They went on from there and passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know it; for 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.’ But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’
The passage begins with the second of three predictions of his passion made by Jesus in Mark's Gospel. Jesus speaks of his betrayal and his death. Then three days after he is killed he will rise again. Jesus is teaching his disciples but they simply don't understand and are afraid to ask him what he means.
What happens next simply underlines the disciples lack of understanding for on the journey to Capernaum they had been arguing among themselves about which one of them was the greatest. The silence that answers Jesus' question shows that they know they are at fault. Nevertheless Jesus seems to know what they have been talking about for he speaks to them about the nature of true greatness, that 'whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all'. Jesus goes on to illustrate his point by placing a child in their midst. What Jesus does has been described by some as an acted parable for apparently the Aramaic word for 'child' is identical to the Aramaic word for 'servant'. Whether this assumption is correct or not the disciples have been arguing about who is the greatest, perhaps they should be more concerned about those who are the weakest and most vulnerable in the community.
In churches today we may not exactly argue about who is the greatest, but in many churches there is still the jockeying for position. Church members are just as likely as anyone else to see their offices and posts as status symbols and power bases. Almost instinctively we build a hierarchy to slot everyone including ourselves into. Unless we are particularly self-possessed we feel rejected if we think that we have been overlooked. A monarchical power image is often more congenial to us than the image of the servant who suffers for us.
we hear Jesus' words about his suffering and death,
living this side of the cross and resurrection we understand what his words mean.
He was one with God yet became one of us.
He was declared as Lord, yet his lordship was exercised in service.
May we not seek positions over others,
but rather let us serve.
May we not be proud people,
but rather let us show humility.
May we give of ourselves
to the troubled,
to those on the edge,
to the vulnerable.
In the name of the suffering servant.
The Rev'd Dr David Whiting is minister of the Sunderland and Boldon URC Partnership.