Sunday, September 12, 2021

Edgy Conversations of a Vulnerable Christ

Below is a rough translation and some preliminary comments regarding Mark 9:30—37, the Revised Common Lectionary’s gospel reading for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B. I invite your comments below and hope you feel free to engage in this study together. 

Many Bibles subhead this text as the 2nd“prediction” or “foretelling” by Jesus of his death. As such, it supposedly fits within a pattern of “Jesus predicts; the disciples misunderstand in some way.” I agree that on all three occasions that Jesus discloses his impending death the disciples (or some of them) respond inappropriately. However, the “prediction/misunderstanding” model seems a bit ill-fitted to me. In both the first disclosure (8:27-38; here), Jesus is edgy with the disciples before making the disclosure that they misunderstand. In that story, Jesus “rebukes” the disciples when Peter responds that they had been saying that Jesus is “the Christ.” In this week’s story, the disciples are afraid to admit their lack of understanding and Jesus “interrogates” (the verb seems stronger than simply “asks”) them about their conversation on the road.  

For that reason, I am approaching this text - as I do with the first disclosure - as one with a serious edge to it. Prior to our text, Jesus had just come down from the mountain with Peter, James, and John, on which he had been transfigured. What awaited him when he descended was a large crowd where some disciples were arguing with some Scribes over the disciples’ failed attempt to help a boy tormented with a demon. Jesus says, during that story, “You faithless generation! How much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you?” It is not clear whether he is despairing over his time with the crowd, with folks oppressed by demons, with Scribes and disciples who argue when there is someone in a crisis at hand, or over disciples who do not seem to have enough faith to participate in the kind of liberating activity that the Reign of God brings. I’m going to go with the latter and read our present story as one that takes place with an atmosphere of tension between Jesus and the disciples. 

I should note that I have developed a conviction about Mark's gospel that are shaping the way I read this story. I think the term "messianic secret" is misleading. It is an attempt to name why it is that Jesus will shut down or shut up proclamations about him just at a moment when we feel like the iron is hot and it's time to strike. I agree with the diagnosis that Jesus is rebuking, redirecting, or shutting down in some ways just when we least expect it. But, I feel like the issue is not secrecy or timing. Jesus' proclamation all along has been that the reign of God is at hand, that we need to change our entire way of thinking, and trust in it. I find those moments when Jesus redirects the disciples to be attempts to make them participants in the reign of God, not spectators to Jesus doing the will of God. I see Jesus calling companions and co-workers, not fans. I think that also explains his exasperation with the disciples, such as when they cannot exorcise the demons from the boy at the base of the mount of transfiguration. As long as the disciples see Jesus as the messianic hero, rather than join Jesus in participating in the reign of God, they will resist his destiny of death and resurrection, rather than taking up their cross to join him. I don’t know if my reading of Mark's motifs is correct, but I think it will be a suggestive way of reading some of the parts of this story that don’t seem to fit easily within a “prediction/misunderstanding” pattern. 

I’d love to hear from you whether this kind of edgy reading seems plausible or not. And, if so, what does that imply for preaching this text today? 

30 Κἀκεῖθεν ἐξελθόντεςπαρεπορεύοντοδιὰ τῆς Γαλιλαίας, καὶ οὐκ ἤθελενἵνα τις γνοῖ
And leaving from there they passed through Galilee, and he was not wanting that anyone might know; 
ἐξελθόντες: AAPart npm, ἐξέρχομαι, 1) to go or come forth of  1a) with mention of the place out of which one goes, or the  point from which he departs
παρεπορεύοντο: IMI 3p, παραπορεύομαι, to proceed at the side, go past, pass by 
ἤθελεν: IAI 3s, θέλω, 1) to will, have in mind, intend 
γνοῖ: AASubj 3s, γινώσκω, 1) to learn to know, come to know, get a knowledge of perceive, feel
1. This story follows immediately an exorcism story, during which Mark mentions the crowd several times. Jesus seems to act – perhaps hurriedly – because an even bigger crowd was forming. I don’t know if those remarks explain the desire for anonymity in this story, but they seem related. 

