Who Is the Greatest?
Ordinary 25 Year B
A Hebrew Catholic Perspective
St. Mark 9: 30 — 37
As St. Mark recorded things, at this point Jesus has begun His final meandering walk to Jerusalem. It has been made clear to the disciples (the twelve in particular) that they must learn by experience what this will require of them. It is their walk as well as his. For that matter, it is also ours: for we have been baptised into the same Way of Jesus — the Way of the Cross.
The time frame of this incident in our text is about three months since Jesus and his chosen twelve had left Capernaum, His ministry base. They have been as far north as Caesarea Phillipi, and now they were heading south to spend some time at Capernaum. We can imagine how secure and confident they felt, as they noted with pleasure and excitement the familiar landmarks around the shore of the great lake. It can be helpful at this point to spend a few moments looking at a map of the area where the event in our reading occurred.
Some Reflections On the Text
Part 1 Jesus, Again, Predicts His Death
Verses 31 and 31(a)
They left from there and began a journey through Galilee,
but he did not wish anyone to know about it.
He was teaching his disciples and telling them,
It is interesting to note again how Jesus demanded privacy and solitude for His twelve. They were His priority, and He did not have any hesitation in making a choice about where He would direct His spiritual energies.
Verses 31 (b) and 32
The Son of Man is to be handed over to men and they
will kill him, and three days after his death he will rise.”
But they did not understand the saying, and they were
afraid to question him.
Just before walking into Capernaum at the “top” of the lake, Jesus made a second prediction of His death. He was very focussed on fulfilling the prophetic Word, and helping His disciples to make the connection between Him and prophecy. But it was a struggle! They did not understand the significance of rising again in three days and, probably for political reasons, hesitated to ask Jesus to go into more detail. This was apparently the main topic our Lord covered during their training, as it is the only one which became recorded.
Part 2 Instruction on Greatness
Verses 33 and 34
They came to Capernaum and, once inside the house,
he began to ask them, “What were you arguing about
on the way?”
But they remained silent. They had been discussing
among themselves on the way who was the greatest.
So, after a short pause outside the city, Jesus then led His team into home territory. When they arrived at their destination, probably the home of Peter and Andrew, Jesus entered the house and, in privacy, demanded to know what they had been arguing about.
While they had been walking in a line behind Him, as was the custom for a rabbi and His disciples, He was aware of a disturbance “in the ranks”. Wisdom prevailed and He did not intervene until behind closed doors. Apparently they had had a difference of opinion about who was going to have top honours and be treated like an elder-statesman in due course. Naturally when asked to state the subject of their discussion, they all felt too embarrassed to speak up. In fact they felt rather silly that they had stooped to this sort of “one-upmanship”. They were soon to realise that by displaying this behaviour they were being childish — as distinct from child-like.
Then he sat down, called the Twelve, and said to them,
“If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all
and the servant of all.”
Our Lord obviously felt quite determined to make a rather formal lesson out of this difference of opinion. He sat down some distance from His disciples and then called them over to Him in classic rabbinic style. Then He responded to His own unanswered question. As with so many of His responses, it was clipped and paradoxical: a principle to be remembered exactly as He said it. If we may expand His comment, it seemed to imply:
“So you were arguing about who would take first place and receive all the honour, high esteem and personal elevation.”
Let me tell you: the first will be the person who is the very best and of the greatest value. It is good to aspire to that position but to reach it there is only one way: to be the very last and lowest in positions of human honour. You must therefore become the servant of all. That means you must serve all, and this will require self-sacrifice.”
Jesus is paving the way for their later understanding that if you desire spiritual greatness; if you wish to live at the very peak of human existence, then it is worth giving everything else away and going to the humblest place.
Verses 36 and 37
Taking a child he placed it in their midst, and putting his
arms around it he said to them,
“Whoever receives one child such as this in my name,
receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me
but the one who sent me.”
The picture of Jesus taking a small child (probably St. Peter’s son) is one of our favourites. He literally took the boy, “in the crook of his arm”, (meaning He embraced the child).
The twelve were talking of seniority, dignity, and kingly power over subjects and all that! Jesus took a youngster, who in that society, being an annexed Roman Province, had no status, rights or expectation of such. His formula for greatness was then spelled out:
“You are to welcome the least in society, the most ignored, the ones of the lowest value as you would welcome me. You do not have to like them, but I expect you to look for them, and love them and therefore care for them. Doing this will not help you climb the social ladder of success; you will gain no advancement in the affairs of the world. However when you do as I now command you henceforth to do, you will be doing it not just to me, but to the One who sent me. I can offer you, as a disciple of mine, no greater honour!”
Augustine Stock, OSB comments on these two verses:
● First, quoting in turn, from another author on verse 36:
“Whoever receives a child such as this in my name” —
“The lesson is not one about imitating children but about
receiving children ….. True greatness consists in receiving the
unimportant such as the child in antiquity. Greatness is not
realised in the accomplishment of mighty or inspired tasks
and duties, but in reception of and care for the underprivileged
of society” (E. Best, page 86).
● Secondly, commenting on verse 37:
“In my name receives me” — a Christian is one baptised
“into the name of” Jesus (Matthew 28: 19 and 1 Corinthians 1: 13
and 15), so becoming His. The Christian meets (serves) |
Christ Himself in the disciple, and the Father in Christ.
