30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “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.” 32 But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Good morning! Have you ever been in a conversation where the other person just doesn’t understand what you’re saying? No matter how hard you work to explain something, the message isn’t getting through. I’m not a parent, but I’m gonna guess that all parents have these moments. No matter how smart your kids are, there’s something that they can’t comprehend. So, you repeat the lesson, over and over, hoping that something gets through.
That’s where we find Jesus in this morning’s lesson from the Gospel of Mark. Jesus and the disciples are on their way to Capernaum in Galilee, and the disciples are arguing about which one of them is the greatest. Have they learned nothing along the way? Have they seen nothing?
Let’s look back at our last two gospel lessons. Two weeks ago, Jesus and the disciples were way up north in Tyre, in what’s now Lebanon, where Jesus healed the daughter of a Gentile woman. Then he went to the Gentile cities of the Decapolis, to continue preaching and teaching. Also, he told the disciples that he would be betrayed and handed over to the authorities; he would suffer and die. That’s not exactly what the disciples were looking for in a Messiah.
Then in last Sunday’s lesson, we heard Jesus rebuking Peter for keeping his mind on human things instead of heavenly things. And in the material from Chapters 8 and 9 that we’ve skipped over, Jesus fed a crowd of 4,000 people who had come to hear him teach and he continued to heal people along the way. He fed and healed Gentiles, not the people of Israel, God’s chosen people.
In fact, this is what Jesus has been doing for the first half of the Gospel of Mark: He arrives, proclaiming that the reign of God has come near. He teaches, He heals, He feeds. Lather, rinse, repeat. And the disciples still don’t get it!
They argue over which one of them is the greatest. They continue to set their minds on worldly things. They measure greatness in human terms. And yet again, Jesus has to correct them; he has to refocus them. I think that the disciples know that they’re wrong. When Jesus asks them what they’re arguing about, they don’t answer the question.
Let me ask those of you who are parents: does this sound familiar? As a kid, the last thing I wanted to admit was that my parents were right—about anything! This may be a universal tendency.
I read an interesting article a while ago about some experiments that were conducted by some psychologists—this is where the title of my sermon comes from. The endowment effect explains how we attach value to the material things in our lives, how we struggle to hold on to the things we already have, and how we believe we are entitled to these things. This was the idea behind my children’s sermon this morning.
In the experiments, the researchers recruited a bunch of people to play the game Monopoly. In every group, there was only one player who was given two dice. All of the other players were only given a single die. That gave a decisive advantage to the player who had two dice. Of course, the player who had two dice always won.
After each game, the researchers interviewed all the players. They asked the players why they won or lost. The player who lost all said, “I lost because I only had one die,” they knew the other player had an unfair advantage. But the players who won said that they won because they played better, they made better choices. They were unable to acknowledge that they had an advantage. They were endowed with greater material resources and they believed that their success was related to their skills, the worldly things that they’d been given or what they had learned. As far as I know, none of the players with two dice volunteered to give up a die and play under the same conditions as the other players.
The people in the experiment who played Monopoly with both dice remind me a bit of the disciples in our lesson this morning. They can’t see—or don’t want to see—what’s really going on around them. One of the really interesting things about this story is what the disciples don’t do or don’t say.
In verse 31, Jesus says: “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.” Jesus has said this to the disciples before, yet none of them asked him why. In verse 32, it says they were afraid to ask, which makes some sense, considering Jesus’ response to Peter in last week’s reading.
Maybe they were afraid of something more than a sharp rebuke. Maybe they were scared by the idea that the Messiah could die. How could the promised one, the holy one of Israel possibly die? And if the Messiah could die, what would that mean for the disciples? They’d already given up all their possessions to follow Jesus. What more could Jesus want from them?
In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus doesn’t offer a lot of detailed theological explanations for the crucifixion and resurrection. Instead, he says, “follow me.” This is how he calls disciples. He shows them what to do and how to do it, but he leaves the question of “why?” for us to figure out.
