Mark 9:30–49—The greatest and the least

30 Leaving that region, they traveled through Galilee. Jesus tried to avoid all publicity 31 in order to spend more time with his disciples and teach them. He said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed. He will be killed, but three days later he will rise from the dead.” 32 But they didn’t understand what he was saying, and they were afraid to ask him what he meant. 33 After they arrived at Capernaum, Jesus and his disciples settled in the house where they would be staying. Jesus asked them, “What were you discussing out on the road?” 34 But they didn’t answer, because they had been arguing about which of them was the greatest. 35 He sat down and called the twelve disciples over to him. Then he said, “Anyone who wants to be the first must take last place and be the servant of everyone else.” 36 Then he put a little child among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Anyone who welcomes a little child like this on my behalf welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes my Father who sent me.” 38 John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw a man using your name to cast out demons, but we told him to stop because he isn’t one of our group.” 39 “Don’t stop him!” Jesus said. “No one who performs miracles in my name will soon be able to speak evil of me. 40 Anyone who is not against us is for us. 41 If anyone gives you even a cup of water because you belong to the Messiah, I assure you, that person will be rewarded. 42 “But if anyone causes one of these little ones who trusts in me to lose faith, it would be better for that person to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone tied around the neck. 43 If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better to enter heaven with only one hand than to go into the unquenchable fires of hell with two hands. 45 If your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better to enter heaven with only one foot than to be thrown into hell with two feet. 47 And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out. It is better to enter the Kingdom of God half blind than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, 48 ‘where the worm never dies and the fire never goes out.’ 49 “For everyone will be purified with fire. 50 Salt is good for seasoning. But if it loses its flavor, how do you make it salty again? You must have the qualities of salt among yourselves and live in peace with each other.”

Points of Interest:

