Today’s gospel passage is a short but tough one. (That might work as a sort of motto or byline for Mark’s entire gospel, actually: Short but tough.) In today’s passage, Jesus tells the disciples that he will suffer and die; the disciples don’t understand what he means when he talks about this but they’re afraid to ask for clarification; finally Jesus helps them with a rather surprising definition of what it means to be among his disciples.
The disciples’ fear to ask for clarification at first might seem a little strange, but it’s not the first time that they’ve been in this situation. Jesus has told them about his coming death before and, when Peter questioned him, got a very stern rebuke for his misunderstanding and denial. In fact, we heard that story from Mark 8 just last Sunday. This pattern of Jesus revealing truths about himself to the disciples, the disciples missing the point, and then there being a surprising and often difficult correction from Jesus is a pattern that Mark uses over and over again. In Mark’s gospel especially, being a disciple of Jesus is a difficult task. But you and I may not realize just how Mark drives that home if we only hear the stories as isolated excerpts Sunday by Sunday.
Whenever we hear scripture read in our liturgies, it is important to remember that we are hearing small snippets of much larger pieces of writing. On most Sundays, we hear a reading from the Hebrew Bible, then a psalm—also from the Hebrew Bible—then from a letter or perhaps the Acts of the Apostles or the Revelation in the New Testament, concluding with a reading from one of the gospels.
There is nothing wrong with engaging scripture this way and it helps us to think, reflect, and pray on the connections between the different books and letters in the Bible. But, if this is the only way that we hear and engage with scripture, we must remember that we’re getting a very narrowly focused selection from a very large body of texts. This helps us see the connections between those individual snippets, but it doesn’t always help us to see the connections between the various parts of the same books, letters, and other writings. Sometimes, the way the excerpts are chosen makes getting a true sense of what is being said difficult; in other words, sometimes we miss the forest for the trees. Getting a sense of the wisdom and knowledge of God from our holy scripture is part of the hard work of being disciples.
For an example of this, let’s spend a few minutes with today’s reading from Proverbs. This passage is, as we hear it, a description of the qualities of a “capable” wife. I am aware that this passage has been used many times by many men in many places in many times to explain to the women in their lives and churches why they aren’t measuring up; why they ought to occupy certain roles; why they ought to be limited to managing the household, bearing children, and making clothing. The history of misogyny in our faith is, tragically, both long and deep.
But what if we back up to the beginning of the chapter? The reading begins at Proverbs 31.10. Surely those first ten verses have something to say. They go like this:
The words of King Lemuel. An oracle that his mother taught him:
No, my son! No, son of my womb!
No, son of my vows!
Do not give your strength to women,
your ways to those who destroy kings.
It is not for kings, O Lemuel,
it is not for kings to drink wine,
or for rulers to desire strong drink;
or else they will drink and forget what has been decreed,
and will pervert the rights of all the afflicted.
Give strong drink to one who is perishing,
and wine to those in bitter distress;
let them drink and forget their poverty,
and remember their misery no more.
Speak out for those who cannot speak,
for the rights of all the destitute.
Speak out, judge righteously,
defend the rights of the poor and needy.
What becomes immediately apparent here is that the mother of King Lemuel is giving him advice on statecraft. In particular, how to be a good king. And, as the mother of a king would know, critical to the success of a king is his partner in monarchy, the queen who sits beside him. So, after reminding him of some of the virtues of a good king— righteous judgement, keeping your wits about you, defending the poor and needy, comforting those in misery, and so on—she begins to speak about this critically important partner. We do not know for certain who Lemuel and his mother are, but she may well be a queen herself, perfectly qualified to discuss this.
The term “capable” describing this ideal wife is one that needs a moment. With great thanks to the Revd Dr Wil Gafney, I can tell you that another, perhaps more appropriate in this context, translation of the Hebrew word might be “strong”. Strong in the sense of a powerful ruler or a military leader. Given what King Lemuel’s mother has said to him about keeping his own strength, it seems that a good queen would be one who is the king’s equal. Equally strong. Equally capable. In today’s terms, a real “power couple.”
