Jesus Isn’t Playing — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

Mark 9:30-37; September 19, 2021

Jesus’ disciples remind me of my five-year-old grandsons. I spent a week this summer shuttling two of them to and from a local day camp. The opportunity to overhear their backseat conversations was for me one of the highlights of the week.

There was the usual conversation about toys and teachers, about sack lunches and sports. But typically, they got around to the latest installment of the “My Daddy” game.

“My daddy drives a new car. But my daddy has a big, new truck. My daddy mowed the lawn last night. But my daddy mowed the lawn and power-washed the driveway. My daddy can lift a hundred pounds. But my daddy can lift two hundred pounds.” The bidding on that one rose to a thousand pounds before we arrived at the day camp door!

Photo by sudip paul on

I expected at some point that one of the daddies would be stronger than a locomotive, faster than a speeding bullet, and able to leap tall buildings at a single bound. Then the other daddy would have to fight daily for Truth, Justice, and the American Way, while masquerading behind the glasses of a mild-mannered reporter.

The conversation was loads of fun for me. But it was deeply serious for the boys. Their verbal jousts substituted for the wrestling matches that sometimes unfold on our basement carpet and, as often as not, end in either tears or triumph (or both).

Who’s greater? The five-year-olds are practicing the skills and building the stamina that they will need for a lifetime of such contests. The pursuit of position, privilege, and power is older than the human species. The compulsion to compare mine to yours (whatever the object of comparison) is one of our deepest psychosocial structures.

The question, “Who’s greater?” drives human history from the halls of kindergarten to the halls of empire.

Who is greater? This need to compare and compete animates our activities. True enough that it seems more visible behavior among the males in the species. I think, however, the gender variation when it comes to comparison behavior is a difference in degree rather than kind.

Comparison, and the jealous envy it produces, is fuel for our late-stage capitalist consumerism in the Western world. We compare stuff and want more. The disciples, however, simply use a different currency. For us, the envy might focus on cars or couches. The disciples compared status and wanted more. For the disciples, the envy focused on honor and shame.

But the question is the constant. Who’s greater?

I know that most Bible translations, including the NRSV, have “greatest” rather than greater. There are good, technical reasons for that translation. But the question in the Greek is a comparative, not a superlative. It’s about establishing my relative position in the hierarchy, not about my absolute worth as a person.

I don’t have to be the best, the greatest, or the highest. I only need to be better than, greater than, or higher than…you. As the old joke has it, if a bear is chasing you and me, I don’t need to outrun the bear. I only need to outrun you.

That old joke demonstrates what the question really means. The question lives on fear and anxiety. We fear that there is not enough for everyone – not enough stuff, not enough security, not enough love. The good things in this life, we believe, are in short (and limited) supply. So I better get mine while the getting is good.

I don’t have to be fast. I just have to be faster than you.

Most of us relatively rich Westerners don’t have to outrun hungry bears. But that lack of physical threat doesn’t make us less afraid. If anything, we are more anxious than ever.

The “greater” game is often secret and subtle. The rules change constantly. In our consumer-driven economy, people can make lots of money off my “less than” fears. All I have to do is put the word “limited” in any advertisement, and the response rate will go up. I am assaulted every day with promises of “greater than” – if only I will part with enough cash.

The disciples pass the time on the road to Capernaum playing the “Who’s greater?” game. I suppose it was less irritating than the “Are we there yet?” game. I imagine that Jesus overheard the spirited contests just as I overheard the “My Daddy” debates raging in the back seat.

When they arrive in Capernaum, Jesus quizzes the disciples on their conversation. He knows what they’ve been arguing. They know he knows. They answer his question with embarrassed silence.

Jesus tackles the teachable moment. No one can win the “greater than” game in the end. There is always someone better than, greater than, or higher than me. There is always someone who can outrun me. The bear catches us all in the end. As the preacher in the book of Ecclesiastes reminds us, the one who dies with the most toys still dies.

The only way to “win” the “greater than” game, Jesus says, is not to play at all. He doesn’t propose that we stop running and surrender to the bear claws. Instead, he declares that God is not the bear. God is not a supernatural miser, hoarding the good stuff and dispensing it with an eye dropper. God is not the hungry bear seeking to devour us when we stumble and fall.

The God who sends Jesus among us is the Loving Parent. That Loving Parent embraces us for who we are – not for what we can produce or how fast we can run.

Jesus takes a toddler by the hand and leads the little one into the middle of the muddled disciples. Jesus doesn’t point to the innocence or humility or trusting nature of the child. Those are late-modern romantic fantasies. Real parents will tell you that those fantasies have little to do with actual children.

In the ancient world, small children were not seen as gifts. Instead, children were regarded as economic liabilities with no intrinsic value. They might grow into usefulness if they survived to adulthood. But as toddlers, children around Jesus were often viewed as good for nothing.

A “good for nothing” cannot be “greater than” anything. That little child could not play the “greater than” game. That is Jesus’ point. That toddler is a living, breathing parable of how God regards us. That little child is a living sacrament of the Divine community. We are all “good for nothing” in the end. And God loves you for you – not for what you can produce or how fast you can run.

“God’s Love is not oriented toward ‘what is’ but rather toward ‘what is not’,” writes Tuomo Mannermaa. “That is why God’s Love does not desire to gain something good from its object,” he continues, “but rather pours out good and shares its own goodness with its object.”[i] Mannermaa is drawing out Martin Luther’s insight that the central and most important fact about God is that God gives.

In other words, God doesn’t love us to get anything. That’s the game sinners play. Rather, God loves us in order to give everything. “Just as God has created everything out of nothingness and caused what is not or what does not exist to come into existence-to be,” Mannermaa notes, “in the same fashion God’s Love calls its beloved out of nothingness and surrounds its object with its own goodness and good things.”[ii]

Mannermaa quotes Luther’s words from the Heidelberg Disputation to cap off his point. “Therefore sinners are beautiful because they are loved,” Luther wrote, “they are not loved because they are beautiful.” God brings us “good for nothings” into the beauty of existence for the sheer love of us.[iii]

That’s the point of the living, breathing parable in the middle of the muddled disciples. Who’s greater? Who cares? God knows you’re the greatest before you even draw a breath.

What happens when we begin to trust that Good News and live accordingly? If I trust this Good News, it revolutionizes how I see myself. “How radically must we rework our own self-image,” Antony Campbell asks, “if we accept ourselves as lovable—as deeply, passionately, and unconditionally loved by God?”[iv] The answer is obvious. This Good News requires and facilitates a revolution in how I see – and treat – myself.

What happens when we begin to trust that Good News and live accordingly? If I trust this Good News, it revolutionizes how I see my neighbor. After all, if God loves me “for nothing,” that’s how God loves all of us “good for nothings.” If I live that way, then I must resign from all the “greater than” games we humans play on a daily basis.

That’s going to cause some trouble, which is why this whole section stands under the shadow of the cross.

The cultural system of White Supremacy is the biggest and baddest of all the “greater than” games we White, Western Christians have been playing for five centuries. If we don’t hear in this text the call to dismantle that system in our congregations and communities, I have very little hope for us. Fortunately, God has much more hope than I do.