31 ἐδίδασκενγὰρ τοὺς μαθητὰς αὐτοῦ καὶ ἔλεγεν αὐτοῖς ὅτι Ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου παραδίδοταιεἰς χεῖρας ἀνθρώπων, καὶ ἀποκτενοῦσιναὐτόν, καὶ ἀποκτανθεὶςμετὰ τρεῖς ἡμέρας ἀναστήσεται
for he was teaching his disciples and saying to them, “The son of man is being handed over into human hands, and they will kill him, and having been killed after three days he will be raised.
ἐδίδασκεν: IAI, 3s, διδάσκω, 1) to teach
παραδίδοται: PPI 3s, παραδίδωμι,1) to give into the hands (of another)  2) to give over into (one's) power or use  2a) to deliver to one something to keep, use,  take care of, manage  ἀποκτενοῦσιν: FAI 3p, ἀποκτείνω,1) to kill in any way 1a) to destroy, to allow to perish  
ἀποκτανθεὶς: APPart nmsἀποκτείνω,1) to kill in any way 1a) to destroy, to allow to perish  
ἀναστήσεται: FMI 3s, ἀνίστημι, 1) to cause to rise up, raise up
1. The “for” (γὰρ) implies that Jesus’ teaching (not “prediction” as many subheadings suggest) about his impending death is the reason why he is trying to avoid the crowd. However, in 8:32, when Jesus first discloses his impending death, Mark notes that “he said all of this quite openly.” My sense is that Jesus’ desire for anonymity is more about dealing with the disciples’ fear/ignorance/misapprehension than keeping his death a secret. 

 32οἱ δὲ ἠγνόουντὸ ῥῆμα, καὶ ἐφοβοῦντοαὐτὸν ἐπερωτῆσαι
But they were not understanding the word, and were fearing to interrogate him. 
ἠγνόουν: IAI 3p, ἀγνοέω, 1) to be ignorant, not to know  2) not to understand, unknown  3) to err or sin through mistake, to be wrong 
ἐφοβοῦντο: IMI 3p, φοβέω to strike with fear, scare, frighten. Middle or passive as here, to be put in fear, take fright
ἐπερωτῆσαι: AAInf ἐπερωτάω, 1) to accost one with an enquiry, put a question to, enquiry of,  ask, interrogate  2) to address one with a request or demand  2a) to ask of or demand of one 
1. We often think of Jesus and the disciples as cozy buds, traveling together, eating together, and generally getting along rather well. Werner Kelber argues that, for Mark, the disciples failed in their calling to follow Jesus (Mark’s Story of Jesus). The comment that the disciples were not understanding Jesus’ words fits within the typical paradigm of the “messianic secret” and “disciple’s misapprehension.” But, the comment that they were fearing to ask Jesus about it suggests that there is more than a comprehension issue here. Perhaps they were still reeling from the comment in v.19 about the “faithless generation.” For whatever reason, this scene does not feel like cozy pals on a road trip, but as a tension-filled master/disciple occasion. 

33Καὶ ἦλθονεἰς Καφαρναούμ. καὶ ἐν τῇ οἰκίᾳ γενόμενοςἐπηρώτααὐτούς, Τί ἐν τῇ ὁδῷ διελογίζεσθε
And they came into Capernaum.  And beginning in the house he was interrogating them, “What were you deliberating on the road?”  
ἦλθον: AAI 3p, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come  1a) of persons  1a1) to come from one place to another, and used both of  persons arriving and of those returning
γενόμενος: AMPart nms, γίνομαι, 1) to become, i.e. to come into existence, begin to be 
ἐπηρώτα: IAI 3s, ἐπερωτάω, 1) to accost one with an enquiry, put a question to, enquiry of,  ask, interrogate 
διελογίζεσθε: IMI 2p, διαλογίζομαι, 1) to bring together different reasons, to reckon up the  reasons, to reason, revolve in one's mind, deliberate
1. Like last week, I feel that “interrogate” is a better translation of ἐπερωτάω than simply “ask.” 

