In the wake of the “confessional crisis” (last week’s reading), Mark’s narrative now turns to a triple cycle of object lessons and teaching I call the “discipleship catechism.” This Sunday’s gospel text comes from the second and longest cycle, with its focus of instruction on the less heroic, yet perhaps more difficult, practice of the Way in daily life.
The cross represents more than nonviolent resistance to the Powers; it includes the struggle against patterns of domination in interpersonal and social relationships as well. Thus Mark here addresses several expressions of social power imbalance: greatest and least (9:36f); outsiders and insiders (9:38-41); offenders and victims (9:42-50); male and female (10:2-12); children and adults (10:13-16); and rich and poor (10:17-31). This sequence exhibits certain similarities to catechetical traditions found elsewhere in the New Testament relating to family and community life such as the so-called “House-tables” (e.g. Col 3:12-4:6).
Framing this second cycle is a refrain that the “first will be last” and vice-versa (9:35, 10:31). This is offered neither as rhetorical flourish nor mystical paradox. It represents a concrete ethic of redistributing power, following Jesus’ Jubilary logic, that begins with the situation of the “subordinate” in a variety of social relationships. As previously illustrated in the story of Jairus and the bleeding woman (5:21-43), Jesus is trying to persuade his disciples that society can only be transformed from the bottom up.
The cycle begins with a second portent of Jesus’ fate at the hands of the political powers in the capital city (9:30-32), followed by his expose yet again of the disciples’ “blindness/deafness” (9:33f).
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 who was the greatest.
The irony here is poignant: the discipleship journey (“on the Way” is repeated twice) has degenerated into an internal power struggle. Worse, Mark indicts the disciples exactly as he did the synagogue crowd back in 3:4: “But they were silent.”
Presenting a child as an object lesson, Jesus now reiterates the second call to discipleship in different terms:
If anyone desires to follow behind me let that one take up the cross…
If anyone desires to be first, let that one be last among everyone and a servant of everyone. (9:35)
The church is not to be a power base for its members, but a community that redistributes power to the least.
This point will be underlined repeatedly throughout this cycle, as we’ll see over the following three Sundays. And the fact that the social situation of children will shortly be revisited (Mk 10:12-16, the reading for 19 Pentecost) indicates how fundamental family dynamics are to overall relations of power.