Gleanings from the Text
Acknowledging the worthiness and depth of studying the content of Jesus’ teachings in Mark 9:30-37, let us consider instead the manner of communication as our object of study, so that we can glean meaning from the interaction as well as the instruction of Jesus. For the sake of seeing the story from this altered angle, film critic Roger Ebert's aptly named "Ebert's Law of Movies" will serve as a rough interpretative guide: “A movie is not about what it is about. It is about how it is about it" (270). Of course the "what" is important, but a focus on the "how" can prove helpful in shedding new light.
At issue here is the responsiveness and dialogue between Jesus and his disciples. From the perspective of the followers, Mark 9:30-37 is especially unflattering, but it is Jesus' own behavior and presence that typify the approach he seeks from his students. Communication breakdown colors much of the disciples’ interaction with Jesus throughout Mark’s Gospel, but, significantly, the Gospel author does not allow their failure to understand Jesus here to disappear into the ether of destined events. Rather, we readers are provided an internal motivation for the muttering and the silence.
Verse 32 is an explicit two-step move within the thoughts of the disciples’ reaction to Jesus’ passion prediction of the previous verses: first, they didn’t understand and then they were afraid to ask Jesus about it. Is the author implying that they, the disciples, should have been straightforward in communicating their question about Jesus' second foretelling of his own death? Were they right to be afraid of the question? It is probably sound for us to empathize with the disciples’ actions and their difficulty in understanding, even if we are not happy with our inadvertent imitations of apostolic failures. The disciples at their lowest points tend to be the disciples at their most relatable.
In verses 33-37, the unasked question of 30-32 gives way to Jesus’ own didactic interrogation. Jesus senses a hushed conversation, and he initiates with a question. He asks simply what his students were discussing. In the context of a passage about children, it is easy to imagine their silence not unlike that of children who fail to respond having been asked the question that begs a self-incriminating response, What are you doing? They hold their tongues out of a clearly implied shame. Again, communication has been severed by the disciples either by holding on to their silence or by their lack of understanding.
Jesus takes initiative here at this point of apostolic thick-headedness. His startling and affectionate object lesson about humility reopens and broadens the communication that has been stifled by the disciples' unwillingness to ask Jesus' his meaning or to admit to their personal aspirations to greatness. Jesus returns to some fundamental sense of communication, be it human or divine, in this instance through the concept of welcoming. The content of the teaching is humility, but the vehicle for its expression is receiving children, being in communicative relationship with the small or marginalized.
Expanding on this idea of the various forms of powerful communication employed by Jesus, immediately preceding in verse 29, Jesus has established the interaction with God through prayer as a powerful means to effect change. The disciples have failed in healing the epileptic boy through a blockage in communication: "This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer." Prayer and hospitality thus present two forms of right communication in the reign of God (Mk. 1:15), and we see the "how" in inseparable tension with the "what," the means of expression undivided from the content of doctrine.
Food for Thought
It is an axiom of 21st century American thought that more conversation is better. We understand implicitly that rational people hash out their problems at length, and the airing of grievances becomes the critical move toward reconciliation. Consequently, there is also a minor backlash against "feelings" language in church when such talk becomes sentimental and conveys weakness, and so a stiff upper lip Christian stoicism can rush in to fill the vacuum. It is at the impasse between these two tactics that Jesus' approach to communication and his disciples' notable failures can provide insight as much as the content of the instruction. If we set aside proof texts and vitriol (if only temporarily), how does Jesus actually converse with others, and how does he treat the disciples in terms of encouragement and correction? The end of Mark 9 provides at least two jumping off points, rooted in the conveyance of unanticipated hospitality and a direct reliance on prayer, on God.
Sink Your Teeth into This
A few years ago, I heard a pastor speak briefly about the “What Would Jesus Do” phenomenon. Crass over-commercializing aside, he thought the idea had real merit as an approach to Christian life. This phrase has the added benefit of redirecting focus back on the Christ, subjugating the potential selfishness of “what do I believe” to the active example of Jesus. His means and the disciples’ responses provide insight into every facet of Christian existence. “How would Jesus do it” can be debated and constructed upon the varied human and divine interactions of the Gospels, and Christ-like methods can find fuller expression alongside such a flawed cloud of witnesses.
Roger Ebert, Questions for the Movie Answer Man. Kansas City: Andrews McMeel Publishing,
Grant Holbrook, a longtime Richmond resident (but a Midwesterner at heart), lives on the North Side with his wife Erin and is in his final year of the MATS program at Union Presbyterian Seminary.