Humility: the Secret of Greatness
Mark 9:33-37 is one of the key passages that deals with the subject matter of humility. This passage can be mainly divided into three parts: first, worldly standard of greatness (vv. 33-34); second, Kingdom standard of greatness as a new alternative (v. 35); and third, illustrating the Kingdom standard of greatness (vv. 36-37). We shall ponder deep into these three sections in the passage for more clarity.
First, let us discuss the worldly standards of greatness (vv. 33-34). Jesus alongside his disciples came to the city of Capernaum as stated by the narrator “when he [Jesus] was in the house” (v. 33a). Jesus had good connections with Capernaum and he often stayed there with his disciples (1:21; 2:1; 9:33). Some readers take Mark 2:1 as evidence that Jesus may have owned a home in the town. In that sense, ‘house’ can either mean his own house or someone else’s house.
In Luke 9:58, Jesus says: “Foxes have dens and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” If we consider Jesus’ statement to be literally true, then there is no possibility that Jesus owned a house; rather he would have stayed in someone else's house in Capernaum. In the city, a house turned into a church is believed to have been the house of Peter. After healing Peter’s mother-in-law, Jesus had access to his house (1:29-31). This is the possibility with regard to the ‘house’ mentioned here.
On the way to the house, Jesus was observing the speech patterns, interactions, and behaviors of his disciples from a rear angle. At home, he asks them: “What were you arguing about on the road?” It was a miserable situation when they attempted their level best to establish their status in relation to Jesus. They were attempting this each moment including the times when they were in public places. In that process, they even forgot the presence of Jesus with them. The disciples developed their own thought-patterns based on the worldly standards.
They understood “greatness” merely in terms of the worldly standards and strived their best to achieve that. In that process, they even developed their own self-claims: “I am Peter and upon me the church shall be built” (Peter, Matthew 16:18); “I am the Beloved Disciple” (John; John 13:23; 20:1-10; chap. 21); “I am the keeper of the money bag” (Judas Iscariot; John 12:6; 13:29); “I am the [spiritual] Twin of Jesus” (Thomas; John 11:16; 20:24; 21:2); “I am son of Thunder” (James; Mark 3:17); “I brought Peter to Jesus” (Andrew; John 1:42a); “I testified to Nathanael about Jesus” (Philip; John 1:45); and the like. They argued about their role and status both in the presence and absence of Jesus.
The disciples were proud of their responsibilities, portfolios, finance management roles, connection to Jesus, influence among people, and the like. In an honor and shame context, the disciples understood things (even the spiritual aspects) only in relation to the social norms rather than in terms of the Kingdom principle. Their quietness before the question of Jesus figuratively proves that they were in a misunderstanding position and even worldly in their thinking pattern.
Second, the Kingdom standard of greatness is introduced by Jesus as a new alternative (v. 35). The sitting down of Jesus, may be on the floor, is symbolically demonstrating his attachment to the world below. It reveals that Jesus is very much aware of the ground realities of the world.
In another sense, this was the posture he was adopting when he was engaged in teaching the crowd. Here, Jesus utters a conditional statement: “If anyone wants to be first . . .” (v. 35). It means that rather than imposing things upon the disciples, they were given considerable freedom to make decisions of their own.
Humility is a virtue that can be developed on the basis of one’s own decision and determination rather than someone else’s imposition upon them.
A person who is very last shall be considered first. According to the Jewish understanding, front seats were mostly considered honorable (Matthew 23:5-7). The Pharisees and the Scribes attempted to be seated at front seats and places of honor.
Moreover, a person who is a servant of all shall be recognized as first. According to the Jewish and the Greco-Roman standards, servanthood was not considered as a noble occupation.
But, according to the Kingdom principle, those who stand last and function as servants are considered honorable. That is totally opposite to the worldly standard of being first and authoritative.
Jesus here exhorts His disciples to embrace the heavenly over and against the earthly norms and principles.
Third, Jesus demonstrates the heavenly greatness through the means of an earthly metaphor (vv. 36-37). He took a “little child and had him stand among them” (v. 36a).
According to worldly standards, a child can nowhere be associated with greatness. A child was considered as a symbol of “inexperience,” “novice,” and “utter dependency.”
In an adult-centered society, children were not at all considered worthy. In v. 35, it is stated that Jesus was “sitting down”; but here Jesus allows a child to “stand among them.”
Here, Jesus symbolically demonstrates that adulthood should be risked for the sake of childhood. Jesus' lifting the child in His arms can symbolically mean that He was embracing childhood as something honourable to be cherished.
Jesus states that “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). Here, Jesus foregrounds children as symbols of humbleness (Matthew 18:4).
While the world insists to develop people from their childhood to adulthood, Jesus insists to develop them from their adulthood to childhood.
In Mark 10:13-16, Jesus allows the children to come to him and commands the adult disciples to be silent. In this way, the children now occupy the space that the adult disciples occupied earlier.
Jesus’ statement in v. 37 can be considered as the punch-line statement of the current incident. As per the heavenly principle, one can achieve honor through the means of accepting the neglected, outcastes, children, strangers, and those who are little and feeble in the name of Jesus.
Welcoming Jesus the servant of God means welcoming the Heavenly Father who sent Him. According to the heavenly standards, honor is not simply welcoming the socially-ranked, financially sound, racially higher, and educationally greater. But rather embracing the neglected ones in the name of Jesus. That is possible only when we accommodate ourselves to the level of the humble ones.
We should consider humbleness as a virtue to live out a worthy life as children of God and representatives of the Kingdom of God. Thus, we can achieve greatness through heavenly means and standards.
Rev Dr Johnson Thomaskutty serves as the Associate Professor of New Testament at Union Biblical Seminary, Pune, India.
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For Other Articles by Rev Dr Johnson Thomaskutty
“Newness” in John’s Gospel and the Year 2021