The cultural system of Consumer Capitalism depends on the oxygen of envy and eats comparison for breakfast. If we are “enough” for God, then we can trust God to provide enough for us. That means learning to be satisfied with enough rather than always hungering for more. That may break the Consumer Capitalist system. Ok.

For me this also applies to my relationship with other species on this planet. I see no reason to limit this ethic to human relationships. Therefore, I do not have the luxury to believe that humans are “greater than” (that is, more valuable than) other species on this planet. That affects what (I mean “who”) I eat, what I wear, and what I throw away.

Who’s greater? Who cares? It’s time to stop playing.


[i] Tuomo Mannermaa. Two Kinds of Love: Martin Luther’s Religious World (Kindle Locations 149-150). Kindle Edition.

[ii] Tuomo Mannermaa. Two Kinds of Love: Martin Luther’s Religious World (Kindle Locations 152-153). Kindle Edition.

[iii] Tuomo Mannermaa. Two Kinds of Love: Martin Luther’s Religious World (Kindle Location 156). Kindle Edition

[iv] Campbell, Antony F., SJ. God First Loved Us: The Challenge of Accepting Unconditional Love (p. 4). Paulist Pr. Kindle Edition.

Text Study for Mark 9:30-37 (Pt. 6); September 19, 2021

Last of All

I have been using the relationship between Onesimus and Philemon, as partially described in Paul’s little letter, as a case study of how Jesus’ words in Mark 9 might work out in an actual setting between Jesus followers. The call to Philemon in this regard is, I think, relatively straightforward. Paul encourages Philemon to relinquish his power over Onesimus and to welcome Onesimus as a beloved brother both in the flesh and in the Lord.

Commentators debate whether that means that Paul is asking Philemon to ratify Onesimus’ freedom from enslavement. I think that is the minimum for which Paul is asking, and that Philemon does comply with Paul’s request. That’s part of what “the cross” looks like for Philemon, and we could spend even more time imagining the cultural, social, political, familial, and personal earthquakes that result.

But let’s not.

Why does Onesimus return to Colossae and risk possible torture, disfigurement, and/or death? Why does he come back to the place of his enslavement when he could just as easily have stayed with Paul or moved on to greener pastures? I think he comes back because this is what “the cross” looks like for Onesimus in this situation. Having said that, I want to be very careful to explain what I mean.

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All of Jesus’ passion teachings in the Markan composition have to do with the nature and exercise of power in the life of the disciples. Jesus calls us to understand that the nature of power is always “positional.” If one has power “over” others, then as a disciple one is called to renounce that power over others in the name of Jesus and for the sake of neighbor love. That is the challenge facing Philemon. And that is the challenge that faces White American Christians in our time.

That’s a simple idea, but it’s damnably hard in practice. As has often been noted, the powerful experience equality as loss. That true because it is a loss – a loss of power over others and the privilege, position, and property that accrue to that power. For example, we White people experience so-called Affirmative Action as a loss because it makes us compete with all other people on an even playing field, and we won’t do as well as we did when we had a monopoly on the playing field.

If one is oppressed by others, then Jesus’ words in Mark 9 take on a different dynamic. Let me think about this as I imagine the situation of Onesimus. First, I am sure that Onesimus returns to Colossae voluntarily. Just as Paul did not make Philemon’s agreement a matter of obedience but rather something voluntary, so I am sure Paul applied the same deference to Onesimus. Otherwise, Paul could not have regarded them as equals in his family of faith.

Onesimus, therefore, has the power to choose to return or not. He uses that power to return, in spite of the potential risk to his safety. There may have been some legal reasons in the Roman system that made returning more advantageous to Paul, but Paul was already in custody and headed toward a hearing in Rome. As it turned out, Paul’s cause in that action did not succeed. In short, you can’t get more dead than dead. So, I don’t think the legal argument has much weight here.

I think Onesimus returns (along with Paul’s little letter and a small delegation from Paul) to provoke a crisis in the life of the Colossian congregation and in Philemon’s life of faith. It is certain that Onesimus did not return in order to apologize, beg forgiveness, and return to his former station. If that had been the case, Paul would have written a quite different letter. We know that because we have examples of such letters, such as the letter of Pliny the Younger to Sabinianus, regarding a somewhat similar situation (see

Onesimus does not return in order to be “nice.” Jesus does not talk about first/last issues in Mark 9 because Jesus wants his followers to be “nice.” This is about how disciples are to exercise power. And when we exercise power appropriately, we will destabilize the existing power structures. That’s why the paragraph about serving is preceded by a teaching about the cross. It’s not being “nice” that gets Jesus crucified. It’s about challenging the way in which power “over” is used as the only model of relationship. Onesimus does that to Philemon.

Onesimus does not return in order to punish Philemon. Rather, I would argue that he returns on the basis of Christian love. It is not a loving thing to leave me in a place where I blithely exercise power over others without thought or consequence. The idolatry of power over others makes me, as the power-wielder, subhuman. We human beings, created in the image and likeness of God, were made to use power for the sake of the Other. When we use it for ourselves, we degrade ourselves, eventually to the point of ceasing to be authentically human.

Onesimus comes to confront Philemon about power and to set him free from his inhumanity. If following Jesus is the clearest path to full and authentic humanity (and I think it is), then slaveholding is a clear deviation from that path.

Therefore, I believe Onesimus comes to destabilize, disorient, and deconstruct Philemon’s world – and to do so for the sake of love. If Onesimus (and Paul and his colleagues) make Philemon (and the rest of the congregation) uncomfortable, that’s a good thing. Would it be loving to abandon Philemon to his self-delusion? I don’t think so.

It’s a simplistic illustration, but it works for me. Is it more loving for my spouse to point out the lettuce stuck in my teeth before I go into a hundred-person Zoom meeting (even though I have that initial twinge of irritation at being criticized)? Or is it more loving for her to leave me in my comfortable ignorance, only to discover later as I review the video that I looked like I was growing a garden in my mouth? For me, the answer is obvious, no matter how I might feel in the moment of critique.

When Black, Brown, Indigenous, and AAPI Christians challenge me in my unthinking racism, are they doing damage to me? No. I am uncomfortable. It is painful. I am forced to look at things about myself that I don’t like. I have to change not only some details about my behavior but my whole view of the world through White Supremacist lenses. That’s no fun for me, and my automatic response is angry rejection. But would it be more loving for others to abandon me to my sin and move on? No.

I want to say right way that I don’t think it’s the “job” of others to educate me about my own racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, classism, ageism, or any of the numerous other failings in my character and my worldview. Unlike Philemon (who may not have had access to many resources to encourage his reflection), I have access to a whole world of stories, experiences, history, data, reflection, theory, theology, and encouragement in this regard. I have a responsibility to seek out those resources – and to know that when I feel uncomfortable, that’s a sign that someone is trying to love me into my fuller humanity.

By the way, I think that Emmanuel Acho’s book, listed in the “References and Resources,” is an excellent beginning to precisely such a conversation.

