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Mark 9.30-37 
Proper 20 - Year B

Other texts:

Our text is commonly known as Christ's second passion (/resurrection) prediction. Each of the passion (/resurrection) predictions In Mark follows the same pattern.

  1st  2nd  3rd
Passion Prediction  8:31-32a  9:30-31 10:32-34
Misunderstanding  8:23b-33 9:32-34  10:35-40
Instructions  8:34-9:1 9:35-37 10:41-45


Between the 1st Instructions and the 2nd passion prediction, there are:

a. The Transfiguration (9:2-8) where Peter doesn't know what to say and the three disciples are terrified.

b. The discussion coming down the mountain (9:9-13) where the disciples fail to understand Jesus' comment about "rising from the dead," yet these disciples were with Jesus when he raised a twelve-year-old girl from the dead (5:35-43)! And they had just come down from the mountain where the dead were alive!

c. The other disciples fail to cast out an evil spirit (9:14-29). Jesus is appalled at their faithlessness -- "You faithless generation" (v. 19). I've stated before that I think that the key verse in Mark is "I believe; help my unbelief!" (v. 24b). Rather than an either/or state -- believing or not believing -- this father, the disciples, and, I think, most people, are in a both/and state -- we believe and we don't believe, we trust God and we're afraid, we understand and we don't understand, etc.

This dual nature of discipleship is indicated in our text. After Jesus was teaching his disciples and was saying to them (v. 31, imperfect verbs = continuous action in the past). The disciples continued to not understand (agnoeo) the word (rhema) and continued to be afraid to ask him (v. 32, imperfect verbs again).

The implication I get from these imperfect verbs is that Jesus kept on trying to teach them about the passion/resurrection, and the disciples just don't get it. A "one shot" teaching moment would be expressed with an aorist verb not the imperfect.


This is the only verse in Mark with agnoeo, ("not to know," "be ignorant") but the positive verb noeo ("to know") is used three times. Yet, the first two times it refers to the disciples not knowing:

7:18 He said to them, "Then do you also fail to understand [asynetos]? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile,

8:17 And becoming aware of it, Jesus said to them, "Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand [syniemi]? Are your hearts hardened?

The third time it refers to us, the readers:

13:14 But when you see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be (let the reader understand), then those in Judea must flee to the mountains;

We, the readers, are to understand what's going on about Jesus -- something the disciples in the story never fully accomplish -- and perhaps we never fully understand either, but we have the advantage of living after the resurrection.


The other verb "to fear" (phobeomai) is used as the opposite of faith in 4:41; 5:36. It is also an emotion that the disciples frequently have: 4:41; 6:50; 10:32 (3rd passion prediction); 16:8. The three disciples are "terrified" (ekphobos -- a related word) at the transfiguration (9:6).


I will compare the three passion predictions in Mark.

8:31-32a 9:30-31 10:33-34
It is necessary -- --
that  that  that 
-- -- see, we are going up
-- -- to Jerusalem
the Son of Man the Son of Man and the Son of Man
--  is to be betrayed will be betrayed
-- into human hands --
suffer much and be rejected by the elders -- --
and the chief priests and the scribes -- to the chief priests and to the scribes
-- --

they will condemn him to death, they will betray him to the Gentiles, and they will mock him, and they will spit on him, and they will flog him

and be killed  they will kill him,  and they will kill
-- having been killed --
and after three days after three days and after three days
rise  he will rise  he will rise

Some observations about the 2nd prediction.

(1) It is the shortest of the three, which leads some to think that it may be the oldest version.

(2) The betrayal is literally, "into the hands of humanity" (anthropos). "Humanity," I believe, then becomes the subject of the next verb -- "they will kill him." It is not the Jewish authorities nor the Gentiles who kill Jesus, but all humanity. As Williamson (Mark Interpretation) writes about this verse: "Jesus must suffer at the hands of representatives of the whole human race.... Ironically, all humankind is implicated in the death of the one who came to die for all. 'Were you there when they crucified my Lord?' is a question for every person in every time and place" [p. 168]

(3) There is a greater emphasis on Jesus' death with     the repetition of kill (apokteino). Perhaps this greater emphasis is necessary following the glory of Jesus' transfiguration and the exorcism immediately preceding this teaching.