When the disciples argue over which one of them is the greatest—and remember, the disciples won’t admit to Jesus that that’s what they were arguing about—Jesus explains to them what is truly great in God’s eyes: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” The disciples were arguing over worldly qualities, rather than seeing the needs around them. As was Peter, in last Sunday’s lesson.
To drive this point home, Jesus held a child in his arms, saying: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” This statement is deceptively simple; it seems like an easy thing to do:
In any culture, children are vulnerable; they are dependent on others for their survival and well-being. In the ancient world, their vulnerability was magnified by the fact that they had no legal protection. A child had no status, no rights. A child certainly had nothing to offer anyone in terms of honor or status. But it is precisely these little ones with whom Jesus identifies.
Jesus identifies with the last and the lost and the least. Jesus identifies with the Syrophoenician woman. Jesus identifies with crowds of hungry people who don’t have enough food to eat. Jesus identifies with people who are possessed by unclean spirits. To welcome Jesus is to follow Jesus. To follow Jesus is to welcome people from the wrong neighborhoods, people with unclean spirits, hungry people.
We are the disciples in this story, and it begs the question, who is it or what is it that we are afraid to ask? Who is it or what is it that we are unwilling to see? Which of our blessings are we unwilling to share? Are we busy welcoming the last and the lost and the least? Or are we like the people in the Monopoly game who are playing with two dice?
Like us, the disciples were imperfect followers of Jesus. They had to be told and shown, over and over again, what it truly means to follow Jesus. They didn’t get it; not at first. The act of dropping everything and following Jesus wasn’t enough; it was only the start. The disciples had to follow Jesus and learn to do what Jesus did, because the human Jesus was only going to be in this world for a little while. They had to learn how to preach and teach; how to feed and heal. And then they had to go out among the last and the lost and the least and do this work.
And. It. Worked!
The disciples became the Apostles and they built Christ’s church—they were the Church, and the Church spread and grew. We know this because we’re all here today. This means that we, too, must become better disciples and apostles. We, too, must be the Church. We must and we can. But first we need to get out of our own way.
We are easily convinced of our own greatness. We believe that we deserve the wealth and power that we already possess. We work hard to convince ourselves that we’ve earned all we have—and it’s not all that much, anyhow. We convince ourselves that we’re already doing enough. Let those rich people give more money to the church. Let those retired people with more time volunteer at the church. Let someone else care for the poor and feed the hungry. Let someone else attend to the last and the lost and the least. Because if someone else does it, then I don’t have to change; we don’t have to change.
We are so easily convinced of our own greatness that we must constantly work to let go of the ways in which we measure greatness. In fact, we must let go of the ways we measure greatness if we are to become true followers of Christ. We must commit to standing with the last and the lost and the least—not just in spirit, but with our bodies, too. We have to be in relationship with and conversation with the people around us who are in need. We have to take off our blinders, so that we can see that we have two dice. Let us work together to see more clearly the needs around us, so that we can be the Church in the world today. Thanks be to God. Amen!
Prayers of the People
Almighty God, thank you for the intricate life-sustaining world you created.
Make us good caregivers.
Help us share the wealth of resources that you lavishly share with us.
Thank you for the salvation made possible to us through the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Following our Lord’s example, help us love the unloved and serve the lowly.
Thank you for the gifts of your Holy Spirit: the comfort, the encouragement, and the formation that we experience as evidence of the Spirit in us.
Grow in us an unquenchable desire for you.
Transform us. Make us new in you.
May we daily grow to be more like you.
In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
Now let us pray as our Lord taught, saying:
Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that we are called to see greatness as God sees greatness. We are called to take off our blinders and minister to the last and the lost and the least. So, go forth and be instruments of God’s peace and love and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!
 Elisabeth Johnson, “Commentary on Mark 9:30-37,” retrieved from: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3785