If someone is oppressed, abused, and dehumanized, the most loving expression of power at that moment may well be escape (where that is possible and safe). There is no obligation for anyone to “educate” oppressors, abusers, and tyrants. That’s an analysis and a decision that the person in that position must engage in the moment. I have no right to even speak further about that.

Onesimus is in a somewhat different position. He comes with the new power of the gospel and a community that is constituted by that power. He does not come alone. Together, he and his colleagues confront Philemon and the Colossian congregation with the deconstructing news that every element of life needs to change for those who follow Jesus. For those with power over, that means relinquishing that power. If that relinquishing happens, then the oppressed might begin to think about reconciliation (but not before).

Thus, “the cross” for Philemon looks like relinquishing his “power over” others. He is invited to do so for the sake of the love of Christ – so he can refresh the hearts of the saints even more, to use Paul’s words. The cross which Onesimus has taken up is the one that will result either in a conversion of a slaveholder or the death of a former slave. For Philemon, the cross means being changed. For Onesimus, the cross means being the change.

When someone confronts me with the love of Christ and with my need for conversion, I need to learn the habit of appreciation rather than anger. When someone confronts the White Church with the love of Christ and the need for conversion, we are called to regard that confrontation as loving service, not as troublemaking. When we welcome such a one into our lives and conversations, we are welcoming Jesus and welcoming the One who sent him.

It is, therefore, a daily question for Jesus followers. How do I stand today in relation to power, and thus in relation to the Cross?

References and Resources

Acho, Emmanuel. Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man. Flatiron Books. Kindle Edition.

Bader-Saye, Scott. Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear. Grand Rapids, MI.: Brazos Press, 2007.

Bailey, James L. “Experiencing the Kingdom as a Little Child: A Rereading of Mark 10:13-16.” Word and World, Number 1, Winter 1995, pages 58-67.

Black, C. Clifton.

Campbell, Antony F., SJ. God First Loved Us: The Challenge of Accepting Unconditional Love. Paulist Pr. Kindle Edition.

Goff, et. al. “The Essence of Innocence: Consequences of Dehumanizing Black Children.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2014, Vol. 106, No. 4, 526–545. DOI: 10.1037/a0035663.

Malina, Bruce J. (1996). The Social World of Jesus and the Gospels. Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

Malina, Malina; Rohrbaugh, Richard L. (1992). Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.

Ruge-Jones, Philip. Cross in Tensions: Luther’s Theology of the Cross as Theologico-social Critique (Princeton Theological Monograph Series Book 91). Pickwick Publications, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Tisby, Jemar. The Color of Compromise. Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

Wilkerson, Isabel. Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Wright, N. T. Paul and the Faithfulness of God: Two Book Set (Christian Origins and the Question of God 4). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

Text Study for Mark 9:30-37 (Pt. 5); September 19, 2021

First of All

I noted above that the term for “child” in this text can just as easily be used to identify an enslaved person. That connection takes me to another of my interests, the relationship between Onesimus and Philemon in Paul’s little letter.

It’s too easy for us as Bible readers to experience Jesus’ words in the gospels as happening (to coin a phrase) “long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away.” But the people who heard the Markan composition, and Jesus followers in the generation preceding them, had to work out what Jesus’ words meant in terms of their behavior and how they treated one another.

If, for example, Philemon heard from Paul and understood the Good News of God’s unconditional love for him and for the cosmos in Jesus the Messiah, then nothing in Philemon’s life could remain the same. His view of himself, as we heard earlier from Anthony Campbell, would be flipped on its head. His relationships with others would occur in an entirely new framework. His commitments to power, privilege, position, and property would be definitively deconstructed.

If the Good News of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, is true, then nothing can remain the same. That would include Philemon’s relationship with and response to Onesimus.

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“If one desires to be first,” Jesus tells the squabbling disciples, “that one shall be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35b, my translation). Philemon was the paterfamilias and the slaveholder. That’s a typical image of “first” in Greco-Roman culture. Onesimus was an enslaved person – the paradigm image of what it meant to be “last.” If there is any situation in which Jesus’ discipleship teaching should have traction, this is it.

In Paul’s little letter, Paul makes it clear that Philemon’s trust in Jesus has produced the fruits of faithfulness in the life of the congregation in Colossae. Paul urges Philemon to continue to respond to the Gospel of love with works of love in the case of his response to the actions of Onesimus. Paul prays that “the partnership of your faithfulness might effectively generate in recognition [of the Lord Jesus] all that which is honorable among us toward Christ’s purposes” (Philemon 6, my translation).

Paul expects the new life which Philemon has experienced and continues to experience to result in some specific behaviors that give evidence of their partnership in the gospel. At the present moment, those behaviors have to do with how he will respond to the return of Onesimus to the community. The summary of Paul’s expectation is in verse 17. “If, therefore, you count me as a partner (and you certainly do, welcome him as me” (my translation).

The word for “welcome” has the literal sense of “take toward.” This is not a grudging tolerance or a mere passive acknowledgement. The word, and Paul’s expectation, is much more like the way that Jesus “takes” a child and gives that child standing in the midst of the community. Just as Jesus tenderly embraces that child, so Paul expects Philemon to embrace Onesimus as a beloved brother “both in the flesh and in the Lord” (Philemon 16).

Paul plays on the ambiguity in the terms for “child” and “slave” as well in his little letter. He acknowledges that Onesimus has been enslaved. He also refers to Onesimus as his “child” whom he has birthed into new life in Christ during Paul’s Ephesian imprisonment. Paul is “father” both to Onesimus and also to Philemon, the one who owes Paul his very life (Philemon 19). They are brothers in Christ and in Paul!

The congregation at Colossae witnessed the working out of Jesus’ “first and last” instructions to his disciples. Philemon needed to renounce his power of life and death, or at least physical punishment, over Onesimus if he was to obey Paul (and Jesus). Philemon had to give up his honor status, his position, in order to embrace Onesimus as a brother. He had to relinquish his property – both that which Onesimus might have taken and Onesimus himself as an enslaved person. And he had to surrender his privilege in order to embrace Onesimus now as an equal partner in Paul’s gospel mission.

I am walking through this in such detail in order for us to appreciate that Jesus’ teaching to the disciples was not theory or poetry. Christians, at least in Pauline congregations, were expected to put this teaching to work in their lives in Christian community. The powerful were called upon to relinquish that power for the sake of their partnership in the gospel.

At the beginning of his two-volume work, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, N. T. Wright spends a hundred pages on Onesimus, Philemon, and Paul as a case study for how the Gospel works out in these communities. “Here we have, in fact,” Wright argues, “the concrete outworking of Paul’s theology of the cross – reflecting the same theme in 2 Corinthians 5 itself, written probably not long after Philemon” (Paul, page 20).

Because of this gospel of New Creation, Wright argues, the question of the social relationship between Onesimus and Philemon, and the status of each is “radically outflanked” (Wright, Paul, page 20). The “last” becomes first, and the “first” becomes last – and servant.

The one who was socially dead, the enslaved person, has been made alive. Onesimus has been “birthed” into the faith just as Philemon received his very life from Paul’s preaching. The one who was most fully alive, the honorable paterfamilias, must die to himself and to the world in order to live in the partnership of Christ.

