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Mark 9:30-37

Jesus didn’t want anyone to know as he was passing through Galilee. The assumption here is often that he didn’t want anyone to know specifically because of the content of his teaching. After all, this is a matter of life and death—his own. But a careful reading might also indicate that Jesus didn’t want anyone to know simply because he was in the act of teaching his disciples. Jesus is not wasting words, and his time with his disciples is, in fact, all too brief to fully impress on them the meaning of what he is trying to impart. He is often disrupted by crowds and requests, but in this moment Jesus makes an attempt at secrecy in order to explain what cannot truly be understood to people who aren’t really listening.

When they reach their destination, I wonder if Jesus might not be a little bit fed up with these chosen ones who possess not only ignorance but an alarming lack of desire for understanding. The text says they “were afraid to ask him.”[1] Interestingly, they were not afraid to ask one another all kinds of things along the way, when they should have been listening. Jesus does not share their fearful sentiment and begins to question them, and there is a certain sense of irony in the interrogative word, τί, which might be translated as “who, which, or what,” but which relates most closely to the pronoun, τίς, indicating that the better translation might actually be, “who.” If Jesus asks, “Who were you arguing about on the way,” it is easier to understand the deafening silence, for the disciples were, indeed, arguing among themselves about who was the greatest, as the words of the greatest among them fell on those similarly deaf ears.

The temptation is to be very hard on the disciples here. Clearly, none of them is the greatest! And yet it seems that history and experience have proven, time and time again, that all of humanity falls into this prideful state in which we desire to be the best, the most, the exalted, the privileged, the titled and entitled. I think we would do well, however, to take a step back and consider how Jesus, in humility, views himself in relationship to the rest of the world. Many titles are used to describe Jesus, and with a plethora of options at his disposal, he uses, “son of Man,” to self-identify in this passage. Although the interpretation of this phrase is sometimes complicated, there is no doubt that it may be used to underscore the humanity of God incarnate, who is both fully divine and fully human. As Jesus urgently attempts to clarify his teachings for his disciples, he fully embraces the tension that is his own servanthood, and perhaps even frailty, as flesh and blood, as real as any other person; and even in this vulnerable state, he finds those closest to him arguing about how they might scale the ladder of success.

Well, somewhere between Jesus’ question (which may or may not have been rhetorical) and his next point of instruction, he pulls together the answer, on his own, and takes the conversation in a new direction. So you want to be first? Jesus tells them (and subsequently, us) what this looks like, and true to what those of us who have come to study the words of Jesus should assume, it is not what we expect. It is never what we expect! Jesus doesn’t say, “To be the greatest, you must make the most money or earn the most degrees or have the most elusive successes. To be the greatest, you must become Reverend this or Doctor that, inaccessible to more common people, placed high upon a pedestal and honored by all.”

First of all, thank goodness! But, second of all, let us not forget that the road to being greatest is marked by being least, and that generally means a lack of recognition resulting in no tangible evidence of how great we are. This is humility at its best, when we serve without need of human affirmation, recognizing that it is God who calls. Jesus says to be great we must be welcoming of those who can offer us nothing in return. This act of servanthood signifies our desire to welcome not only the least but the one who is truly greatest—Jesus, himself. In radical hospitality, we are securely rooted in the knowledge that we are becoming the people we were created to be, working redemptively for the purpose of a kingdom that we will never rule (and shouldn’t want to) but a kingdom in which everyone is welcome.

[1] Mark 9:32, NRSV.