With all of this in mind—statecraft and the subject as the wife of a king—the qualities of a good wife begin to take on a different character. This is no longer a description of a woman whose role is to raise children at home, cooking and cleaning and cut off from other responsibilities. This is the image of the domestic home as an example of a queen who shares in the good rule of a nation. Clothing and raising her children is providing for subjects. Planting vineyards and speaking with wisdom is shrewd commerce and wise politicking. She is just and speaks with righteousness and, above all, is a person of faith who lives in relationship with God. Being a queen is hard work, but she is a strong, capable, partner who works in cooperation with her husband, within the social and cultural expectations of the time, and the nation prospers for it.
Just as the reading from Proverbs becomes clearer and, I think, more beautiful and helpful, when we read it in a larger context, so does today’s gospel passage become clearer in its context. We have heard Jesus, again and again, tell the disciples what it means to be followers of his way and teaching. It will be a life of self-sacrifice, prayer, helping others, and will often be difficult, lonely, and unpopular with authorities. Jesus goes so far as to tell his disciples that this path will include his own suffering and death. Last week we heard Peter speak, not just upset at the idea, but actually tell Jesus he was wrong and ought to find another way. Jesus quickly rebutted Peter with that famous line “Get behind me, Satan!” Jesus then reminds the disciples that following him—which they have all chosen freely to do—is to take up a cross and carry it through the world. Following Christ means self-sacrifice to the degree that might include one’s own death. That’s a lot to think about.
However, not too much later, the disciples and Jesus are traveling again in today’s gospel passage. And again, Jesus tells the disciples about what this path is going to entail. He is going to be executed and will rise again, but the path to resurrection will be hard and bloody. In spite of all the previous conversations, the disciples aren’t sure what to make of this statement. Jesus then asks what they had been arguing about earlier in the journey. The disciples are silent because the pennies have begun to drop.
Jesus has been spending months telling these disciples that this path they are walking on, together, is about surrendering one’s self. It’s about sacrifice and tending to the most vulnerable, the most hurt, the most in need. And here, on this journey, the disciples have been arguing with one another about who is the greatest. They are literally fighting with one another over who is doing humility and loving service the best. Can you imagine? “No, I’m WAY humbler than you are!” “NO! I’M THE HUMBLEST, SEE HOW GREAT I AM AT BEING HUMBLE???” It’s an absurd situation and precisely the opposite of what Jesus has been telling them. Not just today, but in days, weeks, and months prior. Mark makes this clear in his repeated telling of the stories that follow this pattern.
After catching the disciples in the middle of another episode of entirely missing the point, Jesus uses the example of a child to explain how one ought to approach this life. With trust, openness, love, and vulnerability. This is how one is meant to approach God and welcome Christ, not with arguments over who is the better servant.
This repeated story in Mark’s gospel is so important to our lives as Christians. It’s like a scan in the hospital that lets you see the inside of your own body. Except here, in the actions and conversations of the disciples, we see ourselves and in the words of Christ we hear the parts of our lives where we ought to be directing our attention. It is a call to look inward, with honesty and vulnerability and examine what in our lives is bringing us closer to God and what in our lives is not bringing us closer to God.
We know that Christ is the example we all follow, but the path is a long and difficult one. Self-sacrifice, humble service, healing, teaching, sharing the good news… None of us respond perfectly each time we are met with an opportunity for these. Some days we’re not even out of bed before we’ve missed the first chance! If we spend too much time on the missed opportunities, it can be easy to get down on ourselves and feel like this entire Christian project is hopeless.
I have good news. No matter how many times the disciples stumble and make fools of themselves and say and do the wrong thing and frustrate Jesus, he never leaves them. This conversation that happens over and over in Mark is funny, because the disciples are so clueless; it’s hard because the disciples seem to learn so very slowly; but it’s also hopeful, because no matter how clueless or how slowly they learn, Jesus is with them, ready to have that conversation again. In fact, way back in the second chapter of Mark’s gospel, Jesus plainly says that it is for people exactly like the disciples that he is here: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”
Jesus came and taught, healed, died, rose, and ascended not to condemn us and efforts, but for precisely the opposite: to show us a way and to help us along that path. Those moments of self-examination and the realization that we have stumbled on the path again are hard. But, just like the disciples, even when we stumble and fall flat on our faces, Jesus is always waiting to help us up, dust ourselves off, and set out again. Until the next fall. And the one after that. God always has faith in us. We approach like children, with trust, openness, love, and vulnerability, and we receive it back a hundredfold.
Our God is always with us, with all those whom we meet, and always meets us with love. Thanks be to God.
Preached at Holy Trinity Church, Winnipeg.