 34οἱ δὲ ἐσιώπων, πρὸς ἀλλήλους γὰρ διελέχθησανἐν τῇ ὁδῷ τίς μείζων. 
But they were being silent, for they were discussing with each other along the road who [is] greatest.  
ἐσιώπων: IAI 3p, σιωπάω, 1) to be silent, hold one's peace
διελέχθησαν: API 3p, διαλέγομαι, 1) to think different things with one's self, mingle thought with thought  1a) to ponder, revolve in mind  2) to converse, discourse with one, argue, discuss 
1. I am not sure whether the related verbs διαλογίζομαι (v.33) and διαλέγομαι (v.34) ought to be translated as implying discussions or arguments. They seem related to theEnglish term “dialogue,” but perhaps the context determines whether they are conversational inquiries or heated arguments. 
2. The content of the argument is not very well given in this verse. The phrase τίς μείζων has no verb, just a pronoun and an adjective. It could be “Who [is the] greatest” or something like “What [is] greatness.” Most translations go with “who [is] the greatest” because the next verse begins, “Whoever would be great among you …” I’m not sure that is a decisive clue. 
3. It would seem to me that a discussion of “What is greatness?” or “who is the greatest?” would be timely right now. I’ve always assumed that the disciples were arguing over which one of them was greater than the others of them as a sign that, once again, Jesus has disclosed his death and they have not understood at all. But, perhaps the teaching that the Son of Man must suffer and die has provoked them to asking about greatness itself. Is a suffering Son of Man greater than a conquering Messiah? If so, what is the nature of “greatness”? Since the disciples are scared to disclose their conversation to Jesus, maybe they were taking issue with his insistence that the Son of Man must suffer, calling it nonsense or even preferring the biblical image of the Son of Man coming in the clouds from Daniel to the Suffering Servant from Isaiah. 
4. My current thinking is that, just because they do not want to respond to his question does not mean they were simply engaged in a petty conversation. They may have been asking the right questions, raising the right objections, but leaning away from Jesus’ own paradoxical understanding of greatness. Certainly most of the world feels that way. 

 35καὶ καθίσαςἐφώνησεντοὺς δώδεκα καὶ λέγειαὐτοῖς, Εἴ τις θέλειπρῶτος εἶναιἔσταιπάντων ἔσχατος καὶ πάντων διάκονος. 
And having sat down he called the twelve and is saying to them, “If any wants to be first that one will be last of all and servant of all. 
καθίσας: AAPart nsm, καθίζω, 1) to make to sit down  1a) to set, appoint, to confer a kingdom on one  2) intransitively  2a) to sit down 
ἐφώνησεν: AAI 3s, φωνέω, 1) to sound, emit a sound, to speak   1a) of a cock: to crow   1b) of men: to cry, cry out, cry aloud, speak with a loud voice   2) to call, to call one's self, either by one's own voice or   though another
λέγει: PAI 3s, λέγω1) to say, to speak
θέλει: PAI 3s, θέλω, 1) to will, have in mind, intend 
εἶναι: PAInf, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present 
ἔσται: FMI, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present 
1. The incidental comment in this verse – that Jesus called the twelve – seems odd. Presumably, he is in the middle of a conversation with the twelve. Now, he sits and calls the twelve. What does this add and why does it seem so ill-fitted to the ongoing action? 
2. The verb φωνέω is also different from the verb καλέω, which we usually hear in “call stories” (Mk. 1:20). It is more of a summons and is used to describe the rooster’s crow.

36καὶ λαβὼνπαιδίον ἔστησεναὐτὸ ἐν μέσῳ αὐτῶν καὶ ἐναγκαλισάμενοςαὐτὸ εἶπεναὐτοῖς, 
And having taken a child, he placed her in their midst and having embraced her he said to them, 
λαβὼν: AAPart nsm, λαμβάνω, 1) to take  1a) to take with the hand, lay hold of, any person or thing  in order to use it
ἔστησεν: AAI 3s, ἵστημι, 1) to cause or make to stand, to place, put, set
ἐναγκαλίζομαι,  AMPart, nms 1) to take into one's arms, embrace 
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω1) to say, to speak
1. There is an interesting connection – I think there is, anyway, since I’m not entirely sure what the connection is – between Jesus’ act of embracing this child and the words that follow regarding ‘holding’ or ‘welcoming’ one such child. The verb in this sentence and the verbs in the next are different, but the point seems to be that Jesus is demonstrating first what he declares second.

