Notes on the Lectionary with Deacon Lincoln Anderson. Visit the series page at AnglicanCompass.com/NotesOnTheLectionary
But they did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him. And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. (Mark 9:32–34, ESV)
In this week’s Gospel lesson, we receive two teachings from Jesus that are presented separately but are really deeply connected. You may notice in the bible translation that you read that the reading is split into two sections, with different headings. In the ESV, which is the translation used for the ACNA’s Gospel book, the two headings are “Jesus Again Foretells Death, Resurrection,” made up of verses 30-32, and “Who is the Greatest?” which contains verses 33-37.
This practice of presenting Scripture as narrative sections is helpful for understanding the structure of what we are reading, but sometimes it can provide an obstacle to deeper understanding rather than being helpful. This is, in my opinion, one of those cases. It seems clear to me that Mark did not intend for these to be two separate narrative sections; indeed, this is why the Sunday Lectionary combines the lessons that the English translators have separated.
The lesson starts on the road, with Jesus and the disciples passing secretly through Galilee. Jesus intends for their movement to be hidden so that he can teach the disciples apart from the crowds and the challenges of the Pharisees and religious leaders. The chief teaching he is presenting is that he will be captured and killed by the Pharisees and rulers of the Temple and will be raised from the dead in three days.
The disciples don’t understand why he is saying this – much like Peter doesn’t after the first time he tells them about it. This time though, possibly remembering the rebuke against Peter, they do not ask him about this teaching. Instead, they talk among themselves about other things, which Jesus asks them about when they reach Capernaum.
Here, the text says that the band of disciples kept silent. They kept silent because they knew that their arguing about who was the greatest would disappoint Jesus. So Jesus calls the twelve, his closest friends among the disciples, and teaches them about what it is to be great in the Kingdom of God.
And here it is that they receive the explanation for the teaching that they have not understood. In order to be great among the disciples, one must put everyone ahead of themself. They must serve all, and not seek anyone’s service. They must be self-giving to the extreme, having only the welfare and well-being of others as the end of their deeds.
We see in how the disciples regard Jesus that they have a certain expectation of what it is he will do as Christ. To be God’s Christ, the Messiah of Israel, the Son of Man, is to possess an innate greatness such that the notion that he could be captured and killed makes as much sense as sowing wheat and expecting a crop of figs. It should be, in their minds, ontologically impossible for the Christ to suffer defeat and die.
I used to think that the difficulty the disciples had was with the resurrection. Now I am convinced that their expectations of the Messiah were such that they couldn’t get past the scandalous prospect of his capture and death to even begin to be perplexed about the resurrection. It is only in answering their squabbling over who is greatest that Jesus can reach them about how wrong their understanding is.
The Messiah is as great as they expect, and will do all the things that the prophets of Israel foretold, but he will also give up his life for the world. In the ultimate deed of self-giving, Jesus models what it truly means to be great. Jesus recognizes that far more than the overthrow of Roman rule in Palestine, the wellbeing of not only his fellow Jews but of all the Nations hinges on the overthrow of the Grave, and the full atonement for sins. Only he as God Incarnate has the power to defeat Death and the perfect sinlessness to fully atone.
This week’s Collect prayer reflects this teaching – greatness is related to works of love and charity. Without love, all of our great works really amount to nothing, and the one who craves greatness but lacks love is dead before Christ. How do you think the remaining verses in the lesson (36-37), which talk about receiving children, relate to this teaching?
Please answer in the comments!