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.