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Thought for the week - 19 September

Gospel Mark 9: 30-37.

Mark is not very kind to the Disciples in his Gospel. They are slow, sometimes even stupid, they are the ones who just don’t get it. The pattern is set early and often. Even in the face of the miracle feeding of the five thousand the disciples don’t get it (6:52). Jesus rebukes their lack of understanding several times (7:18, 8:16-21), and perhaps most poignantly, in 8:33 to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan, for you think human thoughts, not the thoughts of God” which could be read as “Boy, you really don’t get it!” Even though they make up Jesus’ most private inner circle, the disciples seem to be the last to know that Jesus is Messiah, even denying this knowledge at the end (14:66-71).

By the time we get to verse 32, Jesus has just imparted a crucial teaching, telling them who he is, and not for the first time. The prospect of the Messiah being taken and killed just does not compute. When God comes in glory, it is surely to conquer his enemies, not to “be handed over into the hands of men, and they will kill him” (31). So, “they did not understand what he was saying and they were afraid to ask him” (verse 32).

It’s not just that they don’t understand some piece of information. It’s that they don’t understand this specific teaching, at the very heart of the Incarnation. How is it possible for the Son of God to suffer and die? And why should it happen?

The question that the disciples are afraid to ask is the question that propels so many early Christian attempts to construct an intelligible, if misguided, Christology. Maybe Jesus didn’t really suffer and die (Docetism) or maybe only the human part of Jesus suffered but the divine part was untouched (Gnosticism). Early Christians struggle with what sort of deity lets her/himself get into a corner like that? They needed an almighty God who conquers enemies, not one who suffers and dies. Underneath verses 31-32 are the basic questions of who Jesus is, and of the nature of God. Such a self-demoting God could hardly be trustworthy.

Ask Hard Questions

So why don’t the disciples simply ask Jesus to explain? Probably because they don’t want to appear as confused as they are. Or, their distress at his teaching is so deep they fear addressing it. Besides, the closer we are to Jesus, the more we are supposed to know (about God, about prayer, about the Bible, about religious stuff), right?

In our own time, no one wants to look uninformed, confused, or clueless. We withhold our toughest questions, often within our own churches and within Christian fellowship. We pretend we don’t have hard questions. Yet the deepest mysteries of life do indeed elude us. Why do good people suffer? Why are humans so brutal to one another? Why does evil succeed? If God’s own Son is betrayed and killed, then no one is safe. Why did God set up a world like this?

Why ask our hard questions? Because we withhold these questions at our own peril.

Verse 34 reveals what happens to the disciples when they sidestep the real questions they are afraid to ask — they turn to arguing with each other, squabbling among themselves over petty issues of rank and status (verse 34). There is a direct line drawn from verse 32 to verse 34. When the disciples avoid asking hard questions, they focus on posturing about who is right.

We know this too well in the church. How would this story be different if the disciples had taken the trouble and asked Jesus their questions? What kind of conversation might have ensued between Jesus and the disciples? What kind of relationship would it have engendered with each other?

How would our stories be different if we ask Jesus our questions? What kind of conversations might we pursue with Jesus? How would our life as disciples together be different as a result?

Perhaps we need to heed the warning of Mark lest we just appear as stupid as did the disciples. ‘Knuckleheads’ as one commentator put it.

But, and it’s a big but: Jesus seems to love knuckleheads most of all. Indeed, he made the chief knucklehead, Peter, head of his church. Maybe there is hope after all for you and me!


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