Juel (Mark, Augsburg Commentary) writes:

Peter's response to Jesus' first prediction of his fate in Jerusalem was to rebuke the master. The disciples seem to have learned little. While Jesus speaks of being handed over and killed, his followers discuss their respective statuses. To the disciples' credit, they have apparently understood something about the glory Jesus has promised, but they have no sense whatever of what must precede -- the rejection of Jesus and his death -- and what are the implications for the behavior as disciples.

The contrast between Jesus' prediction and the disciples' topic of discussion provides an occasion to speak about true discipleship. While earlier "taking up your cross" meant "losing your life for my sake and the gospel's," here the issue is greatness. The contrast between "God's things" and "human things" can be understood in terms of status: anyone wishing to be first must be last, and servant of all. The servant here is a diakonos, one who waits on tables. The disciples do not think of themselves as waiters. They dream, as do ordinary partisans of a powerful leader, of position and rank. Divine standards run headlong into conventional measures. [p. 133]

The disciples' silence indicates their embarrassment over their discussion. France (The Gospel of Mark) notes a truth that is often true in congregations: "It is a challenge to bring into the open a debate of which they are apparently ashamed, aware that Jesus will not approve" (p. 373). How often do church conflicts begin with secrets -- keeping silent, rather than openly and honestly dealing with issues?

Their silence is an imperfect verb. They "remained silent." Actually, this is the second time in our text that they are silent. In v. 32, they were too afraid to ask Jesus about the meaning of his teaching. They seem to follow a motto I heard many, many years ago: "It is better to remain silent and appear like a fool, than to open one's mouth and remove all doubt."

Their fear and silence indicates a misunderstanding about Jesus. Will he condemn them if they indicate that they don't understand him? Will he condemn them for wishing for and talking about greatness? They do not yet perceive Jesus as the gracious savior.

We might also assume (a dangerous thing to do) that because each disciple was concerned about his own greatness, none of them wanted to let the others know that he didn't understand. No one was willing to raise his hand and say, "I don't understand, Jesus." That could lead to ridicule from the others. That could lead to being considered "the dumb disciple." Actually, they all were dumb.

What does it mean "to be better" than another? We can test some ways of being "better." A footrace can determine the better runner. A test can determine who knows more or can do more. Contests are held to determine the better boxer, wrestler, or martial arts specialist. Grades are given in school that determine the better students. The list could go on and on, but does doing something better than another person make one better than another? Unfortunately we often say or think that. We win a contest, so we think, I'm better than those others. Or, which is much more common, we don't win the contest, so we think, "Since I didn't win, I must be a terrible person. I'm no good."

In the specific case in our text, the issue may have been, Who will succeed Jesus? If he is going to be put to death, as he says, who will take the lead after he is gone? The Gospel of Thomas 12 says: "The disciples said to Jesus, 'We know that you will go away from us. Who is it that will then be great over us?'" This, again, suggests that the disciples are like the blind man who, after Jesus' touch, sees only partially. They've come to believe that Jesus will die, but then wrongly assume what it means to replace him as a leader.

According to Edwards (The Gospel according to Mark,) "Rabbinic writings frequently comment on the seating order in Paradise, .... Earthly orders of seating at worship and meals, or authority within the community, or dealings with inferiors and superiors were seen as preparation for the eternal order to come (also Ps 68:24-25). The Rule of the Community at Qumran, likewise, prescribed the proper order of procession in entering the Rule...." (p. 286)

Rank and status were issues in early Judaism. It was not to be so among Jesus' followers.


Jesus sits to teach (v. 35). That was the formal position for teaching. The Twelve are now in school. Note that after reading the Isaiah passage in his home synagogue, Jesus sits down to teach (Luke 4:20). I also find it interesting that the typical posture for teaching or preaching in our culture is standing. Especially with a raised pulpit, do we give an image of speaking down to the people? Although I don't know the typical posture of students in the first century, the fact that we aren't told that they sat, might indicate that the sitting Jesus spoke up to the standing Twelve, huddled around him.

Jesus calls the Twelve (v. 35). There are times when Jesus needs to leave the crowds and pay special attention to the Twelve -- note that in the 1st prediction, after the misunderstanding, Jesus calls the crowd with his disciples, and speaks to them (8:34. All pastors and congregations need to manage that tension between reaching out to the needy world and nurturing the insiders. We are both "fishing for people" and "keepers of the aquarium."

