A Lectionary Reflection on Mark 9:30-37 For Proper 20B / Ordinary 25B
When your life is threatened, the last thing you want to do is open your home and your heart to strangers. Rather, you want to gather up your power, hide yourself in a secure cocoon, and become as menacing as possible. Or, at least, that’s how we’ve been taught in this world of ours. And that must have been the temptation for both Jesus’ disciples and the readers of Mark’s Gospel.
For Mark’s readers, the world had become a very threatening place. The Romans had responded to the Jewish rebellion with characteristic violence and destruction. The Temple was in ruins, and anyone who gave their allegiance to anything other than Caesar was courting execution. This meant that to be a follower of Christ was a life-threatening decision. The temptation for the church would have been to abandon the hospitality and compassion that Jesus taught, using their unsafe situation as an excuse. But to do so would have been to violate the principles that Jesus had taught them, and to abandon their commitment to be a people who embodied the Reign of God. The story of the disciples’ response to Jesus’ prediction of his death becomes a symbol, then, of the choice that the Christian community was facing in those turbulent times.
Mark 9 relates the second of Jesus’ crucifixion prophecies. The first was just after Peter’s declaration of Jesus’ Messiahship in Mark 8. Between these two discourses Peter, James and John had witnessed Jesus’ transfiguration, and the other disciples had failed to deliver a boy of a demon, which had finally been driven out by Jesus. In the light of these very visible demonstrations of Jesus’ power, the talk of execution must have seemed strange, or, at least, parabolic. There was definitely some unease about Jesus’ words, though, because the Gospel tells us that they were afraid to ask Jesus what he meant.
It may seem ridiculous that, in the light of the growing sense of threat that was gathering around Jesus, the disciples would debate which of them was the greatest. The desire for the power that such “greatness” would ensure could be understood as an attempt to ward off the fear and despair that may have been arising as a result of Jesus’ words. Even though the disciples didn’t really understand what Jesus was trying to communicate, they would certainly have had at least a sense that all was not well. But, if they could be assured of a place of power in God’s Reign, they could fend off any threats, they could protect themselves in a cocoon of God’s power, and they could, perhaps, even call on God’s might as a weapon should they need it. The temptation to use power as a way to security is a universal human condition.
But, Jesus wouldn’t give them this comfort. God’s Reign is not a doorway to power and security, but a new way of living in which service and welcome are the primary responses to the world. Those who are first in God’s Reign lay aside their quest for power in order to serve all others. Those who seek the life that God’s Reign offers, must share it by welcoming those who have no status and no possible way to repay the kindness. Such hospitality must have seemed like insanity to the disciples. If there really was a threat to Jesus’ life, hospitality was the worst defense. But, Jesus was not interested in defending himself. He was concerned with creating a world in which cycles of violence were stopped, and in which the strangeness of the “other”, that so often leads to misunderstanding and conflict, is overcome through relationship and sharing. What Jesus’ words – and the example of his life when the time came for him to die – proclaim is that our need to defend ourselves only makes the world less safe and more violent. If we really desire a healed world, a world of peace, justice, grace and love, we need to deny our desire for power and security. We need to learn to open the doors of our homes and our hearts, and we need to become hosts and hostesses who welcome others and serve them, even when it hurts.
I can hear the voices in my head debating the lines I’ve just written. They tell me that this is suicidal. They want me to say that putting ourselves in harm’s way is foolish, and that it is legitimate to protect ourselves from the potential harm that others can cause. But, if I’m honest, Jesus’ words don’t allow me the comfort of these conditions. We need to know that choosing hospitality will probably mean that it gets abused. We will almost certainly get hurt in the process, and we will face any number of situations in which we will be tempted to abandon our service and welcoming of others. But, if we really believe that the way of Jesus holds the healing of our world, we will have to abandon our natural, self-protective inclinations and embrace the sacrifice of following Jesus. No amount of power, security or self-preservation will bring the healing that we seek for the world. Only the life-giving hospitality of Jesus can do that. And that is the very difficult choice we must face each day.