Luke 9.44-48 — Who will be the greatest?

It turns out the exorcism of verse 37-43 had been a distraction. We’re left to guess that it was yet another temptation from Satan, of which there were many in Jesus’ life. If the Transfiguration was about his death, and he still has more to teach the disciples about his death, but then he comes down from the mountain and there’s the demon-possessed guy—you see what I mean? But Jesus dealt with it and met the needs there; it’s interesting to see that he refused to be really distracted and immediately got back to the point. “Listen carefully to what I am about to tell you: The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men.”

“But they did not understand what this meant. It was hidden from them, so that they did not grasp it, and they were afraid to ask him about it.” When Luke 9.44-45 is compared with the parallels in Matthew (18.1-9) and Mark (9.33-37), it can be seen that the emphasis has shifted from the passion announcement to the statement of the disciples’ failure to understand the saying. The disciples were supposed to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God (Lk. 8.10), and the three leading apostles were told by the heavenly voice to “hear him” (Lk. 9.35).

But on this crucial point they do not hear with understanding. They are failing to learn what they need to know. They are ignorant of the meaning of the Scriptures and of the plan of God. Ironically, it is those who do not understand Jesus’ degrading role of the servant, most strikingly revealed in his suffering, who would engage in disputes about greatness.

But why was it hidden from them? What harm would come if they knew? First, they might try to stop the crucifixion. Who knows. Secondly, they might have preached about it or shared it, and what a mess THAT would have caused before it happened. Their understanding was so limited at this point.
And then, oddly enough, “An argument started among the disciples as to which of them would be the greatest.” Maybe they were just being children, and we are seeing the foibles of human nature and petty jealousies. We do know that jealousy had been growing in their hearts, and it’s such a normal, human response. The wonderful words Jesus had spoken to Peter on Mt. Hermon (Mt. 16.17-19) had evidently made Peter feel a fresh sense of leadership on the basis of which he had dared even to rebuke Jesus for speaking of his death (16.22). And then Peter was one of the three (with James and John) taken up on the Mount of Transfiguration. Peter on that occasion had spoken up promptly. And just now the tax-collectors had singled out Peter as the one who seemed to represent the group. Mark 9.33 represents Jesus as asking them about their dispute; Jesus had noticed their wrangling. It will break out again and again (Mt. 20.20-28; Lk. 22.24). Plainly the primacy of Peter was not yet admitted by the others. But it is a sad discovery to find the disciples chiefly concerned about their own places (offices) in the political kingdom which they were expecting.
But I’m not even convinced that it’s all about jealousy, although that makes a nice foil to Jesus in his humility. Jesus is talking to them about death, and it’s altogether possible that he wants to impress on them that they, too, have to be willing to die to themselves for the sake of being his servants. With Jesus, it’s always about more than what it looks like. His words and meanings are always deep and wide. Jesus wants them to embrace a vision that isn’t guided by self but instead is a manifestation of the Kingdom of God. It’s not a worldly contest, but a spiritual reality.
“Jesus knew their thoughts.” This is about the 3rd time in Luke we’ve read this phrase. But he is so gentle with them. He doesn’t rebuke them, but instead kindly instructs them. Given that in Luke 18.15 the disciples rebuff the children who come to Jesus for blessing, this object lesson takes on an additional element of admonition to the 12. Just as the disciples considered Jesus too important to receive children, so they thought the same for themselves. To give attention to children would detract from their exalted status. Although childhood represents humility in the sense of servanthood and willingness to do the will of another, this saying has to do with the worth of the child, to the extent that receiving the child is tantamount to receiving Jesus himself.
“Then he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest.’ ” If Jesus is the child/servant (from his Father) who humbly accepts his Father’s commission and subsequent death, then the disciples must assume the same role in relation to Jesus. The concept here is that they are his representatives, and representatives of the new Kingdom. If anything will turn their self-absorption into genuine discipleship, it is following Jesus’ example (Phil. 2.5-11). We can’t fall into the mindset where someone needs to be “good enough” to warrant the privileged experience, or that you have to be someone special. If they are envious of each other, and battling with some brotherly rivalry, Jesus is letting them know even a child is good enough and will be welcomed, and that the last, the lost, and the least will be good enough for the kingdom of heaven. Cast aside the will to power. Not only be humble enough within yourself, but humble enough to tear down social and political constraints and societal expectations. If you cannot love your brother who you can see, you cannot love God whom you cannot see. (1 Jn. 4.19-20)

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