They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31for he was teaching his disciples, 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.’ 32But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him. 33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ 34But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest.35He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ 36Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them,37‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’
Translation: From there, they went out (and) were passing through Galilee, and he was not wishing that anyone might know, for he was teaching his disciples, and he was saying to them, "The son of man (is) to be delivered into hands of people, and they will kill him, and having been killed, after three days, he will be raised." But they were not knowing the word, and they were fearing to ask him.
And they came into Capernaum, and coming to be in the house, he was asking them, "What were you discussing on the way?" But they were being silent, for, on the way, they had been discussing with one another who (was) greatest. And he sat down (and) called the twelve, and he said to them, "If someone wishes to be first, that one will be last of all and a servant of all." And he took a child (and) set it in their midst, and he taking it into his arms, he said to them, "Whoever might receive on of these children in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives not me but the one who sent me."
Background and situation: This is the second of three passion statements made by Jesus in the book of Mark. The first was in the region of Caeserea Philippi (8:31-32). This one is in Capernaum. The last one--10:32-40--will be "on the way" to Jerusalem. Considering the three statements in geographical sequence, they go from the north of Galilee, to Capernaum, to Jerusalem.
The audience to whom these words are directed also changes. First, Jesus addresses the disciples and the crowd, then the disciples as a whole, then finally only to "the twelve." Jesus speaks to a broad audience at first, then finally only to the inner core of the disciples.
All three narratives use the phrase "on the way." To be "on the way" with Jesus means to follow as disciples in the "way" of Jesus. For Mark, that "way" has a specific content. It is constituted by living in a non-hierarchical way, affirming the dignity of all, practicing open table fellowship, gender equality, non-violent resistance to political and religious oppression, and living in the values and fellowship of, as Martin Luther King put it, the "Beloved Community." To be "on the way" with Jesus does not mean thinking proper theological thoughts, but rather actually doing what Jesus did.
All three narratives are also notable for the negative light in which the twelve are portrayed. In the first, Peter is called "Satan," which is the harshest thing Jesus ever says to anyone in Mark's gospel--or, for that matter, to anyone in any of the four gospels.
In the second, the disciples are discussing among themselves which one of them is the "greatest." In the third, James and John angle for the choicest positions in the coming rule of King Jesus. As is typical for Mark, the twelve never look good. In these three cases, and particularly the latter two, they seem even more clueless than usual.
The messianic secret: In this lection, Jesus and the disciples are moving from Capernaum "through the Galilee" and Jesus "was not wishing that anyone might know." This is yet another example, in Mark, of Jesus wanting to operate "under the radar," you might say.
Modern-day Americans find Jesus' attitude puzzling. We have difficulty understanding someone who has no regard for self-promotion. We seem to assume, instead, that Jesus was something like a first century Billy Graham, an evangelist out to convert people to something called protestant theology whereby they can be "saved" and join the Christian religion. An evangelist tries to get as much publicity as possible, so why doesn't Jesus shout from the rooftops?
The paradigm is mistaken. Jesus was not an evangelist, at least not in our modern conceptions of the term, nor was he seeking conversions to the Christian religion. In precisely none of the four gospels does Jesus ever opt for any form of "religious triumphalism," i.e. getting more and more people to think like we do so they can be "saved" according to our definitions. In fact, today's evangelistic emphasis on numbers and "success"--herding more people through the chute, so to speak--would have left him cold.
He was the leader of a movement, primarily of poor people, which the religious and political leaders correctly saw as a threat to their power. He didn't advertise his presence because he had enemies who were actively trying to subvert his cause. (The pharisees and the Herodians--the religious and political police of the region, you might say--have been after him since 3:6.)
This is one of the reasons Jesus avoids cities in Mark. Prior to going to Jerusalem the final week of his life, Capernaum was the largest town visited by Jesus. Mostly, he is said to move through villages and towns. That's where his constituency tended to be, and where his enemies tended not to be.
Teaching the way of discipleship: In this case, the stated reason for avoiding a public ministry is that Jesus' focus is on teaching the disciples. He is teaching them, again, on the "way" of discipleship.
In the course of this instruction, he uses, again, the term "son of man" to speak about himself. "Son of man" is a familiar term for modern Christians, though not quite accurate in terms of the Greek word anthropou.
The Greek phrase, ho ious tou anthropou should probably be translated as "son of a human being." This makes the Greek sentence more memorable--literally: "The son of a human being is delivered over into the hands of human beings." ("Delivered over"--paradidomai--is a juridical and political term. It will figure prominently in the passion narrative.)
Jesus mentions twice that he will be "killed" (apokteino). The disciples, again, do not understand--literally, "they were not knowing the word (rhema)." Ched Myers notes that the only other use of rhema in Mark's gospel is in 14:72 where Peter denies knowing Jesus. Thus, "not knowing the word" is ultimately associated with betrayal.
The group comes to Capernaum, which was the most important town on the Sea of Galilee, and also, perhaps, Jesus' home. At any rate, they are in a "house" when Jesus was asking them what they were discussing "on the way." (The phrase "on the way" is used twice.)
As it turns out, the disciples had been discussing their own personal reputation and prestige. This is a profound misapprehension of the meaning of "disciple" and certainly not the proper attitude for presumed followers of someone who is about to be crucified.
Jesus response is directed specifically to "the twelve"--not simply the disciples, of whom there were many more than twelve, but specifically to the inner circle, the leadership core:
"If someone wishes to be first, that one will be last of all and a servant of all." And he took a child (and) set it in their midst, and he taking it into his arms, he said to them, "Whoever might receive one of these children in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives not me but the one who sent me."
This is not a reversal statement. It is not, in other words, that the first shall be last and the last shall be first. It is, rather, a flat assertion that anyone who wants to be a leader must be "last of all" and, not only that, but "servant of all" as well.
The disciples have a hierarchical understanding of leadership. For them, and for most people, the leader is the "top dog," the "king of the hill," the "top banana," the General. (I always think of Laszlo Toth's letter to Francisco Franco: "You're not just a General. You're a Generalissimo!")
The kingdom of God is not so much a place we go when we die, although it is that as well. The kingdom of God is a way of life, something here and now. The kingdom of God is what our world would be like if God were in charge. In anticipation of that day, it is how followers of Jesus are to live now "on the way" through life.
The kingdom of God is not organized hierarchically. In the Beloved Community, true leadership is exercised through being a "servant of all"--especially of the "little ones." Jesus is not against "greatness" per se, but insists that greatness be understood in a radically different way. For Jesus, an anonymous person serving in a soup kitchen is greater than Julius Caesar.
In the time of Jesus, as is well known, children were not held in high regard. Yes, people loved their children, but this was clearly a "children-are-to-be-seen-and-not-heard" kind of culture. Children were cared for by women, who were also second-class citizens. Both were regarded as property. (Infant mortality in the first century was quite high, perhaps as much as 30%. Another 30% would die in childhood.)
It is not uncommon, then or now, to receive someone as an emissary of someone else. When a government, for example, receives the foreign minister of another country, they are officially receiving that government. The disciples--even the twelve--would have certainly understood that much.
What was shocking in this case was that Jesus is saying that by receiving a child, one of the least and insignificant people in that world, they were also receiving him, yet not even him, but God. Talk about radical status-reversal!
Image: Jesus mural, San Salvador, El Salvador.