As I discussed the Mark 9 text with a group of lay preachers this week, we came to a difficult realization. If we remain focused on verses 33 through 37, the text provides a marvelous opportunity to focus on the unconditional and prevenient love of God in Christ for us. As I described in an earlier post, we can find ourselves in Jesus’ arms as beloved children of God. There is no greater or more life-changing news that that!

If we stay with those verses, it’s all well and good. But we also have verses 30 to 32. All of this happens under the shadow of the cross. This transformative, revolutionary, destabilizing, re-orienting Divine Love provokes a violent pushback from the powers of this world. That violent pushback begins in my own heart – the place where my desires for self-idolatry originate. The move from first to last is the death of the Old Self.

“I have been crucified with Christ,” Paul writes to the Galatian Christians. “It is no longer ‘I’ who lives but Christ who lives in me.” The death of the ‘I,’ (the ‘ego’ in the Greek) is part of how I participate in, exercise partnership in the cross of Jesus Christ. “And the life I now live in the flesh,” Paul continues, “I live by the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:19-20).

The change in relationship between Onesimus and Philemon involved a variety of “deaths” for Philemon. Welcoming Onesimus as a beloved brother happened at the foot of the cross or not at all.

This case study has been conducted so far from the position of one who is “first” and is called now to be “last” and “servant.” The text calls me to look at my own faith walk and to assess where I am “first.” For me, that is nearly everywhere. I am White. I am male. I am educated in a Europa-centric system. I am not impoverished. I have professional status and standing. I have all the habits and assumptions that go with this mash-up of “first.” Following Jesus, for me, is mostly about daily becoming “last” and “servant.”

In the next chapter of Mark’s composition, by the way, we will see how this works out for one of the Firsts who comes to Jesus for advice. The rich man, whom Jesus loves, is unable to die to the “First” of his wealth and goes away deeply troubled. If I’m looking for myself in the larger story, there’s a place for me.

I am part of a denomination that has spent a lot of time in the company of the cultural Firsts. If we are to be a factor in the future of this culture, we will have to figure out how to embrace being Last. Jemar Tisby, in his book The Color of Compromise, itemizes some of the ways that we can embrace being Last in order to be faithful.

We can, as individuals, congregations and denominations begin making Reparations to Black, Brown, Indigenous, and AAPI communities. We can take down Confederate monuments and dismantle other symbols that continue to make “White” equal to “First.” We can learn from the Black Church how to be faithful without having to be First. We White Christians have no idea how to do that. We are so wedded to White Christian Nationalism that for many White Christians there is no daylight between such Nationalist idolatry and their understanding of the Christian faith.

Tisby has several other suggestions that I would commend for your consideration. “This much is clear,” Tisby writes, “the American church has compromised with racism. Countless Christians have ignored, obscured, or misunderstood this history. But the excuses are gone. The information cannot be hidden. The only question that remains,” he concludes, “is what the church will do now that its complicity in racism has been exposed” (page 212).

Will we who are powerful embrace being Last of all and Servant of all?

This post has focused on the “First” who is called to be “Last”? What does it look like to start out “Last” like Onesimus? Let’s think about that in the next post.

References and Resources

Acho, Emmanuel. Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man. Flatiron Books. Kindle Edition.

Bader-Saye, Scott. Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear. Grand Rapids, MI.: Brazos Press, 2007.

Bailey, James L. “Experiencing the Kingdom as a Little Child: A Rereading of Mark 10:13-16.” Word and World, Number 1, Winter 1995, pages 58-67.

Black, C. Clifton.

Campbell, Antony F., SJ. God First Loved Us: The Challenge of Accepting Unconditional Love. Paulist Pr. Kindle Edition.

Goff, et. al. “The Essence of Innocence: Consequences of Dehumanizing Black Children.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2014, Vol. 106, No. 4, 526–545. DOI: 10.1037/a0035663.

Malina, Bruce J. (1996). The Social World of Jesus and the Gospels. Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

Malina, Malina; Rohrbaugh, Richard L. (1992). Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.

Ruge-Jones, Philip. Cross in Tensions: Luther’s Theology of the Cross as Theologico-social Critique (Princeton Theological Monograph Series Book 91). Pickwick Publications, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Tisby, Jemar. The Color of Compromise. Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

Wilkerson, Isabel. Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition. Wright, N. T. Paul and the Faithfulness of God: Two Book Set (Christian Origins and the Question of God 4). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition

Text Study for Mark 9:30-37 (Pt. 4); September 19, 2021


Twice in Mark’s composition, Jesus puts forth a child as a teaching illustration. The Composer uses multiple stories around similar themes to highlight the importance of each of those themes. The second time we run into a small child in Mark’s composition will be in a few weeks in Mark 10:13-16. In our current text, the focus is on embracing the child as an image of discipleship. In the next chapter, it is the child who embraces (receives) the Reign of God.

As I noted previously, neither of these images has to do with innocence, openness, or any supposed characteristics of the Child. There is nothing in the Child that demands Jesus’ embrace on its own merits. That’s the point, as I noted in the previous post. Jesus loves the Child “for nothing.”

Photo by nappy on

In his 1995 article, Jim Bailey gives us a summary of Ched Meyer’s assessment of the social status of the child in first-century Mediterranean culture. It’s a helpful summary of a fairly complete assessment. According to Bailey, Meyers lists six features of this social status:

  • Jesus does not have an idealistic notion of children in either text.
  • The Child typifies a category of the marginalized and dominated, like women, the poor, and the unclean.
  • The Child is “least” in both family and social structures in that culture.
  • Children were easily dominated and exploited since they were vulnerable and dependent.
  • Jesus invites his disciples to imagine the “least” as the model for discipleship.
  • Disciples, therefore, are called to “take up the powerlessness and vulnerability of the child.” (page 59).

In my experience, that reminder to listeners will still come as a shock and receive romantic resistance from those who continue to idolize the Child in White American culture. On the one hand, we who have power, privilege, position, and property don’t want our children to resemble those first-century Mediterranean children in any sense. We expect our children to be protected and powerful, able to receive and to maintain the power, privilege, position, and property we will bequeath to them.

I need look no further than myself in this regard. Regardless of my theological, moral, and political stances and pronouncements, I was committed to keeping my children firmly in the White middle class and elevating that privileged position, regardless of the cost (my estate will likely pay the last of the student loan debt unless something changes in the interim). I have succeeded in that project, and they are solidly on their way to carrying that effort into another generation.

Thirty years ago, the meaning of that effort played dimly around the edges of my consciousness. When it invaded my waking moments, I certainly found ways to push that awareness back into the shadows. We talked about having our kids in a more diverse educational setting. We did not, however, find an acceptable home in that school district. We didn’t take the effort or energy to enroll outside of our geography, although we could have done so. Those choices – paths of least resistance and White defaults – continued through college, with predictable outcomes.

None of this made my kids “bad” people. I’m not very objective, but I think they’re pretty good folks, despite their connections to me. But our clan has embedded itself firmly in the system of White power, privilege, position, and property. In two generations, Hennigs folk have gone from being tenant farmers without indoor plumbing to triple garages and swimming pools in Midwest suburbia.

