Mark “Apostolic Ineptitude, Revisited” 9:30-37
Maybe you thought last week I was exaggerating the ineptitude of the apostles, just a little bit, for comic effect. I admit I do enjoy the comic effect from focusing on stuff like that, but this week’s Gospel should convince you that there was no exaggeration on my part. The apostolic lack of “ept” is quite real. If anything, I underplayed it, just a tad. I mean, casting out demons is tough, we all realize, even if you’ve been given the authority by Jesus to do it, with just a word and a wrist flick [or no wrist, as the case maybe. Whatever works]. It is no tremendous shock if even an apostle would fail at that task.
But look at this sentence: “The Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of men, and they will kill Him. And after He is killed, He will rise the third day.” As Luther would say: “what does this mean?” That’s not a hard question, or a difficult sentence to parse, now, is it? Really? I think, to quote Luther, a seven year old child could understand easily the content of this one! We’ll take it step by step. “The Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of men…”. Well, Jesus refers to Himself, third person style, a lot in the Gospels as the Son of Man. So, the subject of the sentence, the Son of Man, is Jesus. If you’d been to Sunday School (or uh, Saturday school as the case may be for them) you would also recognize that Son of Man was a title used often by the latter prophets to refer to the Christ, the Messiah promised in the Hebrew Scriptures. So this sentence would mean that Jesus, the Son of Man, the Christ (even Peter has grasped, in the previous chapter, that Jesus is the Christ, and said so) will be betrayed (now, I don’t mean to be condescending—that means talking down to you—but “betrayed” means sold out to your enemies) into the hands of men, which means under the control of the human leaders of Israel. So far, so good, right?
And after Jesus is betrayed into the hands of men, they will kill Him. Again, nothing to tough to grasp here! Sad and shocking, I grant you, but not a difficult concept to understand. Jesus will die, which means, respiration, vital signs, brain activity, life, will stop for Jesus. He’ll be a corpse because the men into whose hands He will be betrayed, His enemies, will kill Him. Again, what part of “kill” is tough to understand? And finally, after He is killed, He will rise the third day. The Greek word αναστασις is, if anything, even more clearly referring to resurrection from the dead than the English word “rise” which could just be upward movement, but the Greek here is clearly restoration of life after death.
So Jesus, as always, simply means what He says and none of the words in these sentences are big or difficult. Jesus is being sold out to people who will kill Him, but after He’s killed, He will rise to life on the third day. As noted before, a seven year old child would grasp this, easily.
But the apostles? The apostles did not understand this saying and were afraid to ask Him. You’ve got to be kidding me, right? How much ept do you have to not have to not get this simple sentence?! Now, don’t get me wrong: the apostles would become a “glorious band, the chosen few, on whom the Spirit came, 12 valiant saints their hope they knew and mocked the cross and flame. They would be heroes and for more than one day.
But they are not there yet, in our Gospel today. And that’s important for us to see. They are just like us here in the Gospel today, only more so. More obtuse. Slower to comprehend. And there’s an irony here that I love: what blinds them to Christ’s glory is the concern for their own greatness. The more they looked for their own greatness, the more it eluded them. When they gave up on being great themselves though, when they owned their lack of “ept” fully, humbly, and focused only on the greatness and glory of their Crucified King—that’s when it happened. That’s when the change came. That’s when, without flinching “they met the tyrant’s brandished steel, the lion’s gory mane/ they bowed their necks their death to feel… who follows in their train?”
The apostles have their defenders though; several of whom attend Tuesday morning bible study, bless their hearts. We have been taught, most of us, to think that Christ’s apostles must be treated always kind of religious super-heroes; that discussion of their faults and failures is unseemly, if not un-Christian. One of our bible class members, foreseeing a heroism born of faith they would attain but not yet said (and it is to her credit): “Well, they couldn’t understand this simple sentence, Pastor, not because they were dumb, or anything, but because they believed that Jesus is God, and believing that could not imagine what it meant that God would die. That’s commendable, to not understand it like that, isn’t it?” And yes, it would be highly commendable and most understandable, if only that were the case!
Sadly, it does not seem to be the case now. Remember Jesus’ comment last week, observing the apostolic failure with the demon: “Oh, faithless generation, how long must I put up with you?”! [Graceless* too, as a result, as The National would say]. That’s the source of apostolic ineptitude: no faith! That’s why they don’t get Jesus’ sayings, can’t reflect His glory. Jesus asks often: “how is it that you have no faith?!!”(!) He tells us if we had the tiniest particle of faith, we could uproot trees, mountains even, and have them thrown into the sea…(!!!) Throughout the Gospels, this apostolic lack of faith is displayed; even in the End, when on the third day they expect no Resurrection, but hide from Jesus. If only they had failed to get His Word because they believed a God like Jesus cannot die! They would get there, make no mistake, but they weren’t there quite yet, today…
When the professor in philosophy class asks you a hard question about Kant’s “categorical imperative” (you haven’t done the reading) what do you do? If you’re like me, like Eco’s Cassabon in Foucault’s Pendulum, you stare at the ceiling, sigh [in a world-weary kind of way] like the question is so far beneath you: “Do you really think Kant meant all that stuff? I mean, he must have; the man had a mind after all…”
Just so, the apostles skip right over this, and go: “so, how ‘bout those Red Sox! Wow! Which one of us will be RBI leader on God’s All-Star team?” Jesus catches them out on this too, like He knows always what they’re thinking, even and especially when it’s embarrassing.(!)
So, what’s the point? We are not ept, any of us, present company included. Our minds are often closed to get the simplest parts of Jesus’ Story. And yet, and yet… He gets us!! He dies for lost, straying, inept sheep**; and by His dying He destroys our sin, stupidity, and our death, too! Being a Christian doesn’t mean having the right answers to religious questions that we share gleefully with others to show our superiority (fun though that might be). No! Being a Christian means getting the joke that: when we were stupid sinners, God’s Son died to save us! And He wants us to have great joy over it all, with Him, over drinks (and Supper) in Heaven, forever.
The point is we are not good, or holy—not even the 12(!!!). But this Heavenly Feast Jesus throws is Good, Holy-Making; and, at His Table, by grace alone, through faith alone, His Peace, surpassing understanding, guards our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.