Gospel for the Twenty Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time (19 September 2021)
Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
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). He knew this territory well. 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 be 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).
Matthew and Luke both draw on Mark’s account of “the greatest in the kingdom” and Jesus’ reference to little children – see Matthew 18:1-5 and Luke 9:46-48.
They went on from there: The word “there” suggests a particular context. Chapter 8 concludes with the revelations in the region of Caesarea Philippi, where Peter has declared that Jesus is the Messiah and Jesus gives his first prophecy of the passion and the conditions of following him. Chapter 9 then begins on the mount of transfiguration. That central event – in which the declaration at Jesus’ baptism, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (1:11), is re-affirmed and expanded to, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” (9:7) – is followed by the cure of the epileptic demoniac (9:14-29). That is where today’s Gospel begins – “They went on from there . . . .”
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 yet know who he is nor what his mission is! It reminds us not to cheapen the call of the Gospel by turning it into a set of doctrines and rules that can be more or less easily learned and understood. There is a developing relationship between Jesus and the disciples and that growing relationship includes a slow awakening on the part of the disciples. Much the same happens, does it not, in any loving relationship?
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).
Reflection – “Falling in love”
The common expression, “falling in love”, is a surprisingly apt metaphor for our becoming Christian. The eminent psychiatrist, Roll May, writes: “When we fall in love …. the world shakes and changes around us …. The shaking generally is felt consciously in its positive aspects – as a wonderful new universe which love, with its miracle, suddenly has produced. Love is the answer, we sing” [Rollo May, “The Daemonic: Love and Death”, Psychology Today, 1 (1968), 19].
But we all know there is a lot more to love than that. Rollo May continues: “Our Western culture seems to be engaged in a desperate – albeit romantic – conspiracy to enforce the illusion that this is all there is to (love)” (Ibid). To the extent that we have, in Western culture, succumbed to that illusion, we have denied an essential element of falling in love and being in love: “This element we deny is consciousness of death. For death is always in the shadow of the delight of love” (Ibid). Deny the necessary relationship between love and death we fall prey to various escapist agendas that lead, one way or another, to misery.
Falling in love changes just about everything in a person’s life. If we are capable of embracing both the living and the dying in love, it sets us on a new path. It is the beginning of a transformative, lifelong journey. Rollo May observes: “What a different light this throws on the human problems in love than does all the glib talk about the art of loving, about love as the answer to all our needs, love as instant self-actualization, love as contentment, or love as a mail-order technique! No wonder we try to reduce (it) to purely physiological sex or try to avoid the whole dilemma by playing it cool, by using sex to drug and vaccinate ourselves against the anxiety creating effects of (love)” (Ibid).
When falling in love plunges us into this paradox of life through death, we find ourselves in the midst of many other paradoxes – control through letting go, receiving through giving, light through darkness, triumph through failure and knowing through not knowing.
In today’s Gospel – Mark 9:30-37 – we find the disciples in the early stages of falling in love. They have not yet entered the doorway of the great paradox of life through death. However, Jesus is giving them signals that there is much more yet to being in love. They have heard the words that “the Son of Man is destined to suffer” and that, “if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me …” (8:34-35). In today’s Gospel they hear for the second time that “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”.
In our ordinary human experiences – like falling in love – we find openings to the wonders of the Christ Event. Can you think of your life as a disciple of Jesus as falling in love – unendingly?