Thoughts on Mark 9:30-39

Mark 9: 30a opens with the statement, “They went out from there…” It is a statement that is connecting from somewhere and for it to make sense one has to read backwards. This is common in Mark’s intercalation tactic where a story starts somewhere and then interrupted before coming back to the story. Some refers to such an approach as a digression but for Mark that works well for his narratives. This is a statement that is pointing out to the itinerary of Jesus Christ. In 9:27, Jesus and his disciples are recorded as being in Caesarea Philippi and that is far to the north. Then they came to the Mount of Transfiguration and the location of which is uncertain. They are probabilities that this could be Mount Hermon or another mountain. According to 9: 14-24, after the Transfiguration experience they went to the bottom of the mountain. What follows there was the healing of a boy. It is that from that place that they “went out.” They have completed their northern adventure and their face is now turned toward the south that is Jerusalem the final destination for the accomplishment of His ministry. They are still in Galilee, but with the intentions of leaving soon.

Galilee is Jesus’ home turf, but from the infant narratives we know that He was born in Bethlehem of Judea. The question that we might ask is how could Galilee become His home turf?  However, we are quite aware of the story of Joseph and Mary when they moved to Nazareth early in Jesus’ life to escape Archelaus, one of the sons of Herod. This is how Jesus grew up in Galilee. It became His home where significant things like the healing and teaching ministry, the calling of the first disciples, and finally the meeting with His disciples after His resurrection took place. What is interesting is the instruction from Jesus that this journey was supposed to be private. He did not want to be noticed (Κἀκεῖθεν ἐξελθόντες παρεπορεύοντο διὰ τῆς Γαλιλαίας, καὶ οὐκ ἤθελεν ἵνα τις γνοῖ·) Mark does not give reasons why Jesus did not want to be noticed on this journey. Did He wanted to avoid been seen by Archelaus? Is it a deliberate Markan concept of messianic secrecy? However all these are speculations without evidence hence there is no need to give them much attention. The most probably reason that I will proffer is that He needed quality time with his disciples, time to give his final teachings and instructions and without interferences from the crowds.   

Mark 9:30-37 occurs within the second major section of Mark 8:22-10:52 which contains a threefold pattern that appears three times. Jesus predicts his passion and resurrection, the disciples don’t understand, and Jesus then gives the disciples further teachings. In the first segment of Mark 9:30-32,  Jesus predicts his death and resurrection for a second time. The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, in three days after being killed, he will rise again. (Ὁ Υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου παραδίδοται εἰς χεῖρας ἀνθρώπων, καὶ ἀποκτενοῦσιν αὐτόν, καὶ ἀποκτανθεὶς μετὰ τρεῖς ἡμέρας ἀναστήσεται.) The term word here is  παραδίδοται (paradidotai) which means to be handed over. Who was going to hand him over and to whom? The first probably is Judas who will betray him and hand him to the Jewish authorities. The second probability will be the Jewish authorities who will hand him over to Pilate. The third probability will be Pilate who will hand him to the Roman soldiers. However, the most probably meaning of this term which I also agree with is that Jesus was to be delivered into the hands of men (Jewish authorities, Pilate and Soldiers) by God. William Lane argues that, “to be handed over is an important concept in the context of lawsuits and in the Jewish theology of Martyrdom” (Lane). In this context of William Lane the term will connotations of the actual fulfillment of God’s will as expressed in the scripture.  This is the second and shortest of three passion announcements in this Gospel. In all three, he predicts his suffering, death, and resurrection. Though Jesus’ statement is in plain language, the disciples cannot get it at all. There is such a great gap between their expectations and Jesus’ predictions that they are even afraid to ask for clarification. They do not want to demonstrate their ignorance. Earlier on, they have witnessed Jesus rebuking Peter for professing ignorance in 8:33, and they are not prepared to invite a similar rebuke for asking a question that appears foolish before Jesus.

So what happen next? We see the disciples deciding to ignore Jesus’ warning of what was going to happen in Jerusalem; instead they begin to argue with each other over petty issues of rank and status. As they come to Capernaum they entered the house. Mark doesn’t specify whose house this is, but the use of the Greek definite article te oikia (the house) points to a specific known house. In verse 33c, Jesus asked them a question, “What were you arguing about among yourselves on the way?”  In the Markan narratives, houses are private spaces of instruction and revelation. In these private houses Jesus would choose to deliver specific teachings which were meant for the smaller inner circle of the apostles and were not meant for the general public. This question by Jesus unearths some hidden subject into the open that provokes an embarrassing silence. Disciples are silent because of guilty conscience, making it clear that they understand the inappropriateness of their earlier conversation. While Jesus was foretelling them about his betrayal and death, they were thinking about their place in the kingdom. Verse 35a then reads, “He sat down, called the twelve, and he said to them”. (καὶ καθίσας ἐφώνησεν τοὺς δώδεκα καὶ λέγει αὐτοῖς Εἴ τις θέλει πρῶτος εἶναι, ἔσται πάντων ἔσχατος καὶ πάντων διάκονος.) In the ancient world, to sit and instruct was to assume the posture of an authoritative teacher. This was the position that was taken by rabbis which is different to contemporary professors who teach while standing. The question’s intention is to provide the platform for delivering a new teaching.  Verse 35b, “If any man wants to be first, he shall be last (eschatos) of all and servant (diakonos) of all”. In this context, the Greek word eschatos (last) means last, lowest, or least. Diakonos (servant) is the Greek word from which we get our word “deacon.” The way that the word is used in the New Testament makes it clear that this kind of servanthood is a humble position. The term refers to personal devotion in service as opposed to service as a slave. In verse 36a, we read that, He took a little child, and set him in their midst” We are tempted to see this child only as an “object lesson, a visual illustration of the point that he is trying to make. But that is not the case; Jesus treats children with too much respect to believe that this child is nothing more than an object to him. Jesus’ gesture must be disturbing to the disciples because, in that time and place, children have so little status and ranking somewhere between women and slaves. For a rabbi to take a child in his arms in the presence of his disciples is remarkable.

However, the story in chapter 9 gives us another insight into what the kingdom of God. It is like receiving children. Jesus links the child to himself and himself to God, thereby establishing a link between the child and God. The person who welcomes a child gets credit for welcoming Jesus, and the person who welcomes Jesus gets credit for welcoming God. By extension then, the person who welcomes a child gets credit for welcoming God. Jesus clearly means that we should accord children with great respect, but the child is also a symbol for anyone who is in need, helpless, or of lowly status. Those who fall in the bracket of the marginalized and vulnerable in society are metaphorically-children. Who are these people in our society today? By extension, we should consider that Jesus is calling us to welcome the homeless, the disabled, the mentally ill, the sick, the uneducated and anyone else who cannot repay our hospitality or make it.

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