We are told as the Gospel lesson begins today, that Jesus is teaching his disciples. He’s making his way along the dusty back roads of the Galilee with them, dodging crowds, so that he can instruct them. He seems to be intent on having them fully understand what it is that he is all about.
What it is that he is “all about,” is this matter of how he will be betrayed, killed, and after three days will rise again, and what it will mean to follow him.
This is now the second of three passion predictions in Mark’s Gospel. This is a very important point to be understood for Jesus.
But, it appears that classroom attention span in the first century is no better than it is in the 21st Century.
While Jesus teaches about his impending betrayal, death, and resurrection, the Disciples appear to be engaged in the furious debate among themselves in hushed tones, like teen-agers in the back of the classroom, — over which one of them is “the greatest.”
So it is, when the teacher calls upon them, they are silent.
“They did not understand what he was saying and they were afraid to ask.” Mark records.
This could have been any classroom, anywhere. The dynamics have not changed in 2000 years.
So, what are we to make of this Gospel lesson? What does it have to say to us?
I’d like to suggest that one way we might discover what this has to say to us is to follow the question that is never asked.
What are they afraid to ask Jesus about?
Maybe they were afraid to ask Jesus what he was talking about because they did not hear him clearly. Preoccupied with their own conversations, their own desire to figure out which was the greatest among them, they simply did not hear his teaching.
Is that what it means when it says, “they did not understand him?” Garbled words? Unclear context? Maybe they just can’t concentrate on what he is saying.
But that doesn’t quite ring true.
This is the second time Jesus has talked about going to suffer, be killed, and rise again.
I don’t think it is the case that they are not hearing clearly, or not concentrating sufficiently.
I think they are afraid to ask Jesus what he is talking about because they simply do not want to know what all this talk about Jesus’ suffering really means!
And this is the point at which the Gospel leaps across the centuries, for this is the question that we avoid as well.
This is what we are afraid to ask of Jesus. “What does your suffering, death and resurrection stuff have to do with me?”
When you think about it, you know; we really aren’t afraid to ask all kinds of questions of Jesus, or of God in general.
The news report speaks of gunfire erupting in a nearby city and another young person lies dead, and we ask, “Why doesn’t God do something about that?”
“Jesus, why don’t you do something about hunger?” We ask as we see the starving waif on the television asking for our support.
“Jesus, why does my friend have to suffer like this?” We find the question crossing our lips after we hang up the phone getting the latest news about the illness, the spread of the cancer, or the marital or familial problems.
Oh, we have no lack of questions we’d like to throw over Jesus’ way, once we get rolling.
“Jesus, why is justice so elusive?”
“Jesus, why can’t we find a way to provide jobs and health care for people?”
“Jesus, why are we stuck in this pandemic? Why don’t you cure and remove affliction as you did in days of old?”
It’s not that we don’t know how to ask questions of Jesus, all of them really good ones! All of them deserving of some kind of answer in the cosmic sphere of this universe of troubles and tribulations.
But these are all questions that demand something of the ruler of the universe! What is God going to do about these things that afflict us? Questions about God’s apparent inability or unwillingness to intervene in this world. Questions about why God seems unwilling to step in or to come near where and when God is so desperately needed!
The grand irony of course, is that even as we hurl all these questions to God and to Jesus, the one time that God did decisively step into this world, (in flesh and blood no less) to actually do something, — we questioned God’s actions.
We ultimately crucified the one God sent for stepping in!
The one time God stepped in, what God chose to do rather than jumping in as a King like David, or as a General to rally the troops, or like Superman to fix everything … God chose to come as a man, to teach, to lead by example, to suffer betrayal, and to die at the hands of the very humans he came to save.
We don’t understand that. And, deep down, we really don’t want to understand it!
We don’t want to understand it because we have a sneaking suspicion that if we DID understand what Jesus was talking about, the implication is that we would have to do something.
We would have to lay down our lives for the sake of our neighbor.
