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 – NRSV)
Jesus continues his journey. Mark reports that Jesus is travelling through his home territory of Galilee. He came from “Nazareth in Galilee” (cf Mark 1:9) and he began his ministry there (cf Mark 1:14) so he would no doubt have had fond memories of the place. But his sights are set elsewhere. He does not want word to get out that he is about because he wants time with his disciples. He has much to teach them. His whole life and teaching is in the context of his journey to Jerusalem, where he will handed over to death. Mark gives us the second of the three prophecies of Jesus’ passion here – see also Matthew 17:22-23 and Luke 9:43-45. The other two prophecies are in Mark 8:31-33 (see also Matthew 16:2-23 and Luke 9:22) and 10:32-34 (see also Matthew 20:17-19 and Luke 18:31-33). “The passion prediction announces not only Jesus’ impending fate; it is also an exemplar of the life of service to which he calls the disciples” (J R Edwards, The Gospel according to Mark, Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: Eerdmans; Apollos, 2002, 282).
passed through: Mark constantly reminds us that Jesus is on a very specific journey. The expression “on the way” occurs nine times in Mark 8-12.
they did not understand …. and were afraid to ask him: This is a telling statement. The intimates of Jesus, those who have travelled with him for some time now and have listened to his teachings, do not know who he is! It reminds us not too cheapen the call of the Gospel by truing it into a set of doctrines and rules that can be more or less easily learned and understood.
in the house: Jesus returns to Capernaum for the last time and goes into “the house”. The definite article suggests a familiar place – one in which he can get the full attention of the disciples. The teaching about being servants and the event with the children both occur within this intimate setting.
He sat down: “To sit and instruct is to assume the posture of an authoritative teacher (12:41; Matt 5:1; 23:2; John 8:2)” (J R Edwards, op cit, 286).
servant of all: The stark contrast between the prophecy of the passion and the disciples arguing about who is the greatest, is shocking. It is further proof of just how ignorant they were of the reality being played out right under their noses. But their silence when Jesus challenges them implies some guilt or shame and might therefore suggest that they are not entirely unknowing and innocent. In this context, Jesus gives them a teaching that is not only countercultural, it seems to fly in the face of common sense and the logic of everyday experience. Who could be naive enough – or perhaps stupid enough – to be “servant of all”? Jesus is persistently working on their worldview and one day they will come to see and know. One commentator writes: “The juxtaposition of the two pericopes reveals a jarring contrast between Jesus’ humility and the disciples’ desire for distinction and recognition. A similar contrast is, in fact, present in all three passion predictions. Peter’s rebuke of Jesus following the first passion prediction (8:31) was prompted by the assumption that Messiahship entails privilege, not suffering. Likewise, the third passion prediction (10:33–34) is followed by the request of James and John to sit with Christ in glory (10:35–45). In all three passion predictions, Jesus speaks of the necessity of his rejection, suffering, and death; and following all three the disciples voice their ambitions for status and prestige. Jesus speaks of surrendering his life; the disciples speak of fulfilling theirs. He counts the cost of discipleship; they count its assets. The disciples have yet to learn that the rewards of discipleship come only as a consequence of following Christ on the costly way to Jerusalem” (J R Edwards, op cit, 285).
Then he took a little child and put it among them ….: Jesus does not try to explain or analyze the shocking teaching he has just given them. He tells a story accompanied by actions. This has to be one of the most beautiful scenes in the whole of Sacred Scripture. What does this scene evoke? If we focus on Jesus, it might evoke the observation that children trust him or that he is affectionate? If we focus on the child, however, we might be led along a different way of thinking. One commentator notes: “We are mistaken if we imagine that Greek and Jewish society extolled the virtues of childhood as do modern societies in general. Societies with high infant mortality rates and great demand for human labor cannot afford to be sentimental about infants and youth. In Judaism, children and women were largely auxiliary members of society whose connection to the social mainstream depended on men (either as fathers or husbands). Children, in particular, were thought of as ‘not having arrived’. They were good illustrations of ‘the very last’ (v. 35).
“The conclusion Jesus draws from the child in his arms is subtle and surprising. The child is not used, as is often supposed, as an example of humility, but as an example of the ‘little’ and insignificant ones whom followers of Jesus are to receive. ‘Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me’. Disciples are thus not to be like children, but to be like Jesus who embraces them. It is Jesus, not the child, who here demonstrates what it means to be ‘the servant of all’. It is in the small and powerless that God appears to the world, as Jesus so trenchantly described in the parable of the nations (Matt 25:31–46). Our response to the hungry, thirsty, lonely, naked, sick, and imprisoned is our response to God, for ‘whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me’ (Matt 25:40). The humblest act of kindness sets off a chain reaction that shakes heaven itself, for whatever is done to the little and least is done to Jesus, and whatever is done to Jesus is done to God!” (J R Edwards, op cit, 287-288).
In today’s Gospel – Mark 9:30-37 – we are reminded that Jesus is on a journey. The expression “on the way” occurs nine times in Mark 8-12. In our text today, Mark says Jesus is “passing through” Galilee – his home ground. He would have known – and been known by – a lot of the people there. It would have been tempting to visit some of the old familiar sites and re-connect with old friends. But the journey and its destination demand his full attention and commitment. The journey to Jerusalem defines him. Jesus’ real journey is not exterior but interior.
The Orthodox Bishop Kallistos Ware, at the beginning of his book, The Orthodox Way, tells a story from the Desert Fathers and Mothers that is illuminating: “One of the best known of the Desert Fathers of fourth-century Egypt, Saint Sarapion the Sindonite, travelled once on pilgrimage to Rome. Here he was told of a celebrated recluse, a woman who lived always in one small room, never going out. Sceptical about her way of life – for he was himself a great wanderer – Sarapion called on her and asked: ‘Why are you sitting here?’ To this she replied: ‘I am not sitting, I am on a journey.’” (Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way, Mowbray, 1979, 7.)
To exist is to be on a journey. St Augustine’s famous words at the beginning of his Confessions capture it well: “You have made us for yourself O Lord and our hearts are restless until they rest in you”. There is no avoiding it. Try as we may, we cannot settle down in any definitive way. We are inherently homeless. Sometimes we must be still and quiet in order to become sensitive to the journey that is ours.
It is a source of great trouble when we forget that we are on a journey. When we are forgetful we are prone to build empires – be they of the high profile kind or the little personal empires. And the central dynamic is always the same: Control! Building empires generally provokes violence in one way or another.
The alternative is not giving up in despair. The alternative is knowing who and what we are. We are God’s creation, expressions of Infinite Love, Goodness, Beauty and Truth. God is constantly speaking within us: “Come! Let me love you into freedom!” It is a source of great freedom when we remember this.
These are troubled and troubling times for us Catholics. It would be easy – and entirely understandable – to walk away from the Church in disgust. It is easy to be very negative about particular individuals or groups. It is easy to analyse our situation in terms of black and white issues. It is easy to come up with simple solutions. It is not easy to walk in the wilderness with God, to make the journey with Jesus to Jerusalem. But the wilderness is our place at this time, the journey to Jerusalem is our journey now.