  • ‘they had been arguing about which of them was the greatest’—Jesus is telling them that he is going to be betrayed and killed, and they respond by arguing about which one of them is the greatest. It seems a bit calloused and inappropriate. Why are they arguing about greatness now? Are they trying to decide who will succeed Jesus when he dies? Or perhaps the whole topic just goes over their head, and they are arguing about greatness because of their recent experiences: James, John, and Peter may be saying to the others something like, ‘We saw something really cool, but we can’t tell you what it is,’ or, ‘I guess you had a little trouble casting out demons when we were gone.’ Competitiveness has sprung up amongst the disciples.
  • ‘Anyone who wants to be the first . . . ‘—Perhaps to their surprise, Jesus does not rebuke them for wanting greatness. He encourages their desire to be first, but tells them that they are going about it all wrong. This is the second such paradox statement we’ve seen recently. Earlier, Jesus said that anyone who tries to save their life will lose it. Here, he says if you want to be first you have to be last. According to Jesus, on some of our most fundamental human drives—the drive for life, and the drive for greatness—our instincts send us in exactly the wrong direction. Stated bluntly, our instinct is to fight and grab for these things. Jesus asks us to put ourselves in a place where he can give them to us instead.
  • ‘he put a little child among them’—They’ve been arguing about who is greatest, and Jesus tells them how to be great: serve the least. Then he gives them an opportunity at greatness, by giving them a chance to serve a little child. In the world’s way of looking at things, if you want to be great, you ignore the least and you curry the favor of the great. You increase your own importance by being seen among important people. Maybe James, John, and Peter thought they were great now, because they could do a little name-dropping: ‘James, do you remember that thing Elijah said when we were with him?’ A little child is completely inconsequential in this way of thinking: she can give you nothing; she has no status to confer on you; and you get no credit or help from serving her. In Jesus’ mind, the best possible path toward greatness is paying attention to someone like this. Welcoming a no-status person like this child gives you an open freeway to the Father. Either they don’t believe his recipe for greatness, or it’s a little less appetizing to them than the old way. None of them take Jesus up on the offer. So, Jesus demonstrates that he is indeed the greatest among them by welcoming the child himself.
  • he isn’t one of our group’—the disciples encounter a non-union exorcist. Again, their priority in their dealings with this man seems to be to maintain their own greatness: ‘I’m sorry, but only we are authorized to cast out demons.’ Ironically, they have just demonstrated some difficulty casting out a demon, but this man seems to have no trouble. If they knew what true greatness is about, they would have welcomed the man. With so much less contact with Jesus, he nonetheless had the faith to go around casting out demons. They should have honored his faith, and they should have looked for ways to raise him up though he was less credentialed than them. Instead, they tried to protect their monopoly. Jesus says that it’s not about competition; it’s about expanding the kingdom of God. Anyone who does any small service in advancing the kingdom of God should be rewarded and encouraged.
  • But if anyone causes one of these little ones who trusts in me to lose faith’—‘These little ones who trust in me,’ seems to refer to both the literal child and to this unofficial disciple. The man casting out demons is little, at least in their perspective, because he has less status among the disciples. With this ‘little one’ particular, the disciples have actually put up a barrier to faith: they’ve told him that casting out demons in Jesus’ name is wrong. By using the power that comes with being an apostle to their own benefit in this way, they’ve moved onto very dangerous ground. Jesus basically says, ‘Next time you think about doing something like that again, understand that it would be better for you if you were dead instead!’ If they really want to be great, they should do it by encouraging the faith of others. The way they’re going about greatness is prohibiting the kingdom and bringing them lower and lower.
  • If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off’—Jesus isn’t literally recommending amputation. It’s not really our limbs that cause us to sin; remember, Jesus says in chapter 7 that, ‘It is the thought-life that defiles you’ not the body. Jesus is using a very violent analogy to tell the disciples just how serious their error is. The really cause of their sin is their pride; and Jesus is saying that they need to do something drastic to get rid of that pride. We might prefer something like, ‘If your hand causes you to sin, slap it,’ or, ‘If your hand causes you to sin, hide it behind your back.’ We tend to treat sin lightly. Jesus recommends that we treat sin drastically, permanently, and immediately. We want to excuse our sin or explain it in order to protect ourselves. We’ve got our priorities dangerously wrong: we might avoid a little harm, only to lead toward greater harm in the end. Jesus says that the best way to protect ourselves is by doing anything we can to get rid of our sin. What are the habitual sins that you tend to coddle? What would it look like to treat it drastically, permanently, and immediately instead? Ask Jesus for the strength you need to cut sin off at the root.
  • ‘where the worm never dies and the fire never goes out.’—a quote from the prophet Isaiah, ch. 66:24.
  • have the qualities of salt among yourselves and live in peace with each other’—This is a particularly difficult metaphor of Jesus’ to understand, and, unfortunately, the disciples don’t ask Jesus what he means. For what it’s worth, it’s my opinion that the salt is judgment. Jesus is telling the disciples that they should judge themselves—that is, treat their own sin seriously and get rid of it—and be at peace with one another. The disciples have been doing the opposite. They’ve been at peace with themselves—each of them thinking that he is pretty great—and judging others: they’ve competed with one another, judged the little child as unworthy, and judged the non-union exorcist as invalid. They’ve been trying to season everyone else, when they’re the ones who have lost their taste. If they don’t reverse the flow and deal with their own faults instead, they will end up in serious trouble.

Taking it Home:

  • For you: Jesus wants you to be first—and the best way to be first is to put yourself last. Ask God for the grace and the faith to welcome and encourage others, especially those who apparently have little to offer you.
  • For your 6: Are there ways your 6 are already trying to do the work of the kingdom in Jesus’ name? Jesus says in this passage that you don’t have to be ‘part of the group’ to begin to do works of faith. Encourage your 6 in ways you see them advancing the kingdom, and ask God to reward them for it—even if what they’re doing is a small thing, like giving a cup of water.
  • For our church: The disciples try to bolster their egos through competition, but Jesus warns that competition sends us the exact opposite direction of greatness. It’s easy to fall into an attitude of competition. Ask God to protect us from a spirit of competition, both within our church and with other churches.