Lectionary Commentary

September 20, 2009
25th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Proper 20

Commentary by Russell Pregeant

See also: [Year B Archive]


James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
Mark 9:30-37

The gospel reading begins with the second of Jesus’ predictions of his death and resurrection and is followed, as are the first and third predictions, by teaching on discipleship. As I noted in the essay on last week’s readings, the three predictions occur in Mark’s central section, which is bracketed by two stories of Jesus’ healing a blind man, which have metaphorical value. In the first healing, after Jesus’ first attempt, the man can see only partially; but the man in the second story gains full sight immediately and follows Jesus. The first healing story is followed by Peter’s declaration that Jesus is the Messiah, to which Jesus responds with a rebuke that leads into his teaching on discipleship: those who want to follow him must lose their lives in order to find them. When we put together all these elements, we can see that Mark’s central section is designed to re-define both Messiahship and discipleship.

Knowledge of this broad context is essential for understanding the import of the opening verse in this Sunday’s reading. Jesus is passing secretly through Galilee, because he is teaching his disciples about his coming death and resurrection. The central section of Mark, built around Peter’s declaration and the three passion predictions, is devoted to teaching that is directed specifically to the disciples and not to the general public. And this phenomenon is related to the distinctive Markan theme of the “messianic secret.” Early in the gospel, Jesus is concerned to keep his identity secret. For example, he silences the demons when they reveal that identity (1:25, 34), and he tells the man whose leprosy he has healed to “say nothing to anyone” (1:40). Then, in 4:10-12 (see also 4:33-34), Mark’s Jesus makes the theme of secrecy explicit. He explains that the parables he tells are to reveal “the secret of the kingdom” to them, the disciples, but they are designed to hide the secret from “those outside.” It thus becomes a major task of the reader of Mark to puzzle out this strange emphasis upon secrecy. And it is one of the main functions of the central section of Mark to help the reader perform that task.

Jesus’ interchange with Peter in last week’s reading (8:27-38) reveals that the disciples cannot accept the necessity of Jesus’ suffering and death, and the reason seems to be that they expected him to act as a triumphant Messiah. The central section, built around the passion predictions and teaching on discipleship, gives us the clue. Jesus does not want his identity known until he has made it clear what kind of a Messiah he is (that is, one who suffers and dies, not one who marches into Jerusalem in triumph) and, consequently what it means to follow him (that is, to be willing to suffer as he did). What we find, however, is that the disciples never grasp this. This fact is evident in this Sunday’s lesson when, immediately after the second passion prediction, the disciples are arguing about who is the greatest among them—the most inappropriate response imaginable to Jesus’ teaching about losing one’s life to find it, which (as we saw in last week’s reading) is the corollary of Jesus’ own path to the cross.

Of course, the secrecy is not intended to remain forever. In 4:22, Jesus says that “there is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to be revealed.” Thus, near the end of the story, when Jesus is standing before the Council after his arrest, he responds to the high priest’s question, “Are you the Messiah,” with a direct answer: “I am.” Then, in the moment after Jesus’ death, a Roman centurion declares, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”—and this is the only time in the entire gospel when a person (other than God or the narrator) declares Jesus’ identity and is not silenced. The point is clear: it is only when it has become impossible to mistake Jesus for a triumphant Messiah that an attribution of that title to him is appropriate. It is in the nature of his calling to suffer and to die before he is raised from the dead—just as it is in the nature of discipleship to take up one’s own cross.

In last week’s reading, the teaching on discipleship laid down this broad principle of losing one’s life to find it. In this week’s reading, the metaphorical value of that principle is more evident. The disciples’ inappropriate response to Jesus’ prediction of his death is a biting indictment of human arrogance, of the kind of self-seeking that stands in the way of service to God and action on behalf of the common good. It is a call to servanthood as an alternative to the quest for status and worldly power. And it is a reversal both of “normal” human expectations and of typical social systems. The earlier call to lose one’s life in order to find it is now fleshed out not in terms of actual martyrdom (although that remains a possibility) but in terms of one’s social conduct. To follow Jesus is to adopt an alternative, decidedly counter-cultural, style of life.

This point is underscored when Jesus places a little child in the disciples’ midst and declares that “Whoever welcomes such a child in my name welcome me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” In order to understand the force of Jesus’ words and actions here, we need to put away our modern, sentimental attitude towards children. In the ancient world, children were not doted on; they lacked both status and power. So in this passage Jesus’ command to accept little children is a plea to embrace those on the lowest rungs of power and privilege.  This plea stands in marked contrast to the disciples’ struggle among themselves for status, and it is part of a pattern in Mark in which the behavior of the twelve contrasts with the attitude and actions that make for true discipleship. Following Jesus’ third prediction of his death, James and John will again manifest a self-seeking attitude by asking to sit at his right and left hand when he comes into his glory (10:37). But, in contrast, a series of other characters illustrate the humility necessary for true discipleship:

Some emerge from the crowds for healing; others are lifted up by Jesus as examples; still others serve Jesus. Usually, they are marginal people with no power—children, women, a beggar, a foreigner, a poor widow. Many are excluded from common life because of their afflictions. Some are considered unclean—demoniacs, the leper, the woman with the flow of blood, and the Syrophoenician woman. Yet these minor characters constitute the fertile soil for the good news of the Rule of God.

