The meaning of greatness. 9:37-50
Our passage for study serves as the final two episodes of the major section 9:1-50, a section which explores the nature of the kingdom of God. The first of the two episodes, the healing of an epileptic boy, 9:37-45, consists of a healing which serves to expose the disciples' lack of faith. The final episode looks at the meaning of greatness in the kingdom, 9:46-50. This episode consists of two separate teaching units which expose the true nature of messiahship and thus, the true nature of discipleship. For Jesus, "the rejected stone came not to be served but to serve." This truth reminds us that discipleship entails humble service, not precedence.
v37. The mountain (as with the wilderness) is a place of revelation and communion with God. Yet, like Moses, Jesus must come down to an earthly reality of superficial faith and rejection.
v38-40. A crowd had just gathered around a desperate father who had looked to Jesus' disciples to drive an evil spirit out of his child, but they had failed. Jesus joins the crowd and the father again pleads for help. Luke makes no comment about the quality of the father's faith; he has asked for healing, both from the disciples and now Jesus, so he obviously believes that Jesus is able to help. Although the child's condition is described in terms of epilepsy, the base problem is demonic.
v41. Jesus now rebukes their lack of faith, but who does he actually rebuke? The crowd's response is superficial, they are only "amazed", yet, it is more than likely that Jesus has in mind his disciples. They obviously doubted that they had the power and authority to cast out demons when Jesus had explicitly given them this power and authority. The problem is serious, because in the end, faith is the means of entering the kingdom.
v42. Jesus "rebukes" the evil spirit, confronting it as a personal influence rather than an inanimate thing. In typical fashion the dark powers don't give up without a fight.
v43. The crowd's response is typical. Faith is the only valid response, and this crowd is without faith.
v44-45. Jesus now gives his second passion prediction, the first followed Peter's confession, 9:18-22. This time Jesus uses the phrase "betrayed into the hands of men", whereas before he used the terms "suffer", "rejected", and "killed". "Betrayed", or probably better, "handed over", is the inevitable consequence of the divine plan of salvation. Also, this time Jesus does not mention being raised from the dead on the third day. He does again use the enigmatic title "Son of Man" for the glorious, but suffering messiah. The disciples understandably cannot comprehend how the messiah could possibly be humiliated. For them, the messiah comes to reign; he is David's son. It's all a bit beyond them and they are just too embarrassed to ask that Jesus explain himself.
v46. The gospel writers always examine the nature of discipleship after each passion prediction, so Luke here records the disciples' discussion over "greatness".
v47-48. The Son of Man is the rejected and humiliated one and so Jesus takes an insignificant child and uses the child as an illustration of true greatness. The acceptance of a humiliated messiah has eternal ramifications. When a person associates with Christ in his humiliation, sets aside the pretensions of self, becomes in Christ the least, it is then they find true greatness. The person who welcomes this little one in Christ, welcomes Christ, and thus welcomes the one who sent him.
v49-50. For the disciples, the nature of discipleship is defined in official status. How dare someone, other than the officially appointed followers of Jesus, act for Jesus. Yet with Jesus, a disciples' greatness has nothing to do with their precedence. True greatness is found in the humiliated Christ. Instead of claiming precedence, the disciples would do well to consider their own standing. Their failure to cast out the demon from the epileptic boy can only show that they have yet to discover true greatness in the suffering Christ.
Found in Christ
A colleague of mine developed an inoperable cancer. Watching him slowly succumb to what is a terrible disease, watching the effects of radiation, was soul-destroying. There existed, in his parish, a healing ministry and its proponents announced that he was healed - they had prayed the prayer of faith, and that was that. Inevitably he died, and I found myself one of the many accused of little faith. Had we all held firm to our faith he would have lived.
I'm not very supportive of the healing ministry since I can't find scriptural support for the notion that God promises good health and healing - physical healing on demand is not part of the divine plan. Still, the members of that healing ministry had put their finger on a crucial ingredient in the Christian life, namely, faith. The divine will is progressed by faith in that will revealed. When the disciples were sent out on mission, Jesus gave them authority over the powers of darkness; they had the authority to cast out demons and yet they failed to do the very thing they had the power to do. Watching others do what they had the authority to do must have been very galling.
Luke's interest in this story is not so much to provide the methodology of a successful exorcism, but rather the methodology of successful discipleship. The disciples' failure to cast out the demon from the epileptic boy, their debate over status, and their action against the unofficial exorcist, exposes a failure of discipleship. In the divine perspective, as believers, we have no status in ourselves, our only status lies in our association with Christ - faith in Christ makes us great. From a worldly perspective, we are the least of humanity since we follow a crucified messiah, a man of sorrows, and yet through his cross-bearing we find glory and greatness with him.
The disciples' failure was a failure of identification, inevitably a failure of faith. Whether it be our eternal salvation, or whether it be the business end of some divine directive, it is only ours in and through Christ, through a reliance, a dependance, on him. A disciple, a believer, a little-one in Jesus, is the least of all humanity, foolish even, and yet, in the divine perspective, is the greatest. Be great in Jesus.
1. What was so dangerous in the disciples' "unbelief"?
2. Precedence is given weight in human society, but why has it no place in the Christian community?
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