Three times in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus warns his disciples that he will be crucified. Each time, Jesus is direct. “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him.” By this point in the Gospel, they surely understand that Jesus is the Son of Man.
But clear though Jesus is, the disciples simply cannot absorb what he is telling them. As Mark puts it in our reading for this morning, “They did not understand what Jesus was saying and were afraid to ask him.”
And they don’t just miss the point. They go in the exact opposite direction. Jesus says he is about to die a shameful and painful death, and they respond by arguing about which of them is the greatest. It is sad, but also kind of funny.
I think back to when my children were middle-schoolers. When we drove them places, it seemed like they forgot we were in the car. They and their friends would talk with each other about things they would never tell us. But we are two feet away.
It seems like something similar is going on here. Jesus and the disciples are walking along together, but the disciples have this argument as if Jesus weren’t there.
Mark doesn’t tell us what they said, but it’s fun to imagine how the argument went.
Here’s how I imagine it: Andrew says, I am the most awesome because I was the first disciple. John responds, No, I’m the most awesome because Jesus likes me best. Peter says, I’m the most awesome because I’m his right-hand man.
I wonder how many of them got into the “I’m awesome” game. Did someone like Bartholomew say, I’m the most awesome, even though people will mostly forget my name? Did Judas put in a claim for his awesomeness?
I would have been irritated. But Jesus is gentle with them. Jesus asks them what they were talking about, as his way of letting them know he heard everything. But that’s it. Without fussing at them, Jesus brings in a little child. It turns out, the question is not, who is the greatest. The question is, who can be like a little child?
In our readings for each of the next two weeks, Jesus again bring up little children, including explaining to his disciples that “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it” (Mark 10:15).
What does Jesus mean by that? When the disciples argue about who is most awesome, they sound pretty childish, but not in a good way. What is the good way?
Here’s a possibility.
On a beautiful day a couple of weeks ago, I was sitting on my front porch reading a book and enjoying a cup of tea. That’s one of my happy places.
Along comes an extended family, including a little one, out for a walk. And that little girl was wailing louder than I would have thought possible for a child that size. The parents were totally ignoring her. I wasn’t sure whether to be alarmed, or impressed, or irritated, so I settled on a little of all three, and waited for them to pass.
They rounded the bend in our street, and the wailing gradually faded. Then it began to increase again, and here they were, coming back. The child was losing a little steam by that point, and the father was now carrying her, but she was still making a good bit of noise.
What struck me was the fact that the child was wailing, but not resisting. My children didn’t throw a lot of tantrums. But whenever they reached the volume of this little girl, it meant I was in for a fight. This little girl was making the noise. But still she walked along with her family on the first pass, and rested unresistingly on her father on the second.
I don’t know that little girl or her family. But her combination of complaining about and simultaneously accepting what was happening to her strikes me as a faithful response to the world.
Now, I know that sounds weird. But bear with me here.
In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus has just told the disciples that he is about to be crucified. What do you say to something like that?
Unfortunately, most of us have some experience. I don’t know anyone who has been crucified, of course. But I have known lots of people who have received scary diagnoses, some of whom have died. I had my own little cancer scare a few years ago, although thankfully it turned out to be nothing.
So, what do you say when someone gives you bad news?
Denial isn’t helpful. That’s what Peter does the first time Jesus warns them about the crucifixion, and Jesus was not amused.
Ignoring the bad news, which is what the disciples do in our passage for this morning, isn’t much better.
It is bad news.
So, if and when we do respond to it, we don’t just accept it, at least not at first. We say how sorry we are, how awful it is. We pray that God will intervene. And if things don’t get better, we lament. We struggle. We grieve. We do an adult version of that little girl’s wail.
And that is as it should be. When life is hard and we are hurting, we cry out in protest and pain. And it helps at least a little if people cry out with us, if they join us in wailing.
On the night before he died, Jesus took his closest disciples to the side and asked them to wail with him, to pray for him about the coming ordeal. Jesus cried out to God in pain. “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me” (Mark 14:36). Don’t make me get crucified.
Crying is an appropriate response to the pain of human life.
But what I saw in that little girl, what I see in a much more profound way in Jesus in Gethsemane, what we all aim for in the trials and tribulations of our own lives, is an ultimate acceptance of what must be.
We cry. And we submit.
Just like that little girl. I think one last time about her. My guess is, she fell asleep not long after I heard her for the last time. She fell asleep in her father’s arms. She found peace.
Jesus did that, too, on his last night. Immediately after asking God to take the cup from him, Jesus added, “Yet not what I want, but what you want.” And then, having accepted the inevitable, Jesus was ready for whatever came his way.
For that little girl, for Jesus, complaining and accepting could go together.
I would go farther. Acknowledging our fears and hurts, our pain, is sometimes a necessary step in getting to the point of accepting whatever God’s will turns out to be, getting to the point of resting in God’s arms, no matter what happens.
Children are often better at that than adults. Little children are often better than adults at expressing their unhappiness. And little children are often better than adults at accepting the inevitable and finding peace in their father’s arms.
That may be part of what Jesus meant when he told us to receive the kingdom of God like little children.
That is my prayer for us: that we can honestly acknowledge our pain, and that we can ultimately rest in God’s arms, trusting always in God’s love.
In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan