30 years in and Ched Myers’ Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus(1988) is more relevant than ever. This week’s commentary homes in on Mark 9:30-37.
They next reach the home in Capernaum. That the community would stop in here on its way south, specifically for instruction on internal matters of power and discipline, is significant, for Capernaum was the center of gravity for the first part of the Gospel (Mk 1:21; 2:1). It is here that Jesus really begins to unmask his disciples’ true aspirations to power. Not only do they not understand where Jesus is trying to lead them; they are headed full speed in the opposite direction. Mark contrives the episode for maximal irony: the disciples are caught debating who was greatest among them “on the way” (twice, 9:33b, 34a)! For Jesus’ response, Mark sets a familiar stage: the twelve are called (3:14; 4:10; 6:7; 10:32; 14:17) and Jesus takes his seat (4:1; 12:41; 13:3). The narrative signals: Pay attention to the teaching that follows!
As he did in the first catechetical cycle, Mark employs the force of what Tannehill calls “antithetical aphorisms:”
These are brief, pointed sayings which contain a sharp contrast. The saying tends to divide into two halves, with the same key words, in negative and positive form, or with antithetical terms…As the saying develops, the speaker reverses the terms or ideas in a sort of word-play…The saying also gains force by its absoluteness. The claim is sweeping; no qualifications are added.
The introduction of the theme of servant leadership represents the “topic sentence of the discourse” (Fledderman). The way of nonviolence means being attentive to the actual dynamics of social power and privilege among family, friends, and neighbors. The follower of Jesus must expect the fate of a subversive, but the ultimate choice of the cross must also be daily reproduced in the concrete life of the messianic community.
Jesus sets about illustrating what “becoming least” means, beginning with an object lesson close at hand. Children represented the bottom of the social and economic scale in terms of status and rights in the ancient Mediterranean world:
Age divisions, and commensurate power and responsibility, were hierarchical, sharply demarcated, and significant. Authority ran vertically downwards. Age and tradition were revered and powerful…Early training was harshly disciplined. It was not until early adulthood that the young person began receiving serious consideration as a member of the family group [The Shape of the Past, Thomas Carney].
It is remarkable enough that Jesus draws attention at all to children, for they were considered nonentities. It is quite shocking that he would advance them as models for his social program. Yet he does, not once but twice, returning to them in 10:13-16. Again throwing the hearer’s social world into crisis with the radical status-reversal of the kingdom, Jesus launches his assault on the disciples’ concern for power.