We would have to change our lives for the sake of others.
We would have to make different choices about how to live for the sake of those who suffer in this world.
All of those things would have to be done by us in order for things to change in this world and for suffering to end.
We would have to be willing to lay down our lives, rather than remain in the positions of favor, or of power, or of authority. We would have to give up our aspirations to be “the greatest” in this world.
No, see, if I were going to lay bets as to why the disciples do not understand what Jesus is saying to them, it would say it is because they don’t want to hear this from Jesus!”
I don’t want to hear that in order to follow Jesus, I will have to give up my own aspirations of being great, or at least having notoriety of some kind.
I don’t want to hear that the way that Jesus takes those who follow him is not by the path of glory, but rather the path of service.
I don’t want to hear that following Jesus does not take you down the path of everything getting better every day in every way, but rather it involves the path of the suffering servant.
I don’t want to hear this Jesus, that you call those who follow you to give sacrificially, to live simply, and to love deeply – not just the ones easy to love, but the outcast and the ones that this world considers to be of no value or of little status.
See, that’s what is happening when Jesus reaches out and takes that little child, saying “whoever welcomes this one….”
“This one.” The child that Jesus reaches for is likely not some spit-shined cutie, a cherished little lad or lass in sparkling clean clothes.
In the 1st Century, (the time of Jesus,) children had about a 60% death rate. Childhood diseases, accidents, and child labor all still existed. Children had about the same social status as slaves. Families had a lot of kids because, well, not many of them would survive to adulthood. Children were often left to mostly fend for themselves.
Picture not the white robed little darling of the Sunday School folder, but rather the snot nosed kid of the neighbors who is always taking free lunch and stealing the apples from the tree because he/she is perpetually hungry.
This one, the illegal immigrant child that everyone likes to scapegoat as the problem with this country….
Whether that was in the 1830’s when it was our German immigrant forefathers,
Or in the 1850’s when it was the Irish Catholics coming over,
Or the 1930’s when it was Jewish refugees, trying to flee from Hitler,
Or the 1950’s when it was Black children moving to cities from the Jim Crow south during the Great Migration….
Or in the 1970’s when it was all those southeast Asians in the aftermath of Vietnam,…
Or the 1990’s when it was Kurdish refugees after the Gulf war….
Or the 2000’s when it was the Hispanic children at the border…
Or now, with the Afghan women and the children seeking refuge from the Taliban.
The child Jesus picks up in his arms is not some well-dressed little tyke, but a rag doll brat who’s been screaming all night because he or she is hungry, tired, and frightened — and the parents are nowhere to be found for they do not run up and complain about Jesus’ grabbing of their child.
This is what we don’t want to hear, the question we don’t want to ask.
We don’t want to hear that Jesus points our hearts and our minds away from ourselves and our sniggering comments about “which of us is the greatest.”
He teaches of his own choice to go to Jerusalem to suffer, lay down is life, and to find resurrection — or he directs our attention down to that no account kid who we’d all rather ignore and would like to see just go away.
“If you want to be greatest, look at these. Have regard for them, love them, welcome them. When you welcome them you not only welcome me, but the One who sent me.” Jesus says.
This is what we don’t want to hear.
This is what we don’t really want to understand.
This is what we are desperately afraid to ask Jesus about, God about, because if it was made any more clear to us, if we really did understand this, then we could make no more excuses about what we have done or left undone. We would have no more reasons not to follow where Jesus has so clearly shown the way.
But here is the Gospel in this.
What we are afraid to ask, we are assured we will know in the end!
The Son of Man will suffer, be rejected, die at human hands and be raised, and he will do all this for you, so that you can begin to see where true greatness lies.
It lies not in what you argue about, insist upon, what you try to protect, or what you seek as your own source of greatness.
It lies instead in what you are willing to do for the sake of others, and how much you are willing to set aside your own ambitions in order to welcome and to serve.