Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.
I want to talk about silence. We’re often uncomfortable with it. We don’t have much of it in our services, do we? We fill the time with stuff, with sound.
I wonder if we’re afraid of it. Afraid of the thoughts that may try to fill the gap.
Here the disciples chose it. Better to be quiet, to be silent, than answer the question. Better to be silent than admit out loud what they had been arguing about. Particularly when Jesus already knew the answer!
Jesus had told them for the second time now that he would die and be resurrected. But they didn’t understand and were afraid to ask. Perhaps they remembered the first time that he told them – when Peter got into deep trouble for querying whether Jesus had got his facts right. Afterall, everyone knows that Messiahs don’t die… But Peter had been well and truly put in his place: Get thee behind me.
This time it was better to change the subject. To let Jesus walk on ahead a little, out of earshot they thought, and instead argue amongst themselves about something which might seem quite petty – who was the greatest – rather than deal with what Jesus had just told them.
Because if Jesus was the Messiah, then why had he not read the script properly? Afterall, Messiahs don’t die. And if Jesus was to die, then what about each of them? Would they be killed too? Jesus might get resurrected, whatever that meant, but would they? Had they given up everything only to back the wrong horse?
I’ve got the biggest boat
I wonder how they decided. I’m the greatest because I was called first. No, Jesus spends more time praying with me. I have political connections – it has to be me. No, it’s me, I’m the eldest. I’ve got the biggest fishing boat. I’m the wealthiest. I have the best haircut…
The discussion on greatness itself actually wasn’t so odd. The community at Qumran, which produced the Dead Sea scrolls, would annually rate themselves on levels of worthiness. So, our verses today are looking to differentiate Jesus from that particular group. But the disciples knew that they were out of order. They’ve been caught out and they’re ashamed. Better to be silent.
A small child
So, Jesus gets the 12 together in ‘the’ house. There’s a case to be made in Mark that Jesus lived in Capernaum. So, maybe they’re at home with Jesus. He tells them again about being servants and that the first must be last. And then, he makes it really simple for them – and for us too. As a visual aid he takes a handily placed small child and says: “Whoever welcomes one such child welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Now children were often just seen as incomplete adults-to-be. Their value only came when they reached adulthood and could contribute their labour in some way. So, there was nothing to be gained in associating with children if you wanted to get ahead, to be great.
And yet Jesus says welcome the child. And if you do that then you also welcome not just me but the one who sent me. Perhaps Mark was picking up on the Greek and Roman view of children in their not-quite-fully-humanness as somehow being on the threshold of another world, as able to mediate truths with the gods.
Or maybe it was just one of the local kids, with a runny nose and who smelt ever such a little since they hadn’t had a wash since last Passover. Jesus says, if you want a mark of greatness then look around for the least – and the smelliest – and welcome them.
Which are you?
And if you’re the kind of person who imagines themselves in the text then I wonder which character you are. Are you Jesus? Or one of the disciples? Or maybe the small child taken into the arms of Jesus? Maybe you feel you have nothing much to offer – then be taken into the arms of Jesus.
Back to the disciples, they still didn’t get it. In the next chapter we see them preventing adults from bringing children for a blessing from Jesus – earning themselves a telling-off in the process.
It’s not much to ask, is it? Yet how often do we struggle with this one in our society, and God help us, in our churches, even today – with our own varying criteria of greatness.
Jesus makes it even easier in the verses which follow ours: “For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.” (9:41) Couldn’t be easier, could it? Small acts of kindness, changing ourselves and changing the world.
What is truth?
If you don’t know what to say, then best to keep silent. But it made me think of another silence. That of Jesus before Pilate and the Council. Later in Mark we have: “Then the chief priests accused him of many things. Pilate asked him again, ‘Have you no answer? See how many charges they bring against you.’ But Jesus made no further reply, so that Pilate was amazed.” (15:3-5)
And in John’s Gospel, Pilate also asks Jesus: “What is truth?” (18:38) That too receives no answer. Though unlike the disciples, Jesus isn’t silenced by his shame.
The silence of Jesus forces the question back on Pilate. What was probably meant as a throw-away line, after a long day of juggling all the demands of being Governor, is now left hanging. The silence of Jesus obliges Pilate to come up with his own response – before Jesus gives his non-verbal reply, first on the cross and then 3 days later when he bursts open the tomb.
And maybe Pilate was genuinely interested in the answer. What made Jesus so different as to provoke this reaction from the Chief Priests? What is the truth of which Jesus speaks?
Throwaway or serious?
Perhaps we each come a little like Pilate this morning. Asking questions, which might be throw-away or might be serious. Or perhaps like the disciples, we’ve been told about the death and resurrection of Jesus – but the penny hasn’t quite dropped.
And we’ve been told how easy it is. That we just need to welcome a child to also welcome God or to offer a glass of water. And we’ve not quite grasped that either.
Be still and know
In the church where I grew up the wall behind the pulpit had some words picked out in gold on a blue background. Those words were from Psalm 46:10 ‘Be still and know that I am God’. Be still – be silent – and know that even in the silence I can be known. For silence doesn’t mean absence. It doesn’t mean God’s not there.
God promised Abraham and Sarah a nation and a child. They gave up everything and left home. Years later when their hopes and their bodies had given up, and God had gone silent on the subject and seemingly forgotten his half of the bargain, God turns up again: ‘Remember what I promised? Well, better start painting the nursery!’ 100-year old Abraham and 90-year old Sarah think it’s so funny that they roll around the floor laughing. And, after he carefully helps them up again, God joins in. Tell you what, he says, call him ‘Isaac’, meaning ‘laughter’.
Jesus was silent before Pilate, then came his death and then his resurrection. Out of his silence comes first sad news before it becomes joyous news, good news, great news. Before it becomes Gospel.
Not really listening
If you are in a time of silence right now then maybe, like the disciples, it is self-imposed. Perhaps it’s a choice you’ve made and shortly Jesus will bring you and others around you together and show just how easy it is to welcome God. As easy as welcoming a child. As easy as offering someone a glass of water.
Or maybe, like Pilate, you’ve asked a question and you wait for an answer. Like Abraham and Sarah waited. And in that gap our life can play out like the TV with the volume turned down. We see and feel what’s going on but without the words to tell us what’s happening. You might be here in church this morning, not really listening to me, but thinking about your health or someone else’s, concerned about a relationship, worrying about money or your children – or wondering if you’re being called into something new and challenging.
Pregnant with meaning
Sometimes an empty church can better convey the mystery of that in which we live and move and have our being than can all the architecture around it. A church building is a shell of stone and steel and wood wrapped around emptiness. And we similarly put frames of words and sounds around silence. It’s Jesus’ silence that first conveys his meaning – and out of which finally comes the Good News.
Silence. Jesus stands silent, waiting for us to come up with our own response before he gives his own awesome, wonderful, heaven-and-earth-shattering reply. So, don’t be afraid of silences. As with Abraham and Sarah, they can be pregnant with meaning. Instead, be still, and in the silence ‘know that I am God’. Amen
- For more on children in the 1st century – https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/50604571.pdf
- Buechner, F. (1977). Telling the Truth. New York: Harper Collins.
- Hurtado, L.W. (2001). New International Biblical Commentary – Mark. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers
- At the Zoom service we also had this wonderful rendition of ‘Now thank we all our God’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ecqss2ZvN2c