Understanding Jesus, Understanding Ourselves
And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.”
(Mark 9:33-35 ESV)
I regularly substitute teach in our local school. I also drive a school bus and coach track. These experiences have taught me to be suspicious when teenagers abruptly halt their conversation when I approach. I can ask, “What are you guys talking about?” but I should not expect an honest answer. Whatever it was they were discussing was not something they wanted to share with an adult, especially an adult they know to be a pastor. Jesus is different. He asks the question, “What were you discussing?” but with no intention of receiving an answer. Jesus already knows the answer. He asks the question not to gain information, but to draw attention to the pettiness of their argument.
Their silence in the face of Jesus’s question is born of embarrassment. His query has illuminated a stark contrast between their thought process and Christ’s thinking. Before they reach Capernaum, as they are passing through Galilee, Jesus tells them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise” (Mark 9:31). Jesus has his face set toward Jerusalem, his eyes are fixed on the sacrificial death that awaits him, and his followers are bickering about status. They are rightly embarrassed when they contemplate the difference between what Jesus has said about himself compared to their own aspirations. Their struggle is not simply intellectual—failing to properly conceptualize the nature of Christ—but existential as well.
The first failure of the disciples is an intellectual one. There is no question that the center of our faith is a proper understanding of the person and work of Jesus Christ. After Jesus discloses to them his impending death we read, “But they did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him” (Mark 9:32). They did not understand that suffering was the vocation of the Son of Man whom they followed. Until we understand who Jesus is, we cannot properly understand who we are. If our Christology is wrong, our anthropology will undoubtedly be flawed as well. This is why the disciples’ problem extends beyond the intellectual to the existential.
The second failure of the disciples, which is existential in nature, centers on the question of who is the greatest. The question is not unique to the disciples, their time, or their place. It lies at the heart of most, if not all, of our current struggles. We fight for majorities in Congress and on courts. We haggle over trade deals because one nation’s surplus is another nation’s deficit. We try to replicate the airbrushed, synthetic beauty we see in magazines to attract others. Why do we do this? Because we have agreed with the world’s anthropology. We have bought into the idea that the position we hold, the things we possess, the relationships we are in define us as human beings. Our personhood is tied to power, property, and social status, and because we are playing a zero-sum game, anyone else’s claim to greatness is a threat to our own. All the while as we argue in the halls of government, as we navigate markets and exchanges to accumulate more stuff, as we “swipe right” in search of a significant other, Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem.
The humility of Jesus serves as a corrective to our own self-centeredness. Jesus’s example should remove us from the center of our universe. Paul pointed to Christ and the cross as the model of humility. In essence, he invites us to fall into line behind Jesus as he journeys toward Jerusalem:
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Phil. 2:3-8)
If Jesus is truly our model, we should never find ourselves climbing over others reaching for success. Rather, we should find ourselves stopping to help others up, or taking a towel and kneeling to wash others’ feet. Jesus replaces the race to the top with the challenge of service and self-sacrifice.
What if Jesus were to ask us, “What were you discussing?” Knowing that Jesus has heard our conversations, has seen our social media posts, and has observed our behavior, my guess is we would be as silent as the disciples were when confronted with the same question.
On Sundays we gather around a table to celebrate a crucified Lord, and yet far too often on Monday through Saturday we ignore him as he walks the road to Jerusalem … to Golgotha. Fred Craddock once said that the greatest distance is from the head to the heart. That begs the question, do we properly understand the person of Jesus, so that it shapes our self-understanding? Is Jesus someone you know in your head? If so, is he also someone you follow with your heart?