We all have our favorite gospel. I like Luke for his story telling, and his stress on women and the marginalized; Matthew for his focus on the gentile converts; John for his theology, his focus on Jesus as the ‘word’ of God and his play on light/darkness. And today’s author, Mark, is a favorite because of his treatment of the apostles.
This is the first gospel written. It is closer to the actual events described in the other three. Perhaps that is why the apostles come across as not only so human, but oftentimes, rather dull and somewhat out of it. I like the fact that they are human and make mistakes and misspeak, that Jesus had to correct them patiently, and sometimes not so patiently, and that it takes them a long time to understand the significance of what is actually going on. They really did not get it for a long time….!
Maybe that is why I, and perhaps, you, can relate to the apostles in Mark’s Gospel; I know I can be somewhat ‘slow’ myself in grasping what the Lord has in store for me. There are times when “I do not get it.” Actually, there are many times, I do not get it!
We are all called, by dint of our baptism, to be disciples of Jesus. How we fill out that charge is personal. But I suggest that it is not an easy task; there are no quick solutions; it is not as easy a solution as a tummy tuck infomercial claims to be—work hard, sweat hard and you get the body of your dreams. So why not apply this same approach to discipleship—work hard, suffer and get the prize of heaven?
The spiritual writer C.S. Lewis points out that this approach to discipleship ultimately does not work. He writes, “heaven offers nothing that a mercenary soul can desire. It is safe to tell the pure of heart that they shall see God, for only the pure of heart want to see God.”
It has been suggested that Lewis’ insight could be a key to today’s Gospel passage. Jesus has just given his disciples the third and final prediction of his passion. Now we are told by Mark, for the third time, the apostles had not the slightest idea of what he was talking about.
The first time Jesus warned them, Peter told Jesus that what Jesus was talking about—suffering and death—could not happen. After the second time the apostles were arguing about which of them was the most important. Now, after Jesus’ third prediction, James and John, two who were among his first followers, the only two who, with Peter, had witnessed the transfiguration, these two now want to be placed ahead of all the others when Jesus comes into his kingdom.
Jesus quietly explains what their request would entail—suffering and death. And here is the most powerful thing to notice. Jesus does not rebuke James and John for their request. He grants it—they will suffer with him. But Jesus does deny their request to be beside him in his glory; only the Father can determine that.
Their request occasions another lesson on how to really become great and important, a lesson about authentic discipleship—not by being self serving, but by serving others just as Jesus came to do. “The son of man did not come to be served, but to serve.”
He tells his followers they must have a servant’s heart; a heart which does not seek prestige but opportunities to attend to others, seeking neither reward nor recognition. As Martin Luther wrote: “a Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject of all, subject to all.” The ideal of seeking a servant’s heart is at the center of Jesus’ teaching today.
Being a servant does not mean allowing people to walk all over you. Jesus was not afraid to stand up for himself and doing what was expected of him. Serving, in part, is meeting expectations and also adding a few surprises.
A policeman who did not stop the bad guys would not be serving anyone. A parent who allows her child to always have her own way would be a poor parent and would be doing a disservice to the child. A teacher who would let a student get away with cheating or not doing their work would be a poor servant as well as a poor teacher. In other words, being a servant to other does not always bring popularity.
Jesus knew he was making a lot of enemies by the work he was doing—healing, teaching and attacking evil spirits. He was, nonetheless, ready to lay down his life in order to serve others, even when people ignored him, misunderstood him, did not appreciate what he was doing or hated him for it. Some things never change!
The emphasis of Christian discipleship should not be on suffering, leadership or authority, as important as this might be in some situations. Discipleship, as Jesus frames it here, is best understood “as reorienting one’s whole psych, regardless of whether one suffers much or little, has much authority or little. To embrace true discipleship is to take on the mind of Christ, “who took the form of a slave;” it is putting on a new divine nature; it is becoming conformed to the image of Christ himself.” (America/10-15, p. 46)
Our putting on this new divine nature and being conformed into the image of Christ does not entail leaving behind our human nature. Christian discipleship affects a spiritual renewal that enables us to live our human lives as fully and deeply as possible.
Our attitude should be that of the Lord; we should seek to serve God and men with a truly supernatural outlook, not expecting any return; even serving those who do not appreciate that/our service. This makes no sense, of course, if judged by human standards, but that is what discipleship is all about.
Today’s gospel passage forms the climax of Mark’s central section. He makes two claims important to his theology: first, Jesus is not to be seen only as a divine miracle-worker and healer; he is to be seen as the son of God and the suffering servant, referenced in the first reading; no, he, Jesus is fully human and will suffer his passion and crucifixion. Second, that being a follower of Jesus could result in persecution—something Mark’s audience feared; no, the Christian life is a challenge to take up one’s cross and follow Jesus and consequently take a risk.
Today’s gospel closes with what could be called the mission statement of Jesus: “for the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” This is the whole theological message of the Gospel of Mark in a nutshell, and words we need to mediate on often
Let me end with this prayer of Mother Teresa of Calcutta:
The fruit of silence is prayer
The fruit of prayer is faith
The fruit of faith is love
The fruit of love is service
The fruit of service is peace!