It didn’t occur to me that this was all part of a system to sustain the White power of children of privilege until I thought back on the house we bought in Lincoln, Nebraska. We had an excellent realtor who listened closely both to what we said and what we didn’t say. The realtor sized us up and created a list of potential homes. They were all in neighborhood bastions of White power and middle class “propriety.” We didn’t ask for that. The realtor didn’t ask about it. We just all assumed this was unthinkingly “normal.”

We put the Child in the midst of our imagination, our priorities, and our communities. But the Child was White, middle-class, Christian, and English-speaking. Any suggestion that we might have needed to adjust our imagination, our priorities, and our vision for community would have been (and was) met with stiff resistance.

Continued reflection tells me that my efforts were, as should not be surprising, far more about me than about my kids. I love my kids and want “the best” for them (as if I actually knew then or know now what that might be). But I also did not want to “fail” as a White, middle-class parent. I was unconsciously anxious about the risk that my children might fall out of the White middle-class because of something I did or did not do.

If that happened, I would have regarded myself as a miserable excuse for a parent. So, I spared no expense, approved every sport and activity, and signed every loan document. I didn’t really begin to think hard about this until it was far too late for me. I read Scott Bader-Saye’s excellent book, Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear. It’s one of those books that will be on my shelf after I die and to which I return often for challenge and clarity.

In the first chapter, called “Fear for Profit,” he has a section labeled “Fearful Parenting.” I read that in 2007 and had a brief, but profound, thought.


Bader-Saye points to the shift from a “good parenting” model to a “safe parenting” model. Ordinary life for children is now seen as this massive minefield of existential threats, and we parents have to hover over every step lest disaster strike. And there is someone else hovering in the background – the vendor always ready to sell us parental peace of mind. “When ‘good parenting’ is replaced by ‘safe parenting,’” Bader-Saye writes, “child rearing is easily captured by consumption – we may not be able to buy goodness, but we can buy safety” (page 13).

Safe parenting becomes an exercise in preventive living. We focus on dangers we must avoid rather than experiences we might embrace. We focus on control rather than creativity. We emphasize avoidance and aversion rather than adventure. We value familiarity rather than novelty. We raise children who know everything and learn nothing, who judge everyone and engage no one. “We want our children to grow into adults who are expansive and generous rather than fearful and constricted,” Bader-Saye writes, “yet the culture of fear routinely squelches such an extravagant embrace of life” (page 14).

I feel guilt and shame over that story and that history. I need to sit with those emotions and experiences, to marinate in them, and not expect anyone to make me feel better. But that’s not enough. We have sought to live in a somewhat different neighborhood these days, although it’s not exactly a stellar effort on our part. We support school funding that is not dependent on property tax revenues and zip codes. But that’s not going anywhere right now. We encourage our grandchildren to have a diverse set of friends, but we’ve already put in place many dynamics to work against that.

This text challenges me to do better.

The focus on the White Child in the center of our culture has another dimension. “If only we could all have the faith of a little child,” the resistance will insist, “then we wouldn’t have all these problems and divisions in our churches.” This perspective presumes that Jesus embraces us because of something in us rather than as an act of grace. And the image of the “innocent” and “trusting” Child is, in White American culture, always White and “pure.”

One of the unspoken and collateral dangers of clinging to this iconography of childhood innocence is that it will quickly morph into what it really is – the mythology of White Innocence and Purity. Remember our thought experiment about displacing the “white” baby Jesus in the congregational creche with a Brown baby Jesus? That experiment assumes rightly that the doll we are most likely to find there will be White.

If the child in the center of our imagination is White, Innocent, and Pure, then we White people see children (and adults) of other colors as guilty and impure. I have to confess that the first time I wrote that sentence, I wrote it in the passive voice with a thus unidentified subject. But that’s a symptom of the problem. If I write about children of other colors as “seen,” then I don’t have to take responsibility for the fact that I as a White person am doing the seeing.

In fact, that’s precisely what is happening. The myth of White Innocence and Purity is encapsulated in our imaginations as we center the White Child, the beginning of that Innocence and Purity. Once we have done that, it’s fairly easy to imagine children other than White as culpable and dirty. When we embrace that imagination, it’s even easier to see children other than White as dangerous, unworthy, and less than human.

The reverse image of the Pure, Innocent, White Child is the Dangerous Black Man. The power of that toxic image flows easily on to the bodies of Black boys who suffer fatal consequences. Studies too numerous to cite demonstrate that Black boys are perceived by White people as far older than they actually are. The Goff et. al. study shows that Black children do not have the same presumption of innocence as White children; that Black boys are seen as more culpable for their actions than White boys; that Black boys are misperceived as older than their peers in other races; and that these misperceptions result in violence based on dehumanization (especially violence in law enforcement and corrections situations).

We can say the names of a few of those Black children who have been killed by the Myth of the Pure, Innocent, White Child: Emmett Till, Tamir Rice, Tyre King, Cameron Tillman…and those little Black boys in my own neighborhood who are already at risk for just being boys…and Black.

How does this conversation impact our preaching about putting a Child in our midst?

References and Resources

Acho, Emmanuel. Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man. Flatiron Books. Kindle Edition.

Bader-Saye, Scott. Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear. Grand Rapids, MI.: Brazos Press, 2007.

Bailey, James L. “Experiencing the Kingdom as a Little Child: A Rereading of Mark 10:13-16.” Word and World, Number 1, Winter 1995, pages 58-67.

Black, C. Clifton.

Campbell, Antony F., SJ. God First Loved Us: The Challenge of Accepting Unconditional Love. Paulist Pr. Kindle Edition.

Goff, et. al. “The Essence of Innocence: Consequences of Dehumanizing Black Children.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2014, Vol. 106, No. 4, 526–545. DOI: 10.1037/a0035663.

Malina, Bruce J. (1996). The Social World of Jesus and the Gospels. Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

Malina, Malina; Rohrbaugh, Richard L. (1992). Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.

Wilkerson, Isabel. Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Text Study for Mark 9:30-37 (Pt. 3); September 19, 2021

Loving for Nothing

“You can easily judge the character of a man,” Goethe reputedly said, “by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.” This is a handy way to get at Jesus’ instructions to his disciples in this text.

As they travel from Caesarea Philippi back to Capernaum, the disciples debate their relative standing in the group. Jesus listens, perhaps, with some detached amusement as they walk along. He waits until they get back to the modest privacy of Capernaum before he intervenes in the conversation. Then he sits down and launches into a significant teaching moment.

He begins with a bumper-sticker slogan. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35b, NRSV). To illustrate his point, Jesus takes a child and stands the child in the midst of them. Malina and Rohrbaugh (1992) help us to get some perspective on what Jesus is trying to teach the disciples – then and now.

Photo by Emma Bauso on

Children were among the most vulnerable and powerless members of first-century Mediterranean society. Nearly two-thirds of children died before the age of six, according to Malina and Rohrbaugh (1992). They were the first victims of any disaster, natural or human-created. They had no standing in the community or polity. They were often regarded as economic liabilities until they could begin to contribute to the assets of the household.

