By Ed Little
A Reading from the Gospel of Mark 9:30-41
30 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.”
38 John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 39But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. 40Whoever is not against us is for us. 41For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.”
The New Testament makes no attempt to paper over the disciples’ utter cluelessness. In today’s reading, for example, Jesus predicts his death and resurrection. Not only do the disciples fail to understand what Jesus is telling them; they are distracted by their own self-absorption. “What were you arguing about on the way?” Jesus asks them. “But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.”
The disciples are breathtakingly dense. When the savior of the world points, however obliquely, to the coming Paschal mystery, all that the disciples can do is to jockey for power and control. Ecclesiastical ladder-climbing has its origin in the apostolic college. To be sure, these disciples will become heroes. All but one will lay down their lives for Jesus in martyrdom, and that one, John, will die in exile on the island of Patmos. But during the years of their formation, in the presence of their Lord himself, the disciples are consistently obtuse. Indeed, at the end of Jesus’ ministry, at the Last Supper, they will once again lapse into a power struggle (Luke 22:24), clueless to the end.
This is, counter-intuitively, good news for us. We too, after all, are clueless. Our own self-absorption may be subtler; we may be more sophisticated in cloaking our ambition in lofty rhetoric. In the end we, like the disciples, fail fully to understand, appropriate, and live as followers of Jesus. And yet we, like the disciples, are profoundly loved. Jesus calls us, teaches us, rebukes us, forgives us, and reminds us over and over that his own death and resurrection are for our sake. Jesus loves clueless people — his disciples two thousand years ago, and his disciples in 2021.
The Rt. Rev. Edward S. Little II was bishop of Northern Indiana for 16 years after serving parishes in Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Joaquin. He is the author of three books; most recently: The Heart of a Leader: St. Paul as Mentor, Model, and Encourager (2020).
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Daily Devotional Cycle of Prayer
Today we pray for:
The Diocese of Saint Andrews (Scottish Episcopal Church)
Christ Cathedral, Salina, Kan.