Jesus begins, "If anyone is wishing to be first" (present tense = "keeps on wishing," "continually desires"). Jesus doesn't criticize them for this desire, but reinterprets the means to achieve it. Perhaps Christians and congregations should have a desire to be first -- but seek to achieve it by Jesus' means, rather than worldly means.

What does it mean "to be last of all?" I think that this is illustrated by the child. Because our cultural view of children -- sweet, innocent, darlings -- we miss the shocking element of Jesus' actions. Perkins (Mark, The New Interpreters Bible) writes:

... the child in antiquity was a non-person (cf. Gal 4:1-2). Children should have been with the women, not hanging around the teacher and his students (cf. 10:13-16). To say that those who receive Jesus receive God does not constitute a problem. A person's emissary was commonly understood to be like the one who sent him. But to insist that receiving a child might have some value for male disciples is almost inconceivable. [p. 637]

The idea that receiving an emissary was the same as receiving sender is presented in Matthew 10:40-42: "Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me...."

However, the situation is changed in our text. The disciples are not the emissaries -- their argument about greatness may have been a question of who would represent Jesus after he had been killed. Jesus is talking about the importance of welcoming the least important people in society -- that is where Jesus is. He is last of all.

The word for child is paidion, which is a diminutive form of pais -- a word that doesn't occur in Mark. Both terms refer to a child below the age of puberty, but neither specify an age or gender.

The following are the verses in Mark that contain paidion. Note how Jesus treats the (little) children.

Jesus repeatedly heals children. Perhaps a reason why the disciples had difficulties casting out the demon from the child in 9:14-29 is that they didn't quite think that a child was worthy of their time and effort.

Juel (Mark, Augsburg Commentary) expands some on the image of children:

In ancient culture, children had no status. They were subject to the authority of their fathers, viewed as little more than property. Membership within the community of the faithful will involve giving status to those who have none. Accepting such an unimportant member of society in Jesus' name is equivalent to accepting Jesus. And accepting Jesus is equivalent to accepting God. Hospitality, a major aspect of life in the ancient world, is to be extended to the most unlikely, thus challenging traditional notions of status.

Hospitality to the unimportant will be a hallmark of the circle of Jesus' followers, as it was in Jesus' own ministry. And this has everything to do with faithfulness to the one whose rejection and death mark the way to glory. [pp. 133-4]

Malina & Rohrbaugh, (Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels) say even more about children:

Ethnocentric and anachronistic projections of innocent, trusting, imaginative, and delightful children playing at the knee of a gentile Jesus notwithstanding, children in antiquity was a time of terror. Infant mortality rates sometimes reached 30 percent. Another 30 percent of live births were dead by age six, and 60 percent were gone by age sixteen. Children always suffered first from famine, war, disease, and dislocation, and in some areas or eras few would have lived to adulthood with both parents alive. The orphan was the stereotype of the weakest and most vulnerable member of society. Childhood was thus a time of terror, and survival to adulthood a cause of celebration (accompanied by appropriate rites of passage). It is no wonder that antiquity glorified youth and venerated old age.

Children had little status within the community of family. A minor child was on a par with a slave, and only after reaching maturity was he/she a free person who could inherit the family estate. the term "child/children" could also be used as a serious insult (see Matt. 11:16-17).

This is not to say that children were not loved and valued. In addition to assuring the continuation of the family, they promised security and protection for parents in their old age. A wife's place in the family was dependent on having children, particularly male children. Moreover, a woman's children would have been one of her closest emotional supports (next to her siblings in her father's family). [p. 238]

Edwards (The Gospel according to Mark) concludes about Jesus having the child in his arms:

The child is not used, as is often supposed, as an example of humility, but as an example of the "little" and insignificant ones whom followers of Jesus are to receive. ... Disciples are thus not to be like children, but to be like Jesus who embraces them. It is Jesus, not the child, who here demonstrates what it means to be "the servant of all." It is in the small and powerless that God appears to the world, as Jesus so trenchantly described in the parable of the nations (Matthew 25:31-46). (p. 288)

Who are the "little and insignificant ones" in the world today? How does the church relate to them? How should the church relate to them? What might this verse say about the way we do worship? An ideal that I have is that the worship celebration should be at a child's level. A congregation's education program should emphasize adult instruction. "Jesus blessed children and taught adults." We've tended to do the opposite.