 37 Ὃς ἂν ἓν τῶν τοιούτων παιδίων δέξηταιἐπὶ τῷ ὀνόματί μου, ἐμὲ δέχεται: καὶ ὃς ἂν ἐμὲ δέχηται, οὐκ ἐμὲ δέχεταιἀλλὰ τὸν ἀποστείλαντάμε.
“Whoever would hold one of these children in my name holds me; and whoever holds me, does not hold me but the one who sent me.”  
δέξηται: AMS 3s, δέχομαι, 1) to take with the hand  1a) to take hold of, take up  2) to take up, receive  2a) used of a place receiving one
δέχεται (2x): PMI 3s, δέχομαι, 1) to take with the hand  1a) to take hold of, take up  2) to take up, receive  2a) used of a place receiving one
δέχηται: PMS 3s, δέχομαι, 1) to take with the hand  1a) to take hold of, take up  2) to take up, receive  2a) used of a place receiving one
ἀποστείλαντά: AAPart asm, ἀποστέλλω, 1) to order (one) to go to a place appointed
1. The first interpretive question would be “What does ‘holding’ (or welcoming) one of these children imply? Many folks find it very easy to embrace a child. But, this teaching is in response to the question of greatness. If, for example, vulnerability is the point, it would seem that greatness is a matter of embracing the most vulnerable ones. Jesus may be addressing children once more in this chapter, in v.42, when the stakes are higher: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.”
2. This declaration shows a radical identification between any child and Jesus and God. The act of holding/welcoming a child is, at the same time, an act of holding/welcoming Jesus. If the point of holding a child is because children are vulnerable, then this declaration is very similar to Matthew’s parable of sheep and goats (c.25), where Jesus says, “Inasmuch as you have done this (fed, clothed, etc.) to the least of these, you have done so to me. 
3. Perhaps this is the most scandalous of scandals in Mark’s gospel. By identifying so radically with a child, by embracing the road to rejection, suffering, dying and being raised, Jesus is re-defining both greatness and Godness. It is not in the glory and honor of the Caesars, but in the vulnerability of a child that we encounter God. 
4. If this scene is as edgy as I am suggesting it might be, then it could be that the disciples’ willingness or unwillingness to embrace the vulnerable God is the point at which Jesus finds them to be true disciples or not. 


  1. I have to tell you I think this is very edgy! Specially in light of what preceded in lieu of Jesus taking Peter aside, and putting his understanding of what the Messiah is on its head. As well, the idea that one must deny oneself, is about the way we think -- not from our perspective -- but God's!!!!! That's the challenge of being a disciple! Bless you!!! It's great!!!

  2. These are very helpful notes on the gospel for this coming Sunday. Thank you. I am struck by the tactile elements of the passage--handed into human hands--taking the child into his arms--and the implications of flesh and vulnerability here and elsewhere in the gospel.

  3. Kirsten, the passive verbs in v.31 are remarkable.
    First, "is being handed over" παραδίδοται is a key verb in the gospels, often connected with death (either Jesus, John the Baptist, or disciples in the future.) Then, the verb "will be raised" ἀναστήσεται is in the middle voice, since the dead cannot raise themselves (so far as I know.)
    The actual agent of who will hand the Son of Man over is not given. Is it the religious leadership in Jerusalem who will hand Jesus over? Is it God? Is it both?
    Likewise, who will raise? We assume that one is God, since we don't think of others as capable of raising the dead, generally.
    Likewise, it is the human hands that will kill Jesus.
    Theologically, I've always wondered if the gospel writers are trying to stake out a middle position - It is God's plan (per the prayer in Mk.14) that Jesus takes the road that leads to suffering, death, and rising. But, that does not exclude both the agency and responsibility of those who reject and kill.
    I like the possibilities of thinking both thoughts simultaneously.