“Children had little status within the community or family,” Malina and Rohrbaugh (1992) write. “A minor child was on a par with a slave, and only after reaching maturity was he/she a free person who could inherit the family estate” (page 238). It’s not, as Malina and Rohrbaugh (1992) point out, that children received no love or esteem. They were the old age pension for their parents. They were the continuity of the family and the tribe. The male children bore the honor of the family name. The female children were the source of future generations.

But little children were not romanticized, idealized, and fetishized as they are in our American culture. As Black points out in his commentary, the Greek word for “child” here can mean either “immediate offspring” or “slave” (or both). “A child epitomizes the most subservient human in ancient society,” Black notes, “one with slightest status.”

The child in our text, I would say, is the “poster child” for all who are regarded as means rather than as ends in themselves.

Black encourages us to sit with the details of Jesus’ treatment of the child. Jesus “stands” the child in the midst of the disciples, rather than merely placing the child there, as the NRSV translates. Black suggests that Jesus gives the child (literal) standing in the midst of that community.

It could sound like Jesus handles the child rather roughly – “taking” the child and pushing the child forward. But then we get a word of tenderness. Jesus takes the child into his arms. He embraces the child. Most of all, he says that the disciples are called to “welcome” such a one into their lives and into their community. Tolerance is not enough. Embrace is the acceptable response.

I am struck by all the performance cues in this little vignette. Once I begin to look for such cues, they are everywhere. For example, does the performer of the Markan composition sit down in the middle of the audience at this point? Does that performer stand a small child from the audience in the midst of the audience? Perhaps that was all arranged with the parents of the child in advance, or perhaps it was spontaneous. No matter, really.

I do wonder what the impact might be if the preacher simply told from memory Mark 9:2-37, complete with participation by volunteers from the audience. A few words of introduction and a closing question or two — a powerful message for the day, I think.

Isn’t it a bit surprising that Jesus has a toddler ready to hand as a sermon illustration when he and the disciples are “by themselves”? No, in fact, children are ubiquitous in the village life of first-century Mediterranean culture. They are so common that I imagine they become part of the “furniture,” hardly noticed unless they caused a commotion of some sort. The children in the crowd do not escape Jesus’ notice, of course.

And the “disciples” as a group are not limited to The Twelve in the Markan account. The group in the house went beyond the inner circle and was probably still somewhat large. Moreover, the fact that small children were present is almost a guarantee that women were also present. Fathers did not have much to do with small children, and it is unlikely that any of the men in the gathering would have brought small children with them.

“It is unmanly for a father to stay around the house, to remain much in the house,” Malina (1996) writes concerning the relationship of first-century Mediterranean fathers to their small children, “to be concerned and involved with childrearing, not to avoid childrearing concerns, to give any child care, to act other than formally and distantly with his children, to stay remote from his children” (Kindle Locations 1223-1225). Thus, the presence of children indicates a high probability of the presence of women.

Even if we question the presence of children in the narrative at this moment, they are everywhere in the Markan script. They were certainly present and handy in the Markan audience as well. What an experience, for example, to have your adolescent “stand in” for the child with the epilepsy demon earlier in chapter 9! I have done enough children’s sermons and Bible camp talks to know how natural it is to reach for someone in the audience for such a role. No one quickly forgets such an experience. The incarnational and emotional impact is profound.

My father was a master of wisdom scatology. “It’s the way of the world,” he sometimes observed. “People usually kiss up and piss down.” I’m embarrassed to say that he was describing my behavior far too often. I am – consciously or not – far more willing to expend attention and energy on those who are “above” me than on those who are “below” me. My care is often conditioned by what I expect to receive.

I understand that this simply signifies my membership in the human race. That is, however, a description rather than an excuse. Jesus tells me and the rest of the disciples to stop kissing and pissing and just deal with people as people. Dealing with people as people means seeing and treating them as beloved by God, not for what they can produce, but for simply being who they are.

You see, I want to be that child in the midst of the disciples – taken by Jesus’ hand into the midst of the community. I want to be that child, fondly and tenderly embraced by Jesus for all to see. I want to be the one Jesus loves “for nothing” – not for what I do or produce or give up or suffer. Not for my position or privilege or power or property – but just for me.

That’s the good news in this text, I think. I am, first of all, that child. Anyone in the audience can be that child. I wonder if people lined up to participate in this scene. I wonder if the performer had to repeat it until all who needed an embrace from Jesus got one. I am reminded of the power in pre-Covidtide of “free hugs.” It was corny, hokey, often forced and artificial. And it still mattered. Everyone wants to be that child.

Once we know such unconditional love, how can we be unchanged? Disciples, therefore, welcome as we are welcomed. But what does it mean that in such welcoming of the Other, we welcome Jesus and the Father who sent him? We experience Jesus fully when we welcome others “for nothing.”

“Unconditional love can be met only with utter love in return” Anthony Campbell writes. “Of course, such absolute love of God is certainly not the condition of most of us,” he continues, “so truth demands that memory will not allow us to forget the love that we have lacked.” (Kindle Location 66). Accepting God’s unconditional love, God’s loving us “for nothing,” either changes us, or it doesn’t happen. “How radically must we rework our own self-image if we accept ourselves as lovable,” Campbell asks, “as deeply, passionately, and unconditionally loved by God?” (page 4).

Jesus is not a convenience or a utility or a property. We cannot love Jesus “for something.” That is not love. “If I am sure of anything,” C. S. Lewis writes in The Four Loves, “I am sure that His teaching was never meant to confirm my congenital preference for safe investments and limited liabilities. I doubt,” Lewis continues, “whether there is anything in me that pleases Him less. And who could conceivably begin to love God on such a prudential ground,” Lewis asks, “because the security (so to speak) is better? Who,” he wonders, “could even include it among the grounds for loving?” (page 120).

And yet, it is precisely what we do. We love Jesus for the benefits. We love God for the safety. We love others for what they do for us. We do it because we want our love to cost us nothing. But cost-free love is no love at all, as Lewis will note in the following pages of his book. Authentic love always happens in the shadow of the cross.

Authentic love — God’s love — is both absolutely free and infinitely costly.

References and Resources

Acho, Emmanuel. Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man. Flatiron Books. Kindle Edition.

Black, C. Clifton.

Campbell, Antony F., SJ. God First Loved Us: The Challenge of Accepting Unconditional Love. Paulist Pr. Kindle Edition.

Malina, Bruce J. (1996). The Social World of Jesus and the Gospels. Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

Malina, Malina; Rohrbaugh, Richard L. (1992). Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.

Wilkerson, Isabel. Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Text Study for Mark 9:30-37 (Pt. 2); September 19, 2021

Who’s the Boss of Bella?

When our granddaughter was small, she often stayed with us while Mom was a work. At that time, we got our Vizsla puppy, Bella. Our granddaughter and Bella grew up together and remain best of friends ten years later.

One day, we discussed hierarchy and lines of authority in the house. Our granddaughter quickly understood that Grandma and Papa were the bosses of her. Then we asked her who she was the boss of. “Nobody!” was her toddler reply. “Is that right?” Grandma asked. “Who are you the boss of?”

Our granddaughter puzzled for a bit on that one. Grandma asked again, “Who are you the boss of?” In a flash of delighted insight, our granddaughter declared, “I’m the boss of…Bella!” So it has been ever since.

Photo by Susanne Jutzeler on

We humans gravitate toward hierarches. We want to know who’s up, who’s down, and who’s in the middle. We attach status and power and resources to those places in the hierarchy. If one doesn’t exist, we’ll create one just to make sure we all know up from down. We can use the flimsiest of facts to create such hierarchies. But once in place, human pecking orders are damnably hard to dismantle.

In her book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, Isabel Wilkerson offers this description:

“A caste system is an artificial construction, a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups on the basis of ancestry and often immutable traits, traits that would be neutral in the abstract but are ascribed life-and-death meaning in a hierarchy favoring the dominant caste whose forebears designed it. A caste system uses rigid, often arbitrary boundaries to keep the ranked groupings apart, distinct from one another and in their assigned places” (page 17).

Wilkerson describes and assesses three caste systems in her work. She studies the “original” caste system in India, the racial hierarchy established in Nazi Germany, and the racial hierarchy that exists in the United States. It’s helpful to see the concept of caste in a system which is not race-based, as in India, in order to see the underlying human realities of this systemic element of our sin.

“The hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality,” Wilkerson observes. “It is about power—which groups have it and which do not. It is about resources—which caste is seen as worthy of them and which are not, who gets to acquire and control them and who does not. It is,” she continues, “about respect, authority, and assumptions of competence—who is accorded these and who is not” (page 17).

Our public discourse is drowning in debates about caste. We continue to tie ourselves in cultural, political, economic, and moral knots as we duel over the realities of racism and White Supremacy in this country. But we also struggle with a deeply entrenched economic caste system that creates a tightly regimented pyramid of a few “have-a-lots” and many “don’t-have-enoughs.” We continue to compensate men more than women for the same work. We have hierarchies in educational systems, in our sex and gender politics, and (gasp) in the Christian churches.

Can there be a more topical text for us than this? I don’t think so.

The disciples are flummoxed about Jesus’ dire predictions of his impending demise. So, they return to their favorite topic – who was greater? I know the NRSV (with good justification) translates the phrase as “who was the greatest.” But the Greek word is a comparative, not a superlative. I think we should take that seriously in this instance. I suspect they were clear that Jesus was “the greatest.” They were debating about who fit where in the hierarchy of their little community.

A hierarchy doesn’t of necessity make me the greatest or the best. But it can make me “more than” or “better than” someone else. I think a preacher could use an old joke at this point to good effect.

“Two men are hiking in the woods, and they see a bear. The bear is really mad, so they start running to get away. The first man says, ‘how are we going to outrun this bear?’ and the other guy goes, ‘I don’t have to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun you.’”

This is how the caste system of White Supremacy has worked in the United States since before there was a United States. “The American caste system began in the years after the arrival of the first Africans to Virginia colony in the summer of 1619,” Wilkerson notes, “as the colony sought to refine the distinctions of who could be enslaved for life and who could not. Over time, colonial laws granted English and Irish indentured servants greater privileges than the Africans who worked alongside them,” she continues, “and the Europeans were fused into a new identity, that of being categorized as white, the polar opposite of black” (page 29).

In the American caste system, you don’t have to outrun the bear of hierarchy. You just have to come equipped with the proper melanin content in your skin. This system was first codified into law in Virginia in 1662, with the statute that declared a child’s racial status was tied to “the condition of the mother,” not the father. This was, as Emmanuel Acho notes, “another way of saying that white men fornicating with or raping their slaves couldn’t produce freedom for their offspring” (page 147).

Writing a racial hierarchy into civil and criminal law is, by the way, one of the definitions of systemic racism. The Virginia statute was blatant in its White Supremacist intent. Current legislation to restrict voter access, for example, is not as blatant. It is, however, no less White Supremacist in its impact.

Why does human hierarchy work? What are the rewards of such a system? It is better to be “better than” rather than “worse than.” I may not have everything, but at least I have more than you. Absolute possession does not create nearly as much satisfaction as does a positive comparison. And nothing can make one more miserable than a negative comparison.

Who hasn’t had this experience? You purchase a new pair of shoes (insert whatever commodity you wish), and you’re perfectly happy with your purchase. Happy, that is, until you see that someone else has gotten a “better” pair. Suddenly, your quite satisfactory purchase becomes a terrible mistake, and you plunge into an abyss of buyer’s remorse.

I exaggerate only mildly. “Comparison,” the proverb says, “is the thief of joy.” Researchers suggest that we spend more than ten percent of our daily thoughts comparing our situations to those of others. Such comparisons tend to bias our thinking. We are sure we have less, get less, and are less than others. If we focus enough on such comparisons, we may find life less meaningful and less worth living.

Wilkerson discusses the sociological reality of “dominant group status threat” in this context. This is more than merely looking down on some other group as “inferior.” It is, rather, a sense that some other group is doing too well and may indeed climb above “our” group in the hierarchy. She suggests that this is precisely what lower-caste White Americans have been experiencing since the middle of the twentieth century.

It was W.E.B. DuBois who identified the reality of and coined the term “the white wage.” He observed that lower-caste White Americans had embraced the social compensation of at least being “better than” Black people. “They had accepted the rough uncertainties of laboring class life,” Wilkerson argues, “in exchange for the caste system’s guarantee that, no matter what befell them, they would never be on the very bottom” (page 181).

“Those in the dominant caste who found themselves lagging behind those seen as inherently inferior potentially faced an epic existential crisis,” Wilkerson continues. “To stand on the same rung as those perceived to be of a lower caste is seen as lowering one’s status. In the zero-sum stakes of a caste system upheld by perceived scarcity, if a lower-caste person goes up a rung, an upper-caste person comes down. The elevation of others amounts to a demotion of oneself,” she concludes, “thus equality feels like a demotion” (page 183).

This “epic existential crisis” helps us to understand so much about our current cultural conundrums. It’s obvious that Donald Trump and his ilk exploit this crisis for cynical and sinister ends. It’s clear that the rage expressed in events like the “Unite the Right” riot and the January 6 Insurrection have roots in this crisis. It’s obvious that the rejection of the Black Lives Matter movement by many White people is a response to this crisis.

If you take away my “better than,” there’s no telling how violent my response might be.

But here’s one of the problems, as Wilkerson puts it. “Thus, a caste system makes a captive of everyone within it. Just as the assumptions of inferiority weigh on those assigned to the bottom of the caste system,” she argues, “the assumptions of superiority can burden those at the top with unsustainable expectations of needing to be several rungs above, in charge at all times, at the center of things, to police those who might cut ahead of them, to resent the idea of undeserving lower castes jumping the line and getting in front of those born to lead” (page 183).

The solution is not a Better Caste System. The solution is to dismantle caste systems altogether. Enter a little child, who is the boss of no one.

References and Resources

Acho, Emmanuel. Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man. Flatiron Books. Kindle Edition.