Discipleship as humility, willingness to walk the way of the cross, and solidarity with the lowly and oppressed is parallel to Jesus’ own lifestyle in Mark. Throughout the narrative, he identifies with the outcast, and in the end he accepts suffering and death—the way of the cross—as his paradoxical messianic role. And process thought, with its understanding of divine power as persuasive rather than coercive, provides a good framework for developing this theme. Love that is willing to suffer on another’s behalf is redemptive in a way that mere punishment of the wrongdoer or violent action on behalf of justice is not. And to follow a messiah and God whose power is precisely that of persuasive love demands a particular kind of lifestyle—not a militant effort to stamp out the enemies of God but a militantly self-sacrificing effort to bring healing to all, including both the suffering oppressed and those who have damaged their own souls by taking on the role of oppressor.

The reading from James reiterates the theme of humility versus arrogance in its commendation of meekness over ambition and boasting and of a “wisdom from above” that is characterized by gentleness, openness to reason, mercy, and peacemaking. Openness to reason is a particularly important virtue in our time, with the church split into bitter factions quarreling over theological, moral, and political issues. And 4:1, which traces conflicts and disputes to “cravings” is food for thought for us all. How would it change the way we approach the inevitable disagreements within the church if we were to ask, seriously, what it is within ourselves that causes us to forget the humanity of those with whom we disagree? To ask such a question—that is, to submit ourselves to the deepest kind of self-examination, is one important way that we can walk the way of the cross.

One aspect of Mark’s gospel that is in tension with process thought is its tendency to treat Jesus’ death as part of God’s preconceived plan. Not only does such a theme smack of determinism, but it raises questions about the goodness of God: why must the redemption of the world depend upon the shedding of innocent blood? This question is a serious one, and it forces us to bring the whole issue of hermeneutics into our discussion. It matters how we read the biblical materials and how we appropriate them. Ched Myers has argued that in Mark Jesus’ death is a political necessity, not a matter of God’s intention, and there is some force to his argument. Jesus’ actions are politically disruptive, and his healings undermine a system of hierarchical authority. Thus, commenting on the story of the healing of the paralytic, Myers notes that

The scribes are incensed, and for good reason. Their complaint that none but God can remit debt (2:7b) is not a defense of the sovereignty of Yahweh, but of their own social power. As Torah interpreters and co-stewards of the symbolic order, they control determinations of indebtedness. But as Jesus did with the priestly prerogative, he has also expropriated this function.

I believe that Myers has put his finger on an important strain of meaning in Mark, but it is difficult to deny the deterministic strain altogether. The passion predictions read as if Jesus’ death is part of God’s plan from the beginning. But it is just at this point that hermeneutical reflection becomes necessary. A process interpreter can bring the two strains of meaning into conversation with one another and seek a synthesis. To read the deterministic strain literally is to undermine the entire moral framework of the gospel. If it is God who sends Jesus to his death, then we can no longer see it as an act of political injustice. If, however, we accept it as an imaginative way of expressing the fact that in the course of human history some things take on the quality of inevitability, then we can give essential agreement to Myers’s reading. And one great advantage in doing this is that we can make sense of the necessity of the disciples’ suffering as well.

If, then, one dimension of the cause of Jesus’ death is political inevitabililty issuing from his actions in behalf of justice, why must those who follow him suffer also? The unavoidable answer is that they too will perform actions and pass on teachings that are socially and politically disruptive. This is subtly indicated, in fact, in Jesus’ interchange with the disciples on the issue of wealth. For in his statement about the motive of those who have left everything behind them, he adds “and for the sake of the good news” (10:29) to “for my sake,” The reader may well understand the former phrase to embrace the whole story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection; but it must also include the “good news of the gospel of God,” which Jesus himself proclaimed and which has to do with the coming of God’s rule (1:14-15). And those who leave all for Jesus and the good news, we should note, receive not only blessings of a new community but also persecutions (10:28-31).

Russell Pregeant is Professor of Religion and Philosophy and Chaplain, Emeritus, at Curry College in Milton, Massachusetts and Visiting Professor in New Testament at Andover Newton Theological School in Newton, Massachusetts. He resides in Contoocook, New Hampshire with his wife, Sammie Maxwell, who is pastor of the Contoocook United Methodist Church. As an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, he has served as Associate Pastor at Rayne Memorial U.M.C. in New Orleans and as interim pastor in Carter Memorial U.M.C. in Needham, Massachusetts. He is the author of several books, including Knowing Truth, Doing Good: Engaging New Testament Ethics, Christology Beyond Dogma: Matthew's Christ and Process Hermeneutic, and Mystery without Magic, which is a basic introduction to process thought. He is a graduate of Vanderbilt University Ph.D., 1971), Yale Divinity School, (S.T.M., 1963), Perkins School of theology, Southern Methodist University (B.D., 1962), and Southeastern Louisiana Univesity (B.A., 1960).

David Rhoads, Joanna Dewey, and Donald Michie, Mark as Story: An Introduction to the Narrative of a Gospel (second edition; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), pp. 129-30.

Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Press, 1988), p. 155.

Russell Pregeant, Knowing Truth, Doing Good: Engaging New Testament Ethics (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008), pp. 153-54.