  4. I should have been clearer. The human hands that will kill Jesus are signified by an active verb, "they will kill him," with 'human hands' as the antecedent of the implied agent. That part does not seem ambiguous at all, like the agency of the passive and middle voices.

  5. Deirdre,
    I too found the notion of embracing or holding to be very endearing and gentle terms, quite different from what I feel in the 'handed over to human hands' and 'kill' terms. This story has words that are tactile in both the gentle and violent senses.
    Thanks for the note.

  6. I was referring to the Jewish Annotated New Testament, and its comment on this passage adds to the edginess. It ties the child reference to the servant reference in vs. 35. The commentary indicates that the child does not represent innocence (as we tend to interpret it) but a secondary status as a lesser human, saying "Symbolically, accepting a child 'in my name', as a true human representative, is analogous to receiving Jesus as sent from God." This would tend to emphasize the radical idea of servant to those who think they are somehow set apart for greater things.

  7. Great, great work. Edgy if you mean the Christ is edgy. Not if you mean that you are pushing the interpretive boundary. You have definitely hit the middle of this text.

    Thank you for your work, tonight and every week.

  8. 'Son of Man' has a different take in Ezekiel vs. Daniel. The Daniel read is the 'coming in the clouds with glory' while Ezekiel seems more the one hostile to and attacked by the religious leadership. How do you read this?

  9. I wonder where this sermon title might lead: Disciples in the hands of a vulnerable God?

    1. William Placher published a book, Narratives of a Vulnerable God, which I have found incredibly helpful. Your title would be a nice mashup between Placher's book and Jonathan Edwards' famous sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." Nice.

  10. Suffering is not included in the second teaching, nor the cross. It's as though Jesus senses the crowd will kill him, that he will be handed over to humanity who in a fit of rage will reject his way. Yet the son of man will rise again. So the option before the disciples is the risen son man or the conquering messiah. It seems the child represents that rising, welcoming the child welcomes the resurrection. I appreciate the focus on greatness rather the ego of the disciples (which is such an Enlightenment reading). Thanks!

  11. You said so many helpful things that I have more in here highlighted than not! Your idea about the disciples discussing "greatness" is intriguing. Thanks,always,for your translations and commentary.

  12. One way to look at the gospel of Mark, according to Alexander Shaia, is "how do you face great trial and obstacles through the life and resurrection of Jesus?" He describes Mark being written during Nero's persecution of Jewish-Christians, starting with John the Baptist's story that shows "they are probably not going to get out of this alive" and that men, women and children will suffer greatly. Mark uses Ps. 22 (the prayer prayed by devout Jews on their death-beds) that starts with anguish and ends in praise and resurrection. This is what true disciples must accept and practice.

    1. Hi Bex. It certainly fits the gospel to see followers of Jesus facing trials and obstacles. The reign of Nero is an early dating, prior to the actual destruction of the temple, but perhaps not before people could see Nero's response to the Jewish rebellion moving in that direction. It's been a long discussion over whether Mark's gospel was written before, during, or after the destruction of the temple. However one feels about that question, the stories would have been cultivated, remembered, and passed along orally during Nero's regime.

  13. I resonate with your "edgy" reading of this text. God was doing something big then in a way that was turning their understanding upside down, and I think that we are in the midst of great change now, too. What will the church look like after we get through all of this? (Will we ever be through all of this?)

    1. Those are great questions, MK. Let's find out as we journey with the one true guide.

  14. Mark, your commentary distinguishing disciples as participants rather than spectators in the Reign of God is timely. I think this is the "new" divide in the faith. Popular praise worship settles nicely in the spectator category and decries the social justice reflections of participant disciples. As COVID races through schools and children fill ICUs, participants and spectators face off over masks. The child Jesus places before us now is on a ventilator.

    No lack of suffering and betrayal by human hands in this story. The twelve (ie the whole church) is summoned by Jesus to welcome the child - vulnerability. In the current national conversation over freedom to chose we have lost the gospel's commitment to mutual vulnerability - which is the one truly great aspect of humanity.


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