Wilkerson, Isabel. Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Text Study for Mark 9:30-37 (Pt. 1); September 19, 2021

It gets harder from here. That’s one of the subtexts of the Markan account beginning with the healing in Mark 8:22-26. Healing a blind man now requires two steps instead of one. The Pharisees move from preaching to meddling, from questioning to arguing. The disciples see not one but two feeding miracles and still don’t get it. The local heat gets turned high enough that Jesus takes the disciples on a retreat to the villages of Caesarea Philippi.

Even when Peter gets the right answer on the theology quiz, it all goes off the tracks. One of Jesus’ close confidantes becomes the Adversary Incarnate, telling Jesus to shut up about all that suffering, rejection, execution, and resurrection business.

Peter doesn’t just encourage Jesus to ease up. The verb in Mark 8:32 (eptimao) is the same one used to describe how Jesus tells the demons (and in a minute, Peter) to shut their damned mouths. I didn’t curse in that previous sentence. Instead, I gave what I think is Jesus’ assessment of Peter’s scolding censure.

Photo by Brett Sayles on

“Get out of my face, you Enemy!” Jesus shouts as he includes the other disciples in the indictment. He broadens that indictment to include “this adulterous (as in unfaithful) and sinful generation” in Mark 8:38. We’ll come back to the importance of that “generation” language presently.

I have been studying the discipline of “performance criticism” lately, especially as it pertains to Paul’s Letter to Philemon. But that study takes one very quickly to the Gospel according to Mark as well. I am trying to experience the Markan composition much more as a “hearer” than as a “reader.” Simply adopting that stance puts me much closer to the original audiences for Mark’s composition than when I grapple with the written text.

It’s clear that it gets harder from here for the disciples. Jesus takes three of them up the Mount of Transfiguration for a glimpse of the glory to come. As they come down the mountain, Jesus commands them to narrate what they saw to no one under any circumstance until the time when the Son of Man would rise from the dead.

Ok, got it. Mum’s the word. Not until…what did he say? “Resurrection” was that thing, according to the prevailing Jewish expectation, that happened at the End of the Age. It certainly didn’t happen in the middle of the Current Age.

So, that must mean that the End was coming soon, right? But the rabbis – at least some of them – were pretty sure that Elijah the prophet would return to announce the Beginning of the End. If the End was near, where was Elijah? After all, that little cameo appearance up the hill wasn’t going to be enough to get the big show rolling.

Yes, Jesus tells them. Elijah does come first. In fact, he has come, even if you didn’t realize it. Have you forgotten our dear friend, John the Baptizer? If you want Elijah back in the flesh, don’t look any further than him. Of course, the Elijah act got him in deep manure with the current editions of Ahab and Jezebel, with his head as the dessert course at a birthday party! It gets a lot harder from here.

Not surprisingly, the three ask no more questions at the moment.

The other disciples had stayed behind and below. While they waited, things got a bit out of hand. A big crowd had gathered, probably because they were hoping for another healing miracle. We are there to wait and watch with them.

The Markan Composer notes that scribes were having a conversation with the disciples. The verb used in Mark 9:14 and elsewhere is suzehteo. It can certainly mean “to argue.” It also has the sense of “debate” or “discuss.” It’s likely that the interchange was lively, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it was hostile. As we go along, we can see that the debate must have been about the most theologically appropriate way to deal with the child possessed by a demon.

Jesus walks up. “What’s the deal?” he asks. The crowd is a bit freaked out by him. The verb the NRSV translates as “overcome with awe” often has a sense of fear or foreboding. Could it be that Jesus was radiated a bit of afterglow in the wake of the Transfiguration? When Moses came down the mountain, one account reports that his face was still glowing.

The connection between Moses and Jesus in the Markan account and especially in this section will be worth pursuing in more detail. But for now, let’s note that Jesus comes down the mountain to find what he describes as a “faithless generation.” Just as Moses came down the mountain only to find the Hebrews ready to worship other gods, so Jesus comes down the mountain to a scene of spiritual pandemonium.

The remaining disciples have apparently tried every trick in the book. It’s not like this is the first time they’ve dealt with demons on their own. Jesus has sent them out (back in Mark 6) with authority over unclean spirits. They do quite well in their teaching and exorcising.

But it gets harder from here. Jesus, flush with the fullness of Divine presence and power encountered on the mountain, violently expels the unclean spirit. The boy seems to die. Jesus takes him by the hand and raises him up. Yes, the root of “resurrection” is used in Mark 9:27. When the disciples wonder what they missed, Jesus notes that this genus of demons requires a special prayer to facilitate expulsion.

Jesus hits another public home run, but he can’t leave it there. As is his habit now, public success is followed by private instruction for the disciples. That private instruction always ends up in the same spot – on a Roman cross. The mountain was a delightful detour, not a destination. The healings and exorcisms are signposts not goalposts. The disciples are headed for suffering service, not superior status.

Yes, it gets harder from here. “People today often suppose that the early years of a person’s Christian pilgrimage are the difficult ones, and that as you go on in the Christian life it gets more straightforward,” N. T. Wright observes. “The opposite is frequently the case. Precisely when you learn to walk beside Jesus, you are given harder tasks, which will demand more courage, more spiritual energy. Did we suppose,” he wonders, “following Jesus was like a summer holiday?” (Kindle Location 2183).

Well, yes, since you asked, Professor Tom. That’s precisely what we often suppose. Shouldn’t my life get easier once I start following Jesus? Shouldn’t I have God’s blessings of wealth and status, position and power, certainty and security? In fact, that’s what several varieties of Prosperity Gospel preaching would have us believe. And that’s the wishful thinking of many (at least White, Western, affluent) Christians.

It should be clear from this section of Mark’s account that the Prosperity Gospel comes from some other source than Jesus’ own testimony. No less a light than C. S. Lewis put it in a meme-length quote. “If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable,” he told an interviewer in 1944, “I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”

The fuller quote is worth examining for a moment. “I didn’t go to religion to make me happy,” he says. “I always knew a bottle of port would do that. If you want a religion to make you really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity. I am certain there must be a patent American article on the market which will suit you far better, but I can’t give any advice on that.”

As some would note, these days the quote is most often used to criticize the wimpy and morally lax Christianity of someone else. I don’t want to assist in that effort. Instead, I will remain in the realm of personal reflection. Do I expect following Jesus to make me “happy” (whatever the hell that means)? Well, yes, I often do. And when it doesn’t deliver, I work up a self-righteous snit and consider asking for a refund.

It’s a good thing I get texts like these in the middle of the Markan account to get my feet back on the ground. It gets harder from here.

Now, I don’t need to go looking for trouble as a Christian. I don’t have to line up martyrdom moments in order to feel faithful. The truth is that if I’m just doing the basic Christian life, then trouble will inevitably find me, and us. It will certainly be the “good trouble” that John Lewis lifted up for our edification. But even “good trouble” is still trouble.

I’m not very good at “good trouble.” I am far too invested in being liked, admired, respected, and rewarded for my own spiritual good. So, I’m not exactly a poster child for this following Jesus business. Nor, I am sad to say, are most establishment Christian congregations. We are much more interested in comfort than crosses. Comfort keeps preachers employed. Crosses don’t.

Yes, it gets harder from here. Is that good news or not?

References and Resources

Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.