“How many times do I have to tell you?”
It’s a familiar cry of exasperation from parents to their children. No matter how many times you have asked them to do something – or, more likely, not to do something – it just doesn’t sink in.
It isn’t limited to things not sinking in with children. We might lose our rag and say the same to another adult: “How many times do I have to tell you?” Did the other person not hear? Or did they not listen? Do they not care? Are they dense?
“How many times do I have to tell you?”
Jesus could have said that to his disciples. The fact that he got frustrated and said things like, “Do you still not understand?” gives me hope when I, his very imperfect follower, feel I need to repeat a theme in a sermon.
This passage falls into the “How many times do I have to tell you?” category. It is the second of three ‘passion predictions’ in Mark’s Gospel – passages where Jesus prophesies his forthcoming betrayal, suffering, death and resurrection. Last week’s Lectionary gave us the first prediction.
That first passion prediction last week was followed by the first misunderstanding of the disciples – when Peter told Jesus the Messiah shouldn’t suffer and Jesus retorted, “Get behind me, Satan.” So too this second prediction is followed by a second misunderstanding. So you see there is a similar pattern to this week’s reading, compared with last Sunday’s.
But of course the content isn’t entirely parallel. I thought we’d look at this week’s prediction and this week’s misunderstanding in a way that compares and contrasts with the first prediction and the first misunderstanding from last week. By saying ‘compare and contrast’ I do not mean this to be like an exam essay question! In fact, rather than this being a dry exercise in theoretical Bible study, I believe it will speak to us about discipleship. After all, that’s what Mark does throughout his Gospel.
Firstly, at greater length, the Prediction.
(i) The location and the journey are important factors in this prediction of Jesus’ passion:
They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it (verse 30).
It’s the last reference to Galilee, the former centre of Jesus’ operations, until the Resurrection. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem now. His focus is resolutely on the Father’s will in facing the Cross. The suffering he is about to prophesy again is no accident or coincidence. He is committed to the Father’s will, whatever the cost.
Yes, a terrible struggle over this awaits him in Gethsemane, but the discipleship Jesus models for us is one far removed from that which we often see in churches today. To listen to some churchgoers you might think religion was only about what was in it for them – the blessings and the benefits. It’s like consumerism: what’s in it for me? But Jesus’ attitude is, what’s in it for the Father? He will do the right thing, whether it benefits him or not. He is determined to go the right way, whether that means popularity or pain. Not for him the courting of votes; rather, a fixation on the will of God, whatever it costs.
This is underlined by the fact that the journey is secret: ‘He did not want anyone to know it’ (verse 30b). Why? Secrets usually require good reasons. This last week we booked a secret journey for the children. They won’t know about it until we get underway. If they discover what it is, they’ll go hyper. So we have to keep it a secret.
And I’m not going to tell you either what it is!
But Jesus keeps his journey and his movements secret for a good reason:
for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, ‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.’ (Verse 31)
Here’s one time he doesn’t want to do crowds. He is here to spend private time with his disciples, focussing their minds on this central truth of his life and ministry, the one thing they must grasp, which they misunderstood earlier and will do so again now: “How many times must I tell you?”
And here he ups the ante in this second passion prediction. Like the first time, he tells them that he must suffer, be killed and be raised from the dead. However, he changes one important detail. In chapter 8, he concentrates on the murderous role of the Jewish leadership. He shocks the disciples not only with the news of a suffering Messiah, but with the prediction that the religious leaders themselves will be responsible for his death. He leaves a warning for later generations that those of us who count ourselves faithful may well end up as the enemies of God.
But there is a twist in this second prediction. No longer is the blame placed merely on the Jewish authorities, it is placed on the whole human race:
‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.’ (Verse 31b)
You can’t pin later Christian anti-Semitism on Jesus. Everyone – ‘human hands’ – is responsible for his execution. Whatever the savage truth of religious guilt is, the bottom line Jesus gives us is that his death is due to the sins of the whole world.
But more than that, he is ‘betrayed into human hands’. We probably associate that word ‘betrayed’ with Judas Iscariot, but it means ‘handed over’. In a sense, that is what Judas did. But you could also say that God handed Jesus over. Biblical writers sometimes used a form of Greek grammar to allude to God doing something without actually naming him. If so, then although human beings are not absolved from their responsibility for executing Jesus, it stresses the idea that Jesus died not only because of the sins of the world, he died for the sins of the world. It is in God’s plan. It is the fulfilment of Isaiah 53, the prophecy of the Suffering Servant.
