And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. (Mark 9.33-34)
We are firmly in the second section of Mark’s gospel which goes from the second part of Mark 8 through Mark 10. In this section, two main things are happening, first, Jesus and the disciples are heading up to Jerusalem to face what Jesus knows is coming. The second thing we see again and again in this second section of Mark is the disciples’ inability to comprehend what Jesus message is, and what it means for them.
At the beginning of this very chapter, Peter, James, and John see Christ transfigured before their very eyes in such a way that he reflects the glory of God the Father, surely they should understand Jesus’ ministry and message now, right? Not so much. When Jesus explains that he will go to Jerusalem and be killed and rise again, the meaning of his words completely escapes them.
Now we discover that they are arguing about which one of them will be the greatest! It’s kind of a funny scene on one level. Jesus asks them what they have been talking about and they all stand around in awkward silence. Who wants to admit that they’ve been in a deep discussion about which one exactly will be the greatest disciple? To the reader this event takes on even greater meaning because we know that Mark 10.45 is just around the corner. This is the key verse in the whole gospel and explains what Mark really wants us to understand about Jesus and his purpose.
“For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
It’s pretty safe to say that the disciples haven’t quite grasped what Jesus has been trying to teach them yet.
Here is something else to think about. This incident is good evidence of the trustworthiness of Mark’s gospel (and of the gospels in general). Would you include this incident about your own [or in Mark’s case your acquaintances’] aspirations for grandeur and subsequent embarrassment if it wasn’t a true story? The disciples write about their inability to understand Jesus and the embarrassment it causes them because it is true.