Note also that both the words for "(little) child" and "welcome" are used in 10:15: "Amen I am saying to you, whoever does not welcome the kingdom of God as a (little) child, that one would not enter into it."

If we want to welcome Jesus, we have to welcome (little) children. If we want to welcome the kingdom of God, we have to enter it as (little) children.

A young rabbinical student asked the rabbi, "Rabbi, why don't people see God today as they did in the olden days?" The wise old man put his hands on the student's shoulders and said, "The answer, my son, is because no one is willing to stoop so low."

I have recently been quoting from John and Sylvia Ronsvalle's book, Behind the Stained Glass Windows: Money Dynamics in the Church. The following statistical quote involves children, so I though it an appropriate for this text.

We live in a world where it is estimated that thirty-five thousand children under the age of five die daily around the globe, most from preventable poverty conditions and many in areas where no church has been planted to tell them of Jesus' love. We can be confident that such conditions are not God's will: Perhaps one idea that would not be debatable in any part of the church is that Jesus loves the little children of the world. The financial cost to end most of these child deaths, it has been proposed, is about $2.5 billion a year, which is the amount Americans spend on chewing gum. Reflecting on these facts, it could be fairly stated that we live in an occupied society, one that is under the sway of Mammon. Ministers and lay people alike feel the pressure this conqueror exerts. Even talking about the issues produces anxiety, fear, and, ultimately, silence. Under these circumstances, where do our opportunities for the moral equivalent of war lie? [pp. 218-9]

An irony in this is that we put the words "In God we trust," on that which so powerfully seeks to usurp our proper trust in God.

What about our faith do we learn from children? David Ng & Virginia Thomas in Children in the Worshiping Community, talk about many aspects of worship where children can teach adults. One specific example concerns the Eucharist.

When children partake of bread and wine the "tables are turned." Their participation in the sacrament of the Lord's Table teaches the rest of the church something very important about God and our relationship with God. We are prevented from a gnostic practice of our religion. The essence of gnostic religion is the right knowledge of certain secrets; thus is the path to salvation. The Lord's Supper and baptism are meant as gifts to be received in faith. We do not claim God's gifts through our superior intellect or knowledge of certain secrets kept from others. When children have the audacity to receive God's gifts, which they could in no way deserve on the basis of their knowledge or experience, the rest of the church can learn again the meaning of trust and faith. In the matter of a "right practice" of the sacraments, it is possible that the children shall lead us.

Properly speaking, we do not "observe" the sacraments, we "celebrate" them! We celebrate grace freely given, received by unworthy but grateful people. Baptism and communion are joyous, happy occasions. It could well be that children, who are good at celebrating, will lead us in our participation in the joyful feast. [p. 30]

One final word from our text: "servant" (diakonos). I quoted some comments by Juel under MISUNDERSTANDING above. This word can also be translated "minister".

Most everything I've read suggests that the church needs to change its paradigm of ministry. To quote Jean Mooris Trumbaur from Sharing the Ministry: A Practical Guide for Transforming Volunteers into Ministers: "Paradigms define what we think is the correct way of viewing things". She give the following examples of paradigm shifts.

Today's church is in the midst of a shifting paradigm regarding our understandings of ministry. For example, one paradigm of ministry is that it is the work of the clergy and consists of what the ordained clergy do within a congregation or denomination to bring people closer to God. At best, in this view, the other members of the church are the clergy's "helpers," when needed.

Another paradigm of ministry suggests that it is the calling of all the people of God and that while some ministry occurs within congregational and denominational life, ministry pushes out beyond the marketplaces of our lives -- families, workplaces, communities, and eventually the whole world. [p. 34]

Peter Steinke in Healthy Congregations presents much of the same thing in his contrast between "Clergy-Focused Congregations" and "Mission-Focused Congregations".

I'm sure that there are many of the people in the pew who hear these words about being a servant of all; but they wouldn't consider themselves "ministers," because "that's the pastor's job." I've seen some congregational billboards, bulletins, and newsletters that list "pastor" and his/her name, and then "minister" and say, "all the members of the congregation." There are just too many "little children" -- too many unimportant people in the world to welcome for us pastors to do it all.

Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 1000 D St., Marysville, CA 95901