On the basis of what we've seen so far in Mark's gospel, we're unsurprised to find that, once again, the disciples are getting things wrong.
On this occasion in Mark 9:33-37, they're repeating the same old longings to achieve greatness and high status on earth that we saw Peter fall for in 8:32-33 and all of them fall for in the immediately preceding passage (8:14-29), where they seem to assume that they themselves should be great enough to cast out a demon without any help from Jesus and are puzzled when they can't. Here again then, they argue about who is the greatest (8:34).
Jesus' response is first of all to use a phrase that tops and tails this sub-section (9:33-10:31): 'If anyone would be first, he must be last and a servant of all' (c.f. 10:31. Note that the top and tailing gives us an indication of what this sub-section is about).
He then takes a child, a symbol of the lowest status of person in society's eyes, and say that this is the kind of person the disciples must be willing to serve if they are to be commended by Jesus - the kind of person who can do nothing for them in return. It's a stunningly humbling couple of verses.
Nevertheless, we see that proud attitude rearing its head again in 8:38, where the disciples assume that they are the only group who should have the privilege of being able to cast out demons and so stop another man from doing so. Again Jesus humbles them, first by denying that there are different classes of followers of Him (v40, people either accept him or reject him, there are just two camps), and second by again commending an attitude of service, saying that even the simplest act of humbly serving a fellow Christian will bring reward in eternity.
However, Jesus goes further in v42 to show how important this attitude of humble service is - because as a result of their pride, the disciples actions towards this fellow-believer could have been a real stumbling-block (see the footnote about the word 'sin' in v42) to his faith (he may have begun to question whether the was really a follower of Christ, for example).
Given what Jesus says about hell in v42-48, can you see why this is so serious?
Questions for application
- What is Jesus saying the motivation is for us to serve others who won't be able to give us anything in return?
- What will this look like for us in terms of who we spend time with/speak to at church?
- Why is unwillingness to serve others so serious?