Marta on April 16 2015. Speaking of the Acts of the Apostles’ account of the attempts made by the religious authorities to prevent the apostles from proclaiming the Good News, he observes:
“(The religious authorities) didn’t know to dialogue, they didn’t know to dialogue with God, because they didn’t know to pray and to hear the voice of God, and they didn’t know to dialogue with others. ‘But why did they understand in this way?’ They only interpreted how the law could be more precise, but they were closed to the signs of God in history, they were closed to the people, to their people. They were closed, closed. And the lack of dialogue, this closure of the heart, brought them to the point of not obeying God. This is the drama of these teachers of Israel, of these theologians of the people of God: they didn’t know to listen, they didn’t know to dialogue. Dialogue takes place with God and with the brethren.”