Mark as Gospel: The First Must Be Last (9:30-10:16)

The second instance of the prediction-misunderstanding-redefinition movement opens this section. Mark states summarily that Jesus privately repeated the teaching about his death and resurrection. He writes directly that the disciples did not understand (9:32) but were afraid to seek clarification--quite reasonably given that Jesus had recently called Peter “satan” for his reaction to the prediction! But more importantly, the disciples’ internal argument demonstrates that they had not grasped the meaning of the cross for Jesus or themselves: “for they argued with each other on the way about who was the greatest.” The implied attitude and agenda is utterly opposed to the call to die to self and take up the cross. 

The corrective is simple, direct, and absolutely paradoxical: “If someone wants to be first, that person will be last of all and servant of all.” Then he uses an object lesson--a child. Children are not unloved or worthless, but they are the epitome of the “least.” They have no strength, no wealth, no political power, no wisdom. To “receive” such a person--to become last for their sake and serve them from a place of humility--is the essence of Jesus’ call. His predicted death is a self-denial in order to become least of all in service to all. And his identification with the least and last has three profound implications. 

For the follower, it redefines what it mean to be a disciple. Jesus does not curtail their ambition to “greatness” but rather redirects it completely. Within the kingdom, God evaluates greatness, importance, accomplishment--all of it--in a fundamentally different way. Any confession of Jesus as the greatest cannot make sense apart from this value system. 

For the one who would serve, Jesus’ identification with the least and last means that to welcome them is to welcome him. Those who would serve Jesus must serve such people; those who imitate Jesus in service to such people ultimately serve Jesus himself. 

The third implication is even more startling than the first two. Jesus reveals his identification with the least and last, but he also reveals his identification with God. Mark does not make many overt statements about Jesus’ identity, and we have seen this literary device at work. He makes even fewer statements that can be considered “high Christology”--lofty claims about the Messiah’s special relationship to God. But this is one of them. “Whoever receives me receives not me but the one who sent me.” There are no theories here about Jesus’ divinity or the incarnation of God--and those need not come into an evangelistic study of Mark--but there is a profound revelation at this moment that, somehow, Jesus is the embodiment of the one who sent him. 

As we endeavor to understand who Jesus is, all three of these implications are vitally important. 
The following sections make the most sense if we maintain their connection with this repetitive teaching on the cross. Jesus’ rebuke of the argument among the disciples clearly does not penetrate to the heart of the issue, because the disciples exhibit the same attitude toward outsiders. Their complaint is that one who “was not following us” was casting out demons in Jesus’ name. Again, the issue is who will receive glory and recognition. They are not “us” and therefore should not exercise our privileges or power. We jockey for position among our selves, and, likewise, we jockey for our group’s position among others. The emphasis of the passage falls upon Jesus’ name, suggesting that his glory and status is the point they are failing to grasp. The most important thing, says Jesus, is the exaltation of his name--far more important than being one of “our followers.” The basis for undoing sectarianism is the self-denial of the cross. We must humble ourselves before those who lay claim to Jesus’ name but are not us. 

Likewise, the teaching on sin is fundamentally about service toward the other within the community; not about one’s self. Thus, it begins with a warning about causing another to stumble and ends with the exhortation to “live at peace with one another.” While the warnings about punishment are severe, they should not be separated from the broader teaching that frames them. Their severity speaks to the gravity of our responsibility to those around us. Therefore, the disciple bases the decision not to sin--and more, the decision to take extreme measures to prevent sin--on more than just the threat of punishment. The decision grows out of a fundamental commitment to deny self and serve the other. A teaching about sin that focuses on the individual is in fact contrary to the cross. 

Turning to the extended discussion of divorce, it is easy to lose site of the prediction-misunderstanding- redefinition movement that is guiding the larger section, especially since it stands in the background while the details of the divorce argument attract our attention. Yet, once more, it is no good trying to remove this teaching from the big idea Mark is reiterating. For him, there is no understanding any teaching of Jesus apart from this essential point. Marriage too is about taking up the cross. 

It is important to note that the Pharisees asked Jesus about divorce “to test him.” Why would that question test him? It is intended to be a trap, but how? The simple answer is that the dispute about divorce at the time was widely debated and highly contentious. There is no way to give an answer without becoming unpopular with one side or the other. But more importantly, John the Baptist was arrested and beheaded for speaking publicly against Herodias’ divorce (and note the culturally uncharacteristic female subject in 10:12). It is a wily ploy by Jesus’ opponents meant to deliver a blow to his reputation and possibly justify his arrest. 

The existing argument revolved around Deut 24:1, which says: “Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce . . .” (NRSV). The phrase “something objectionable” was the real point of contention, as some understood it very narrowly and others very broadly. Thus, it might mean only infidelity (the view Jesus takes) or it might mean anything at all, such as bad cooking. It is evident in the way the Pharisees phrase the question that they are looking for Jesus to come out on the restrictive side. Jesus wisely deflects the burden of answering such a question to the Torah itself, and the Pharisees push back, implying that the Torah is fine with divorce, bating Jesus once more. Jesus, however, redirects the entire debate by turning to biblical theology instead of just semantic wrangling. In so doing, he implies that the discussion is wrongheaded from the start. 

The question should not be “On what basis can I divorce?” but “On what basis can I stay married?” That reorientation naturally pushes the answer to the narrower side--only in extreme situations does “something objectionable” legitimate divorce. Yet, the point is that a marriage focused on its God-made union--not to mention self-denial and mutual service--will not be looking for the least “legal” justification possible. The hardness of heart that has plagued the disciples is the same condition that led to the institution of divorce law in the first place. Conversely, the message of the cross is the way of life that leads a marriage beyond itself to God’s purposes. 

Lastly, we may note an important implication of Jesus’ final pronouncement, made in private to the ever- confused disciples. The sin of divorce, Jesus says, is committed against the spouse. Although the emphasis of Christian teaching often falls upon sin against God and all the risks and consequences that accompany it, we must once more let the text speak. Divorce born of hardness of heart and selfish desire is a sin against the other--against the spouse. Divorce cannot be about a theoretical standing before the law and therefore before God. It is first and foremost about sin against the one meant to be served and placed first. 

As these teachings unfold, it is becoming more and more apparent that no aspect of life will be left untouched. The call to repentance that accompanies the proclamation of the kingdom is more tangible. Our new way of thinking and living is evident in the cross-shaped teaching of the king. In following, we are indeed witnessing a new way of life become reality in Jesus. This is the kingdom of God we proclaim as good news!