Pentecost 18, Sept 23, 2018
Several years ago we had a caregiver for our son Mike who came from rural area in a foreign country. On one occasion I asked him if he wanted to mow the lawn, to which he dutifully agreed. Upon coming home later that afternoon I saw that the lawn was yet to be mowed, so I just assumed that he had simply gotten busy with other tasks. When I spoke to him next he was apologetic for not mowing the lawn, but in desperation stated that he could not find the lawn mower (and as he spoke these words, he made the motion as if he were cutting with a scythe). The culture gap between us became apparent on several other occasions during our time together, but it didn’t take long to realize that perhaps the biggest gaps were related to language barriers, and his desire to appear competent, and to please me/us at all times, and in all situations. No matter what I would ask him, he would dutifully smile, nod, and say yes, even when he may not have the foggiest idea of what I was asking, or even talking about.
Most of us I expect have been in similar situations at some point in our lives. We avoid asking questions when either we’ve had something explained to us before, or we assume that others may have a lesser opinion of us if we admit to our lack of understanding. Sometimes we neglect to ask questions because we are afraid of what the answers might be. Those of you who may be awaiting the results of medical tests (or even more so, putting off those medical tests for fear of what you might discover) can well attest to this. Although there is a part of us that really, really wants to know the outcome, there remains another part that doesn’t. Often either pride or fear keep us from asking those important questions (and even the ones that aren’t so important).
Jesus’ disciples find themselves in just such a position in today’s reading from the gospel of Mark. This is the second occasion where Jesus tells the disciples what awaits him (and perhaps even them) in Jerusalem. The words themselves are not overly complex, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” It’s possible that the disciples may been a bit unclear as to the use of the phrase “Son of Man”, but the term had been used by Jesus earlier in the gospel of Mark. Other than that, the rest of that sentence is pretty straightforward, even for those of moderate intelligence.
Perhaps it seems straightforward to us who live on the “back side” of the Resurrection, but try to put yourselves in the disciples’ sandals. For starters, it seems like the disciples were just starting to entertain the notion that Jesus might well be the Messiah that was predicted of old. As they understood this, he would come to issue in a 1000 year (eternal) reign in the city of Jerusalem, reminiscent of King David of years past. Israel would then be the envy of the world, where peace and prosperity would reign, and the Messiah would sit on the kingly throne. How in the world would Jesus’ death in Jerusalem achieve such an end? And what’s this business of rising again on the third day? In what sense can one rise again (either literally or figuratively) after they have died? Isn’t Jesus aware of human physiology, and the finality of death? So many questions. Questions never asked.
Since Peter’s last attempt to school Jesus on the nature and mission of the Messiah ended so poorly (with Peter being referred to as the very devil himself), wisdom may have well called for them to just leave Jesus’ statement alone and carry on down the road.
On that journey, they begin to discuss among themselves, and although they thought they were speaking privately, Jesus asks them about the nature of their conversation. Sometimes we fail to ask questions because we don’t want to hear the answer, and sometimes we’d just as soon not be asked questions because we don’t want to have to give an answer. As it turns out, the matter they were discussion along the way was regarding which of them was the greatest. As mentioned earlier, their notion of a messiah and a new ruling order in God’s Kingdom would require some level of hierarchy, and being they were Jesus’ right-hand men, it seems
reasonable to differentiate as to who would be at his immediate right, and who would be next in line, and so forth.
The pursuit of prestige and honour is not totally unknown in our day as well. There are still those (even among the followers of Jesus) who like to be shown honour in how they are addressed, where they are seated, etc. I think we know who these people are (and truth be known, if we’re not one of them, we probably wish we were).
Their discussion provides Jesus with a teaching moment, and he does so with the aid of a small child that he hoists in his arms. Although in many cultures and homes, children have a significant status in the family, such was not the case at the time of Jesus. On one occasion we even see Jesus’ disciples show frustration as to why Jesus would waste his time on children, when there were so many other pressing matters at hand (Mk 10). Children were important to Jesus, and their trusting nature was to be the model for these disciples who would be princes. This child was the model to which the disciples should be aspiring. As with many teachings and actions of Jesus, often they seem counterintuitive…almost exactly opposite to what one might expect.
And lastly comes Jesus’ admonition to hospitality. Whoever practices hospitality to such little (and insignificant) ones as these, practices hospitality unto Jesus, and whoever practices unto Jesus, practices it unto God. Think about that next time you hurriedly pass by a little child, or someone down a rung or two on the social ladder.
It’s hard to imagine how that conversation about greatness might have been different if the disciples asked a few more pertinent questions of Jesus regarding the meaning of his journey to Jerusalem, his upcoming death, his rising again on the third day, and the nature of his new kingdom. One can only imagine how answers to these questions might have shaped the rest of that trip, and particularly Good Friday, and perhaps even Easter Sunday.
All of us have questions worthy of asking. Let’s not be too afraid, or too proud to ask them (or have the Holy Spirit ask them of us). Regarding those questions directed to Jesus, many will be found in his holy, inspired, word (like the one we’ve just read about regarding humility). Some may well be revealed in the words of another (and perhaps even people whom we would least expect, like this small child). Some may come from direct revelation through visions and dreams (I have read of a number of instances of this happening with Muslims coming to faith). However those questions might be addressed, let’s dare to ask them…and then to wait patiently and expectantly for an answer. Amen
Something to Think About
1. As stated in the sermon, questions we might have for Jesus today will not likely be answered “in the flesh”, but rather through revelation brought by the Holy Sprit through the actual words of holy Scripture. Can you think of a time that the Holy Spirit spoke through the Bible to answer a question you had?
2. Some of the answers we might wish from Jesus seem slow in coming, or even at times seem to go unanswered. St Paul sought the Lord for healing of his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor 12) but never got the answer for which he hoped (he did however get a response, and that being God’s grace would sustain him in his weakness). Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane prayed for the cup of suffering to be taken from him- but it was not. You may be in just such a place now as you await a desired response from Jesus. In such times we continue to pray for God’s Kingdom to come, and for His will to be done…whenever, and whatever that might look like.