Why don’t they just ask?

Pentecost 17 – 2015

Mark 9:30-37

Marian Free

 In the name of God who withholds nothing and who reveals Godself to those who seek. Amen.

“Why didn’t you just ask?” These are the words that are uttered by an exasperated parent or frustrated teacher when confronted with a child or student who has misunderstood what was required, done something foolish or embarked on the wrong exercise. If only they had asked for clarity, they might not have got themselves into such a muddle or headed off in the wrong direction. There are a number of reasons why people do not ask for clarity, for direction or for permission. Some people are afraid that asking a question will expose their ignorance or foolishness. Others are ashamed to admit that they do not understand and still others assume that they have understood what is required and so there is no need to ask. The problem is that a failure to ask can have disastrous consequences. People end up going off at a tangent – either tentatively because they do not understand or confidently because they are so sure that they have got it right that they don’t need to ask. It is only when things go awry, when it clear that they are lost, doing the wrong exercise or using the wrong tools that such people wish that they had asked.

The situation can be even worse with relationships. One person in the relationship may draw the wrong conclusion or inference from what the other has said or done. As a result the relationship may be damaged or, in the worst case scenarios, the person who has misunderstood may becomes bitter or trapped into a way of thinking and behaving that prevents them from growing and maturing. Think for example of the child who perceives a parent’s reserve as a lack of affection and who carries that perception around like a stone only to discover that they were wrong all the time. “Why didn’t you ask?” Is the cry of the anguished parent or the misjudged person – I would have told you: that you were loved; that I was proud of you; that you never disappointed me. “I would have told you.” “You need not have been afraid.”

“Why didn’t you just ask?” could have been Jesus’ question to his disciples. For the second time now Jesus has told the disciples that he will be betrayed and killed and on the third day will rise again. The idea that their leader and teacher should be put to death is so foreign to the disciples that they simply cannot come to terms with it. The first time Jesus announced his death, Peter rebuked him and was in his turn roundly rebuked by Jesus. Perhaps it is no wonder that the disciples are now afraid to ask Jesus what he means. Not only do they not wish to look foolish, they might also be a little afraid of Jesus’ frustration.

So the disciples react in the way many of us do when we do not understand, they change the subject. Instead of asking Jesus what he means, instead of trying to grapple with what Jesus is saying, instead of trying to understand what sort of Christ this might be, they turn to something familiar: who among them is the greatest? Here they are on solid ground. In first century society honour and shame determined a person’s place in the world. Honour had to be won and shame avoided.

Faced with something utterly beyond their comprehension, the disciples turn to a familiar argument – who, in their little group, has the highest status? By focusing on something they do understand reveal not only their failure to grasp what Jesus had just said to them but their complete misunderstanding of what he is about.

Jesus doesn’t respond by saying: “Why didn’t you ask!” Nor does he express his exasperation by rebuking the disciples. This time he takes a different approach. If the disciples don’t understand what he says, perhaps they will comprehend an action that illustrates what he is trying to tell them. That is that honour and status have no place among those who follow a Christ such as he who is destined to suffer and to die. So he sits down and says: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and the servant of all.” Then he places a child in the midst of them before taking it in his arms and saying: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

Later Jesus will use a child to demonstrate the innocence and simplicity required of those who would enter the kingdom, but here his purpose is quite different. In the first century worlds of both Palestine and of Rome, the place of children was complex. On the one hand they had value as those on whom the future depended, on the other they presented a liability, as they had to be nurtured and protected and yet they contributed nothing to the household. An adult slave was a more productive member of the household than a child. At the same time a child had no legal status or power and therefore could not bestow honour or status on those who welcomed them. (A child was not worth the time or effort of someone’s attention, as they could give nothing in return.)

By insisting that a child be welcomed and respected, Jesus subverted the social conventions of his time and illustrated more clearly than words are able that discipleship contradicts the norms of society and that Jesus’ leadership turns on its head everything the disciples thought they knew and understood. Those who follow him will have to stand outside the culture and renounce the values honour and shame. True greatness, Jesus suggests, cannot be achieved by serving only those who can give you something in return, rather it lies in welcoming those who can give nothing – the disabled, the poor, the unclean, the widow, the child anyone who is considered an outsider, anyone who has no status at all.

What the disciples have yet to grasp is that Jesus’ leadership is completely counter-cultural, it does not and will not conform to known categories, but will continue to contradict and to subvert their expectations and their view of the world and will demand the same of them.

Jesus continues to subvert and confound our expectations. He refuses to be categorized. He will not be tied down to societal norms. He breaks the rules and relates to the wrong people. His behaviour shocks and unsettles. We like the disciples continue to be confused and disconcerted. We try to fit Jesus into known categories, to confine him to the limits of our expectations, to force him to be conventional. In our efforts to understand we may follow many false leads and wander off on our own paths.

If only we could admit our ignorance. If only we would ask. If only we would search the scriptures for answers, open our hearts to the Spirit who knows what God has yet to reveal to us?

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