After the experience of the transfiguration, Jesus and his companions continue their journey through Galilee.
Jesus’ public ministry there is over: he will now instruct his disciples privately, beginning with his second teaching about his coming suffering and resurrection, and, as usual, they fail to understand the mystery of the cross as the unfolding of God’s plan. They even seem to be moving into a state of wilful ignorance, being reluctant to ask questions.
The disciples’ lack of understanding is heightened when we learn that they have been arguing among themselves about who is the most important. This provides the opening for Jesus’ subversive teaching which we find throughout the Gospel versions about rank and status. Illustrating the lesson by introducing a child is not for sentimental effect: in the society of Jesus’ time, a child did not represent innocence or the like, but rather someone who had no rights, no social standing, was totally dependent on others. There is nothing to be gained by being kind to someone who is, in effect, a “non-person”. Jesus has called the Twelve apart from the wider group of disciples and directed this teaching at them in particular. Jesus puts his arms around the child, thus showing that this “non-person” deserves care and respect. Mark introduces the theme of treating Jesus well (or badly) in socially insignificant persons with the phrase “in my name”, and welcoming Jesus means welcoming the one who sent him.
It is interesting that Jesus’ teaching on humble and disinterested leadership is directed specifically at the Twelve, members of his inner circle. Given the social attitude to children of his day, his example of a child as being especially worthy of respect is nothing short of revolutionary. The Gospel presents us with values and principles which we are supposed to apply to our own times and circumstances. If a child represents a non-person in the society of Jesus’ time, who fits that category in ours and what is our attitude towards such people? Who are our leaders most concerned about?
We might take comfort in Mark’s description of the disciples and their difficulties in understanding Jesus and his message. In today’s Gospel reading, their mistaken arguing about rank offers an opportunity for them to learn an important lesson from Jesus. The important thing about mistakes is that we should learn from them, not that we should not make them in the first place. The biblical picture of the people of Israel was that none of their repeated failures was the last word: God was always prepared to give them another chance. Even the disciples’ ultimate abandoning of Jesus in Gethsemane was not to be the final scene in the story, as Mark’s very writing of his Gospel shows. Our knowledge and understanding of Jesus is deepened by our questioning what we believe: the opposite of faith is less likely to be doubt than certainty, where there is no room for mystery.
- In the Synoptic tradition, Jesus makes three prophecies about his passion, death and resurrection.
- The figure of Simon of Cyrene will illustrate Jesus’ teaching on taking up the cross and following him.
- A child, in the time of Jesus, was effectively a non-person, of no social standing.
Make the Sign of the Cross and ask for the courage to keep asking questions about your faith