Such is the dignity of Christian Service.
The lesson is straightforward, and despite the element of paradox, is uncomplicated.
We close with a brief comment by J. C. Ryle:
“Let us mark the peculiar standard of true greatness which
our Lord sets before His disciples. He says to them, “If any
man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all,
and servant of all” (Verse 35).
These words are deeply instructive. They show us that the
maxims of the world are directly contrary to the mind of
Christ. The world’s idea of greatness is to rule, but Christian
greatness consists in serving. The world’s ambition is to
receive honour and attention, but the desire of the Christian
should be to give rather than receive, and to attend on
others rather than be attended on himself. In short, the man
who lays himself out most to serve his fellow-men, and to
be useful in his day and generation, is the greatest man in
the eyes of Christ. #
# The words of Augustine on this point are worth reading.
He says, “A Bishop’s office is a name of labour rather than
of honour; so that he who coveteth pre-eminence rather
than usefulness, may understand that he is not a bishop!”
De Civit. Dei
Let us strive to make a practical use of this heart-searching
maxim (Mark 9: 35). Let us seek to do good to our
fellowmen, and to mortify that self-pleasing and
self-indulgence to which we are all so prone. Is there any
service that we can render to our fellow-Christians?
Is there any kindness that we can do them, to help them
and promote their happiness? If there is, let us do it
Well, do we accept the challenge or not?
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Proclaim the Gospel to Every Creature
(Mark 16: 15)
Let us remember God’s Teaching, contained in His Word and
Who Is the Greatest?
Ordinary 25 Year B St. Mark 9: 30 — 37
1. Jesus said, “The Son of Man is to be handed over to men and they
St. Mark, after quoting our Lord, recorded, “But they did not understand the saying ….. .”
We frequently hear people comment on how slow to understand were the chosen disciples of the Lord, who after all, were soon to be commissioned as His Apostles. In fact, these men were often depicted as “obtuse”, almost dim-witted. In fact, they were precisely the opposite. They were all manual workers (rather than academic i.e. scholars) but highly intelligent and extremely eager to understand the Lord. They were the ones He chose to be the channel through whom He, as Messiah, would reach out to the whole world by word and action.
We, too, like the Apostles can become more than a little bewildered at the depths and heights of the teaching of Jesus. We do not need, however, to get all “het up” over how long it takes for His teaching to “sink in”. We will be learning how to cope with this for the rest of our lives, and so we would be best advised not to get impatient with ourselves, but quietly express our gratitude to God for His mercies, and await His inspirations as He knows best to impart. The secret of the success the Apostles experienced lay in their regular returning, in meditation, to the teaching of Jesus. Much of this (though not all) has been recorded for us in the Bible, especially in the Gospels. We can therefore, following their example, return often to the words of Jesus and literally, feed on His teaching by meditating on the Divine Word.
2. St. Mark recorded that the chosen twelve, “had been discussing
Jesus was perfectly well aware that even the finest of people can fall victim of jealousy and ambition “to be the boss”. He therefore chose the opportunity to lay down His criteria for assessing who is the greatest. As usual, His view is quite the reverse of the normal understanding of superiority and authority. His formula is a shock to everyone:
“If anyone wishes to be the first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.”
Many of us today still find this, just a little “too unrealistic, too impractical”. Again, we do not need to despair if we find this just a bit too demanding. But our Lord is not insisting there be no boss. After all He appointed St. Peter to be the foreman of His band of twelve missioners. What He teaches is that all who aspire to be leaders are to be encouraged to do so — so long as they are not looking for an opportunity to walk over other people to get what they want for themselves. If they do this, they will thereby exclude themselves from the Body they are meant to serve.
Thus our Lord’s vision of true greatness affirms the roles of leaders and servers, but insists that in His Church, all, at all levels, will go out of their way to give priority to the needs of others. In doing so, they will not only obey Jesus, they will meet Him in others, and therefore, meet God in Jesus Christ.
3. It is common for the spiritual person to become disheartened at their lack of progress in the Way Jesus called us to follow Him. But Jesus demonstrated that while we may be given insight as to how pitiful our thoughts and actions may have been, this self-knowledge is not given to depress us or bewilder us. Rather it is to help us identify where we have gone off the path and that God is eager for us not to get lost. It is therefore an affirmation that God is watching every move and when He deems it right, He lets us see it the way He sees it. This is the joy of being a member of the Household of God — that it is not a sin to be human — only for refusing Him our gratitude for leading us closer to Him. Now that is cause for the deepest heartfelt joy! Let us pray for one another that we will have the humility to accept and value His correction.
Mark 9: 30 to 37
Ordinary 25 Year B
30 They left from there and began a journey through Galilee, but
31 He was teaching his disciples and telling them, “The Son of Man
32 But they did not understand the saying, and they were afraid to
33 8 They came to Capernaum and, once inside the house, he
34 But they remained silent. They had been discussing among
35 Then he sat down, called the Twelve, and said to them, “If
36 Taking a child he placed it in their midst, and putting his arms
37 “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives
8 [33-37] Mark probably intends this incident and the sayings that follow as commentary on the disciples’ lack of understanding (⇒ Mark 9:32). Their role in Jesus’ work is one of service,
Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised