After leaving the mountain Jesus and his disciples made their way through Galilee; and he did not want anyone to know, because he was instructing his disciples; he was telling them, ‘The Son of Man will be delivered into the hands of men; they will put him to death; and three days after he has been put to death he will rise again.’ But they did not understand what he said and were afraid to ask him. They came to Capernaum, and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the road?’ They said nothing because they had been arguing which of them was the greatest. So he sat down, called the Twelve to him and said, ‘If anyone wants to be first, he must make himself last of all and servant of all.’ He then took a little child, set him in front of them, put his arms round him, and said to them, ‘Anyone who welcomes one of these little children in my name, welcomes me; and anyone who welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’
After leaving the mountain Jesus and his disciples made their way through Galilee; and he did not want anyone to know, because he was instructing his disciples; he was telling them, ‘The Son of Man will be delivered into the hands of men; they will put him to death; and three days after he has been put to death he will rise again.’ But they did not understand what he said and were afraid to ask him.
They came to Capernaum, and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the road?’ They said nothing because they had been arguing which of them was the greatest. So he sat down, called the Twelve to him and said, ‘If anyone wants to be first, he must make himself last of all and servant of all.’ He then took a little child, set him in front of them, put his arms round him, and said to them, ‘Anyone who welcomes one of these little children in my name, welcomes me; and anyone who welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’
by Sr Sarah O’Rourke FMA
Christians can be described as the ‘pilgrim people of God’ and in the Bible the idea of the spiritual life as a ‘journey’ is expressed many times. Nowadays many people walk the Camino di Santiago or one of Ireland’s National Pilgrim Paths and they do so for a variety of reasons. However for many the outward camino is a sign of an inner journey.
In today’s Gospel we meet Jesus and his disciples on a camino from Galilee to Jerusalem. After the wonder of the Transfiguration Jesus is at a new and decisive stage in his life’s journey. Now is not the time for miracles and speaking to large crowds, it is the time for being alone with his disciples. Jesus speaks about his impending death and resurrection but the disciples just don’t get it. However they are afraid to ask for an explanation. They clearly have not grasped the nature of Jesus’ mission. The disciples are still thinking of Jesus as the conventional Jewish Messiah whose Kingdom would guarantee them privilege and power. No wonder they were interested in a pecking order and argued as to which one of them was the greatest. Yet a silence follows Jesus’ questioning of their discussion. In order to be his followers a change of mentality is needed.
Children in 1st century Palestine had no rights, they were powerless and vulnerable. It is precisely because of this that Jesus presents a child to instruct his followers that discipleship is about humble service to the little ones. ‘Anyone who welcomes one of these children in my name, welcomes me; and anyone who welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’ As I reflected on these words of Jesus and who I might be invited to welcome in his name, I recalled a story from a plaque in a hostel on the Camino di Santiago: In the 10th century an old man who had completed many pilgrimages during his life retired to a monastery hidden in the hills. Many people sought him out for advice. One day a young pilgrim arrived at his dwelling and asked the wise man “What must I do to become a true pilgrim?” The weathered man looked him in the eye and replied, “Son, if you want to be an authentic pilgrim return to your family, to your neighbours, friends and enemies and listen to them, Serve them, forgive them and love them. In that way, you will become a true pilgrim.”
This gospel passage comes halfway through Jesus’ public ministry, while Jesus is preaching the Kingdom of God in the villages of Galilee. He takes a bit of time to instruct his disciples, and makes use of these more intimate moments to announce his tragic death and foretell his resurrection. Jesus nearly always speaks in parables to the people but he prefers to use more direct and concrete language when speaking to those who share his journey and his preaching. He informs them in advance of his tragic and painful end and his final victory. Those who accompanied him had to know that the Lord was leading them towards a violent death, followed by life without end.
I. Read: understand what the text is saying, focussing on how it says it
As he heads towards Jerusalem, Jesus announces his death for the second time. He does so with the utmost brevity (Mk 9, 31). Peter’s failure to understand was shared by all the disciples to whom this teaching was addressed (Mk 9, 32).
The episode took place in Galilee. Jesus was travelling incognito because he did not want people to know where he was going. He was concerned for the time being only with his disciples (Mk 9, 30), teaching them on their own in the house (Mk 9, 33). The report tells of yet another encounter between Jesus and his disciples (Mk 9, 30-50), in which we find a collection of Jesus’ discourses on various topics relating to discipleship: about seeking the first place (Mk 9,33-37); the case of the exorcist who, though he was not a disciple, called into question the following of Jesus (Mk 9, 38-41); the question of scandal given to the little ones (Mk 9, 42-48); and the description of authentic discipleship (Mk 9, 49-50). What Jesus has in mind as he proceeds to Jerusalem is not what his followers are thinking. It is dramatic to discover that is it possible for a disciple to follow Jesus his whole life, and yet not understand him.
