Jesus’ topsy turvy world

Pentecost 17

Mark 9:30-37

Marian Free

In the name of God who turns everything on its head and asks us to serve those who are least among us. Amen.


I didn’t watch much of the recent Olympics. However, what I did watch led me to conclude that there was a considerable difference between Australians competing in the Olympics and those competing in the Para-Olympics. Of course the competitors in both competitions shared the will to win, but it seemed to me that the former had a much greater investment in winning and the latter seemed to understand that simply by being at the Olympics, they were already winners.

I was particularly perturbed by the media coverage of the Olympics which implied that anything less than a Gold Medal was not good enough. There was little celebration of the silver and bronze winners and a focus on how much a competitor lost (in terms of endorsements) if they had not come in first. This was followed by a focus on the trainers and the training programme and how they had let the team down – particularly in the swimming.  It is true that Australia has done well in the pool in the past and we have come to expect a large medal tally. At the same time we are a relatively small country and it is perhaps irrational to assume that we will always dominate the rest of the world in any one sport.

The desire to compete and to win is perfectly natural, but the failure to accept loss on an individual, team or even national level takes away some of the pleasure that comes from participating. If the newspapers are to be believed, this attitude permeates all levels of competition. Parents watching children’s games have become so aggressive that their behaviour has to be controlled and some are taking extreme measures such as sending their children to psychologists to “cure” them of anxiety or any other characteristic which might limit their determination to win.

How different these attitudes are from that advocated in today’s gospel in which three distinct episodes are recorded to portray the expectations of leadership in the Jesus’ movement. The section begins with Jesus’ prediction of his handing over and death, it continues with the disciple’s discussion about who is the greatest and concludes with Jesus’ response. It seems highly likely that the author has deliberately placed these accounts together in order to make the point that the Christian ideal of leadership is the exact reverse of that of the world.

The disciple’s discussion as to who is the greatest throws into sharp relief their complete failure to understand what Jesus has just said. The leadership Jesus exercises will not lead to power and glory, but to disgrace and ignominy. As leader of this group of disciples, Jesus will provide an example of leadership that is completely contradictory to everything they know about leadership and authority. Jesus will not exert power over others, just the reverse, he will allow himself to be handed over and killed.

Jesus’ prediction of his death seems just too hard for the disciples to bear, or perhaps they simply cannot get their heads around something so radical and unexpected. Either way, they were so frightened and confused that they were afraid to ask him what he meant.  Their complete lack of understanding of what Jesus has said is demonstrated by the argument which follows. This lack of understanding is typical for Mark’s gospel. Jesus’ prediction of his death and resurrection is, on each occasion followed by an illustration of this disciple’s complete failure to understand. In an earlier chapter, Jesus’ announcement is followed by Peter’s insistence that he (Jesus) is wrong and after a third prediction of his death and resurrection, James and John, having learned nothing from today’s discussion, ask Jesus if they can sit at his right and left hand in heaven! The disciples are, apparently, completely nonplussed by a leader who expects to die rather than conquer and one who serves rather than demanding service.

Their misunderstanding is highlighted by their argument about greatness. For some reason Jesus is not with them for the discussion, but the way in which the narrative continues suggests that Jesus has some idea what is going on.

When Jesus and the disciples arrive at Capernaum they go into a house. Jesus asks what it was that they were discussing on the way. Their silence indicates some embarrassment.  Jesus has just told them that he is going to die at the hands of humans and their response was to argue about was which of them was more important than the others. Jesus calls the Twelve apart and tells them: Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”  This is completely contradictory to us. It was even more so in the first century when distinctions between social groupings were more clearly drawn. In world in which people are distinguished by rank or achievement, how can being last possibly be the standard against which one is measured? How can being a servant set one apart from the crowd? It jut doesn’t make sense – not in the first century culture and not in the culture in which we find ourselves.

Even more shocking and dramatic was Jesus’ illustration of this teaching. He took a child in his arms and claimed that whoever received a child received him, whoever serves a child serves him. The impact of this statement can only be understood when one remembers the first century attitude towards children that is reflected for example in Proverbs or in the Greco-Roman literature. In the first century, children and servants had no legal status. They were considered willful and undisciplined. They needed to be instructed and formed. Children were the property of their father no one would think of being their servant any more than we today would like to put ourselves in a position of being told what to do by those with so much less wisdom and experience than ourselves.

The disciples must have been shocked and affronted by what Jesus said.  Could Jesus really mean that they had to put themselves in the humiliating position of serving even children?

Of course, this is exactly what Jesus meant.  Jesus introduced a completely new way of being in community. The old ways of measuring status and achievement are completely overturned. Jesus is establishing a community which will operate by completely new standards and criteria. It will stand out from the world around it by the way in which members serve each other rather than lord it over each other.

This Is the standard to which we are called to aspire and by which we are to be distinguished from the world around us. Contrary to the standards of the world we are to be known by the way in which we put others (including the least deserving) before ourselves, our willingness to serve rather than to be served and our readiness to be last rather than first.


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