Become the ‘greatest’ by becoming a servant. Or, you can tie a millstone around your neck…
Can’t Wait to Grow Up…
In life, we often expect things to get easier as time goes on.
But, life doesn’t always work that way.
I remember, as a child, I couldn’t wait until I was an adult. No more bedtimes, no more homework, no more chores around the house, I told myself.
Once I become an adult, I can do what I want, when I want. At least that’s what I thought.
Now that I’m an adult, I’ve found that my childhood perceptions of adulthood were a bit simplistic.
Yes, I can do what I want, when I want, but I still have to go work to make money to put a roof over my head and food on the table.
And things I may want to buy don’t just find their way into my possession. I have to save up to buy them.
Additionally, taxes have to be paid as well as insurance, phone bills, medical bills, and the likes.
In some ways, life hasn’t gotten easier, it’s gotten harder. If only I could go back to being a child!
In today’s passage, the disciples find that being followers of Christ is like growing up. Just because you’re a disciple doesn’t mean that life gets easier.
In fact, being a disciple – a Christian – is a life of following Jesus to the Jerusalem to be crucified… and it’s uphill all the way.
The Miracle of Faith
Several chapters ago, Jesus sent out the disciples into the world and he gave them the authority to teach and authority over “unclean spirits” (6:7). When they returned, they excitedly told Jesus about everything they had done (6:30).
But now, it seems something is going wrong… Things aren’t working the way they’re supposed to.
And one of the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a dumb spirit; and wherever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able.” (Mark 9:17-18 RSV)
The life of a disciple has become more difficult. What once worked, no longer does.
Since the disciples failed, the next logical step is for the father to take his complaint up the ladder of command.
The father, it seems, now demands that Jesus help his son.
…if you can do anything, have pity on us and help us.” (Mark 9:22 RSV)
Jesus, of course, can act when and where he wants. But, he isn’t a magician for hire who performs neat healing tricks on command.
His message is about embracing a new way of life – living knowing that God is acting to bring his kingdom about on earth. In short, it’s about faith. God is taking control and it’s about living your life in a way that reflects this new reality.
And Jesus said to him, “If you can! All things are possible to him who believes.” (Mark 9:23 RSV)
It’s at this point that the true miracle happens. The man changes his request and asks Jesus to help his unbelief instead.
We’ve seen, over and over again, how the disciples don’t get it. Their hearts, as Jesus said, have been hardened. But now, we find the cure for this hard-heartedness, and it comes from outside of Jesus’s motley crew.
Indeed, when the disciples later ask Jesus – privately – why they couldn’t heal this man’s son, Jesus tells them that some demons can only be cast out through prayer and fasting…the source that continually feeds our faith.
The Servant Messiah
At this point in our journey, we, along with the disciples, have witnessed Jesus perform healings, cast out demons, multiply fish and loaves feeding thousands, and demonstrate his knowledge and authority of the Law.
Yet, Mark continually shows us there’s a tension between how we want to understand all this and how we should understand all this.
Jesus has been trying to tell them that the Messiah reveals himself as a servant, one that heals creation through his suffering, crucifixion, death, and resurrection.
He’s been trying to tell them: this is how the kingdom is won. This is how heaven and earth meet.
…he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of man will be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him; and when he is killed, after three days he will rise.” (Mark 9:31 RSV)
Grasping this is a matter of faith and prayer.
Yet, even after Jesus explicitly explains all this and demonstrates it through his glorification at the Transfiguration, the disciples still disappoint.
Instead of following in Jesus’s footsteps – becoming servants who pick up their cross and find faith through prayer – they argue about which of them is the greatest!
Becoming the ‘Greatest’
And they came to Caper’na-um; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” But they were silent; for on the way they had discussed with one another who was the greatest. (Mark 9:33-34 RSV)
In other words, they thought that being disciples was about power and glory. They thought it was about honor and glorification, just because they had a connection to Jesus.
But that’s not what it’s about. That’s not how it works.
Jesus, almost wearily, explains it once more.
And he sat down and called the twelve; and he said to them, “If any one would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” (Mark 9:35 RSV)
Then, by means of demonstration, he points to a small child.
Because children were the “last of all” in the ancient social order. Almost fewer than half lived to see their fifth birthday. They had no legal rights and, by all accounts, they were on the fringes of society. They were, to put it another way, a “non-person.”
By embracing children, Jesus was paralleling the paradox of losing your life in order to save it.
Everything was getting turned up-side-down.
The Insult of the Non-Disciples
Then, almost as an insult, Mark tells us about non-disciples casting out demons – the very thing the disciples themselves couldn’t do a few verses earlier. It’s these “outsiders” who seem to get it. It’s these “outsiders” who are participating in God’s kingdom, here on earth.
Yet, if the disciples continue to argue about who is the greatest, they’ve not only demonstrated that they don’t get it, but they are actually putting stumbling blocks before others. And that isn’t good!
“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung round his neck and he were thrown into the sea. (Mark 9:42 RSV)
Jesus also suggests cutting off all body parts that cause us to stumble! It’s no joking matter!
Jesus ends his chastising by reminding the disciples of their true mission: they are to be a witness to the world that God has acted through his Messiah. And this message brings people together, it’s a message of peace.
Salt is good; but if the salt has lost its saltness, how will you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” (Mark 9:50 RSV)
Becoming a Modern Day Servant
Often, we also feel like the disciples.
We are Christians and we live in a “Christian nation.” We want everything to go our way. We want the easy life – the American Dream. We want to be the greatest.
And when things get hard, we expect it to be resolved easily. Or, if that’s not possible, we take the easy way out and walk away.
We want to spend our time being entertained. We want to spend our time enjoying the luxuries of life and talking about how good we’ve got it.
But, in the reality is that this is merely sitting around talking about “who’s the greatest.”
When push comes to shove, we find that our American comforts have separated us from what’s really important in life.
In biblical language, we’ve lost faith, have no patience for prayer and fasting, and we find that we can’t cast the demons out of our own lives.
But Jesus is patient. Though he warns us that it may be better for us to throw ourselves into the sea, he sits us down and explains how it is that he is working to set everything right, how God’s kingdom is coming.
In short, he offers us repentance, a way to set things right. A way to embrace true life and find true peace – with God and with fellow human beings.
It’s apropos that we are reading this now, on the verge of Great Lent.
We’re being our journey to the cross… it won’t be easy but, in the end, we’ll find peace.
P.S. Journey With Us as We Go to the Cross!
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