Power is Poison
Week of Sunday September 20
Gospel: Mark 9:30-37
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.'
At the end of my first year in theological college I was invited back to Flynn Church in Alice Springs, to fill in while the minister took long leave. It was a wonderful time for me. I'm sure I benefited more than Flynn did! The best lesson came at the end. Due to travel arrangements, we arrived back in Adelaide late. We walked into the back of the chapel, part way through the opening worship service for the new college year. Friends turned around and smiled at us, welcoming and glad to see us, then returned their gaze to the front.
I was shocked. Suddenly, I was not the centre of attention. I was being ignored. In only eight short Sundays, without trying, I had become very used to celebrity. I remember it as one of the most sobering moments in my ministry.
In this week's gospel we are reminded, again, that we do not own the church. It is not here for us. We are not at the centre. In last week's reading, it was finally revealed that Jesus was the Messiah. In the next chapters we are in a period of transition. I interpret the verses between chapter 8:31 and chapter 11:1, as Jesus trying to make clear the implications of being Messiah, and the implications of being a follower of Messiah. It is about the shedding of worldly power, and the right use of power.
Three times he says he will die, and on each of those three times he rebukes the disciples about their worldly view of power, absolutely contradicting it.
If I were producing Mark for a stage show, I would sketch out my storyboard like this:
- 8:22 The blind man at Bethsaida. This is the end of a scene in the play. It says, "See clearly what the feeding stories mean!"
8:31 He is Messiah
He will be betrayed and die
8:33 He rebukes Peter, calling him Satan! Peter has denied that Jesus must die. "You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."
- 9:1 He shows them the glory of God (transfiguration), and then immediately confronts them with their powerlessness without him (9:14 the boy with the Spirit.) We note in that story, when Elijah came, "they did to him whatever they pleased." It is an echo of what is happening to Jesus. (9:13)
- 9:30 He teaches he will be betrayed and die
9:33 He rebukes them over their desire for power and status
By contrast, he blesses children (the least of the least)
9:38 He does not condemn others who use his name (We do not own him)
- 9:42 - 10:17 Teaching on temptations to sin, and on divorce. These seem to relate to relationships in the community of Jesus... be at peace with one another
(9:50) I note that in our time we strongly look at sexual ethics in terms of power abuse.
- 10:13 Jesus blesses little children. Again the least of the least are raised up. "To such as these that the kingdom of God belongs."
- 10:17 The rich man who cannot enter the Kingdom, for he will not give up his power.
- 10:32 Jesus foretells his death
10:35 Rebukes the desire of the disciples for status and power
- 10:46 Bartimeaus is healed. This is the end of a scene in the play. It says, "See clearly what the relationships within the community should be!"
- 11:1 Jerusalem
If last week's headline was "Arriving at the pointy end of the gospel," perhaps this week's would be "Power is Poison." This was implicit in the call to deny self and take up the cross, and in the statement 'those who save their life will lose it.' (8:34-35) Now in these chapters about the danger of status and power, it is made explicit: "Whoever wants to be first, must be last of all and servant of all." (9:35)
John Petty points out
.... 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.
There is a broad hint that at some level the disciples were well aware of what they were doing on the way. In the same way, our seeking of status and power within the community is ultimately a betrayal. It is not that we do not understand. Instead we choose our self as most important. Power is seductive.
The disciples' discussion always strikes me as faintly ridiculous. Would twelve grown men really argue about who was the greatest? It sounds childish. Remember our fights at church, over keys, and pew placements and rosters. How many of those come down to who is most important? How childish... just like a bunch of blokes bignoting themselves.
Jesus turns this on its head. He says of a child, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.' The contrast with the disciples' argument is obvious. Jesus needs to say nothing more. Perhaps we should, because the reverse of making the child welcome is to focus upon our own power and concerns. In that case, he has taught us, we make the one who sends Jesus unwelcome.
We probably don't appreciate the radical nature of Jesus choice of the child. In the west we are so often comfortable and affluent. We are into helicopter parenting, spoiling our children, even using them as a means of improving our status. Perhaps before reading this text we should remind ourselves of the Josef Fitzls, the child soldiers, and the slave labour of little children. In Jesus time, children were least of the least. Loved, certainly, but with high infant mortality. Even if an infant survived, childhood mortality was also very high. (Petty suggests 30%) Like their mothers, they were regarded as property. (Look at the hymn to the perfect wife in the chapter 31 reading from Proverbs this week. It's all about the man, in the end.)
Mark is like a road movie, prefiguring our journey as followers of Jesus. 'On the way' (v 33) is properly on the Way. John Petty says
To be "on the way" with Jesus does not mean thinking proper theological thoughts, but rather actually doing what Jesus did.
Letting go of our power is the hardest thing. It is to give up control of our destiny. Life is frightening enough. But we are asked to give up what little control we have. It is what Jesus did, by staying 'under the radar' in the poor villages (Petty), and staying with his calling to the point of death. It is what we are called to. It will be the death of us too, even perhaps literally, but it is also an entry into the kingdom.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!