Immediately prior to the gospel for September 19th (Mark 9:30-37), Jesus took Peter, James and John with him up a high mountain…. There he was transfigured before them. …And Elijah and Moses appeared with him… talking with Jesus. When they came down from the mountain, a crowd came to Jesus who drove a demon from a boy who had been possessed from birth.
These two episodes create a backdrop to this morning’s gospel, which opens, They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He (Jesus) did not want anyone to know it; By this point in his ministry, Jesus was popularly known as someone who could cure the sick and drive out demons. But the notoriety meant that people frequently interrupted his time of prayer, his instruction of his disciples, and their rest. Jesus wanted time alone with his disciples, without the distractions of the crowds.
The verse continues for he was teaching his disciples…Another translation of this sentence is that he continued teaching his disciples, emphasizing the continuing nature of the instruction.
However, the content of his instruction was beyond their grasp. He was 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. A few days prior to this Jesus had told his disciples that he would be killed and when Peter tried to rebuke him privately, Jesus corrected Peter publicly, saying “Get behind me Satan”. Small wonder that they were afraid to ask him.
Their lack of comprehension was understandable. Peter, James and John had seen him glorified and in the company of Old Testament saints. He was so popular that they could barely get any rest. To hear him talk about being betrayed and killed was unfathomable… They may not have heard and three days after being killed, he will rise again, or maybe they did but were not able to get over the bafflement of his death. Jesus told them that three days after human authorities had judged him worthy of death, God would render his judgement by raising him to life. But they did not register these concluding words.
Their inability to absorb Jesus’ statement emphasized the discontinuity between Israel’s expectation of a Messiah and Jesus’ way of being the Messiah. Jesus was a living example of the deep divide between human knowledge and divine revelation… “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are my ways your ways”, says the Lord (Isaiah 55:8)
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. Mark doesn’t identify the disciples who were arguing, but those who had been with Jesus at the transfiguration may have felt special. Peter, who had already started to act as the spokesman, even while it might have got him in trouble sometime, may have been among them. Or, they may have been comparing their exploits when Jesus had sent them out two by two to drive out unclean spirits. (Mark 6:7) ‘Slaying dragons’ has been a traditional sign of greatness.
The disciples were embarrassed into silence. They may also have realized the profound disconnection between what Jesus had told them about being killed and their trivial argument about status.
He sat down, called the twelve… Sitting down was a teaching position. After he called them together he made the pronouncement, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” The servant of all was the lowest ranking servant!
His greatest instruction on servanthood came at the Last Supper, when he got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself... poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. …After he had washed their feet… he said, “… You call me Teacher and Lord… for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. I have set an example, that you should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. (John 9:4-16)
The gospel for September 19th resumes, 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.”
In a society under Roman rule, with a Roman-appointed puppet king, and priests, Scribes and Pharisees occupying various rungs of the hierarchical ladder, a little child, without the ability to contribute economically, ranked only slightly above animals in status. Yet Jesus compared his own rank with that of a toddler: marginalized by society, culture and history.
Jesus called his disciples to emulate the child, renouncing social status and to welcome the vulnerable, such as these, not only in his name but in the name of the one who sent him.
On Sunday September 19th St. Aidan’s guest preacher will be Jonathan Hamilton-Diabo. His talk about the Indian Act will remind us of Canada’s history in which status and place of residence was assigned to the first inhabitants of this land, much as the Romans assigned rank and rules on the people of Jesus’ day. Ironically, for the day before the federal election, we may hear that the Indian Act offered First Nations people the right to vote - but only if they gave up their treaty rights and Indian status. They became virtual non-persons under the act. It was not until 1960 that Indigenous Peoples were offered the full right to vote, without having to give up any treaty rights in exchange.
The gospel reminds us that we are a privileged community, and that we need to be aware of what has been done by politicians who came before us, acting, in part, on our behalf in marginalizing the First Nations peoples. The gospel invites us to become a servant of all and its conclusion reminds us of our obligation to welcome those whose status has been taken away