Summary: In contrast to the ambition to acquire the applause and approval of men, Jesus turns his disciples toward the powerless -- toward children -- as exemplars of Himself, His Father, and the ones his disciples should seek to serve.
Apostles, Christians, and Children
Sometimes, the disciples of Jesus don’t come off very well in the gospels, and today’s Gospel lesson is one of those times. Jesus tells them again, as he is doing more and more often at this point in his ministry, what Mark records in verses 30 to 31 in chapter nine:
“31 For He taught His disciples and said to them, ‘The Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of men, and they will kill Him. And after He is killed, He will rise the third day.’ 32 But they did not understand this saying, and were afraid to ask Him.”
Okay, there you have it: they do not understand him, and they are afraid to ask. The commentator Mark Lane, along with many other commentators, makes this comment: “The text of verse 31 is not obscure.”
Why, then, do the disciples not understand what Jesus is saying? Why are they afraid to ask?
There are two ways to puzzle this out. Mark Lane, following other commentators, suggests something that is an intriguing possibility, but that’s about all we can say – it is a possibility. And the possibility works like this.
First of all, many commentators suppose that when Jesus is speaking verse 31 to his disciples – the business about being betrayed, being killed, and rising the third day, that they were conversing in Aramaic, not in Greek. Next, it is suggested that Jesus used an ambiguous word when he said he would be killed. And, there is an Aramaic word current at that time that has an ambiguous meaning: it can signify being lifted up in the sense of being magnified or exalted. Or, it can mean to be lifted upon the occasion of being crucified – that is nailed to a piece of wood and then left to hang on it until you’re dead.
As I said, it’s an intriguing possibility, for if the disciples and Jesus were speaking Aramaic, and if Jesus used this very word, then we have, at least, some minimal explanation for Mark’s statement that they did not understand. Moreover, it would be somewhat plausible that they feared to ask Jesus to explain himself, because they were not exactly eager for the answer they supposed he MIGHT give them.
You see, they DID understand earlier that Jesus had said he would be killed, because that was the occasion for Peter to rebuke the LORD for speaking in a way that was so contrary to what the disciples they THOUGHT (or wished) he was going to do – to lead an insurrection to throw off the Roman yoke. Oh yes, they HAD heard that part, and they didn’t like the implications. And, so, if Jesus were speaking ambiguously here, they had a good reason NOT to inquire further. They were following the wisdom that says, “Don’t ask the question if you might not like the answer.”
But, as we go further into today’s gospel lesson, I think we find the REAL reason the disciples did not understand what Jesus was saying. It boils down to this: they did not understand Jesus Himself, His mission, and His method of accomplishing that mission. In fact, they were possessed of a worldly flaw in their characters which Jesus exposed and corrected.
Mark shows us why they did not understand Jesus and why they were fearful of inquiring further by following Jesus’ words here with an account of an episode on the road. Jesus is, evidently, somewhere along the road ahead of them, or they have fallen behind him – at any rate, they feel free to quarrel among themselves. And when they all get to their destination, Jesus asks them “What were you disputing about on the road?”
I’m sure the LORD knew, just as God knew the answer to the question He asked in the Garden: “Adam, where are you?” God knew very well where Adam was, and Jesus knew very well what they were quarreling about. But, he gives them a chance to come clean, and of course they remain silent. They were quarrelling about who should be the greatest among them. And, to their credit, they are ashamed to admit this.
We modern, 21st century, egalitarian, individualistic American Christians will not understand this very well. Everything in our culture hammers away at the idea that no one is first, that all are equal in every respect, and the idea that anyone would put himself forward as entitled, or worthy, or deserving of the honor of being first … well, that’s just horrid, right? In a recent conversation, someone related to me that supreme silliness of a young boys’ T-Ball league, where the league managers had decided that in the T-ball matches no score would be kept. That way, there would be no winners to gloat in their victories, and no losers to feel their self-esteem tarnished by having a lower score.