The evangelist reports only what Jesus says (Mk 9, 220.127.116.11). What the disciples have to say is not deemed worthy of inclusion. In the evangelist’s scheme, the episode has a precise purpose. To show clearly the difference between Jesus’ aims and those of his followers, Mark describes the distance in attitude that separates the Master from his disciples. Jesus continues, freely but resolutely, on the road that leads to the cross, while the disciples are squabbling among themselves and trying to gain positions of privilege. Rarely has the Son of Man been so alone, so far from those who were accompanying him. They continue in their mistaken dreams for the future, still seeking the first place. But following him means serving, right to the end. Jesus’ teaching is directed exclusively to the disciples (Mk 9, 30), but still it seems his efforts are in vain. His disciples do not understand and they are afraid to ask (Mk 9, 33). They remain silent when questioned, because they are ashamed to tell Jesus what they had been talking about as they were walking along (Mk 9, 34).
Jesus sat down, as was customary for a teacher, called the twelve to him, and gave them a double lesson – first of all in the form of a general rule (Mk 9, 35), and then by means of a symbolic action which he explains immediately (Mk 9, 36-37). Service and welcome of the lowliest are the qualities that are to characterize his closest followers. This is also what is expected of the reader of the Gospel if he or she wants to be considered a faithful disciple.
II. Meditate: apply what the text says to life
It is hard to know whether to marvel more at the courage with which Jesus speaks of his death, and the clarity with which he foresees his death, or the inability of the disciples to understand the prophetic words of their Master. It is difficult for us today to understand why the disciples were afraid to ask Jesus the meaning of what he said. His concern was to prepare them for the approaching trial, while they were busy arguing about which of them would have the first place. Jesus was thinking about the cross and the suffering that inevitably awaited him, while the disciples were squabbling over the honours they hoped to achieve. He, their Master, was thinking of giving his life while they, the servants, were thinking about becoming lords and masters. How could they understand what the Master was saying to them? How could they help feeling afraid to admit to him what they were arguing about? The idea of a Master who is journeying willingly towards his death goes completely against the disciples’ understanding of life. A leader who foretells his tragic end can only lead his followers to ruin. It did not seem right to follow Christ if he was going to hand himself over to his enemies.
As on so many other occasions, we can see ourselves in those disciples. Like them, we are unable to comprehend Christ’s teaching about the cross, or to understand a Master who goes forward, knowing the disaster that awaits him. Like them, we are more concerned about our own fate than that of the Lord Jesus. Like those first disciples, we live with the illusion that we can reach positions of honour that he never held, or we lay a snare for the brother who has attained some honour we could never reach.
We Christians today, as in the past, do not understand Jesus Christ because we do not accept in our hearts the journey of the cross. We go ahead with our own fears, trying to follow Jesus but not facing up to the truth, because we pay more attention to the desires of our own hearts than those of the heart of our Master. We become more and more petty-minded, dreaming of honours and privileges we will never enjoy.
Seeking honour and privilege serves only to make us poorer and more disadvantaged. If we think more of what we want than what we can give, we increase our hunger for power. If, on the other hand, we think of what we can give to others (a little of our time, a smile, our attention, our good wishes, our simple, practical, concrete daily life) then we will be happy. We will understand better the Jesus we follow, and we will not be afraid to follow him more closely.
It was not merely by chance that Jesus took a little child as an example and model of the best disciple. He placed the child before the twelve to let them see how their lives should be. Children had no privileges in the time of Jesus. Like the poor, they belonged to the least protected group of people in society. A child depends totally on others just to survive, and Jesus chose a child as a clear example of discipleship, the model with which all disciples should identify. This teaching of Jesus is not easy. We live in a world where power dominates, and the hero is the one who arrives first or goes furthest.
Today the disciples of Jesus are distancing themselves from him. They do not listen to his teaching, and consequently they consider it failure if they are poor, or shameful if they are weak. Today, as in the past, we lack the courage to go against the tide in order to live in the world as disciples, following a Master who walks deliberately towards his destiny. And yet, we know that if we live our lives for others, we will recover them for ever. We will be deemed worthy of the Lord who died on the cross and who lives for ever. Only in this way can we learn to live, not just with him, but like him.
you summed up the whole law
as love of you and of our neighbour.
Grant that by keeping this commandment of love,
we may come to eternal life.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
Music used in the reflection: “Sunset” by Lee Rosevere (CC-BY-NC)