And that’s remarkable when you factor in who Mark’s first readers probably were. The likeliest theory is that they were Roman Christians facing persecution under the Emperor Nero. Mark is telling them that their Jesus was not only crucified by sinful human beings – that would make sense to them, given the suffering they were undergoing – but also for those same sinners. Not only does the Gospel bring the good news of sins forgiven for us, it brings the challenge that if Jesus forgives us, he offers the same to our enemies, and that must change the way we regard those who cause trouble for us.
Jesus, then, in this prophecy of his Passion, is showing how committed he is to the painful but necessary plan of the Father that will lead him to the Cross. He is doing so, because that path will take him not only into the firing line of all sinners where he will die as a consequence of their sins, he will also die for their (and our) sins. It is the message at the heart of the Good News. It took some establishing with his disciples. It still does with us, at times. But once we know this is true, then it can come out of its secret lair and be unleashed on the world with a message of forgiveness and forgiving for all.
Secondly, more briefly, the Misunderstanding. And again, we’re back to “How many times must I tell you?” Wouldn’t you think that just after Jesus has been talking about humiliation and suffering the last thing his disciples should be talking about is, ‘Who is the greatest?’? And this will be something the disciples again find incredibly hard to accept. For when it comes to the third passion prediction (10:35-45), the context is James and John eyeing up the best seats at the top table in the kingdom of God! Maybe the call to humility is something we find hard to grasp, too. We might prefer our place in the limelight.
What we can’t doubt is that Mark portrays this as highly important teaching by Jesus. It takes place in ‘the house’ (Peter’s house, possibly) in Capernaum. When Jesus teaches the insiders from among his following in a private location in Mark’s Gospel, it’s usually something significant. The call to humility certainly isn’t a passing minor aspect of Jesus’ doctrines. It’s a central one in response to the way of the Cross.
So no wonder Jesus shames the disciples into a silence of guilt and shame when he asks them what they were talking about on the road, and they keep quiet (verses 33-34). They are in the same boat as the Pharisees when faced with the truth of God. Hard hearts, and the silent shame of guilt.
Yet in terms of their culture, the disciples’ attitude is hardly surprising:
Rabbinic writings frequently comment on the seating order in Paradise, for example, and argue that the just would sit nearer to the throne of God than even the angels. Earthly orders of seating at worship and meals, or authority within the community, or dealings with inferiors or superiors were seen as preparation for the eternal order to come.
It’s not so very far from our obsessions with class and status, is it? But Jesus says, “How many times must I tell you?”
So that’s what he does. He tells them again – and not for the last time. Put yourselves last, not first, he says (verse 35). Be the servant of all, he continues (verse 35). And as someone once said, it’s all right being a servant until you are treated like one. With sentiments some of us might guiltily recognise, the Greek philosopher Plato said,
“How can a man be happy when he has to serve someone?”
A relative of mine told his children, “Work hard so that you are the one giving the orders, not taking the orders.” In a sense, I know what he meant, because he wanted his children to fulfil their potential and do well in their careers. He didn’t want them to end up failing to meet their potential as a result of laziness. But – Jesus says, put yourself last in the queue (which isn’t a British ‘After you – no, after you, I insist’) and be a servant.
To drive home his point, he enacts his message, drawing a small child to himself (verse 36). He doesn’t call his disciples here to behave in childlike ways, he calls them to welcome one like a child.
The point is that children held a very low status in first century Palestinian society:
We are mistaken if we imagine that Greek and Jewish society extolled the virtues of childhood as do modern societies in general. Societies with high infant mortality rates and great demand for human labour cannot afford to be sentimental about infants and youth. In Judaism, children and women were largely auxiliary members of society whose connection to the social mainstream depended on men (either as fathers or husbands). Children, in particular, were thought of as “not having arrived.” They were good illustrations of “the very last” (v. 35).
So the call is not to be like the child but like Jesus. Be like Jesus, who embraces the last and the least of society. If we walk the way to the Cross with Jesus who dies due to the sin of the world and for the sin of the world, if we have received his forgiveness and are forgiving others, then we shall also reject worldly obsessions with status and position. Our priority will be to put ourselves with those who matter least in our society. It’s neither attractive nor glamorous to our normal instincts and preferences. But it’s where the Jesus of the Cross calls us.
The question is, how many times will he have to tell us?
 The ‘divine passive’ voice.
 Op. cit., p287.
 Op. cit., p287f.