Assume the Least (click to view/download originally published pdf)
30They left that place and passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were, 31because he was teaching his disciples. He said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.” 32But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it.
33They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” 34But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.
35Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.”
36He took a little child and had him stand among them. Taking him in his arms, he said to them, 37“Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”
Assuming, I think we all would agree, can be a dangerous pastime. At the same time, however, it’s impossible to get through a day without making some assumptions. Since we don’t automatically know things the way that God does, we have to assume things all the time.
That’s why we all need to learn important lessons during our lives about assuming. We need to know the difference between needing to assume and wanting to assume. We need to know the difference between a safe assumption and a risky one. We have to try to figure out when we’re assuming too much and when we are assuming too little. Given all the variables and all the different scenarios, these are pretty complicated life lessons.
So people say, “Don’t make assumptions,” or, “Never assume the worst.” Studying the Eighth Commandment in your catechism will teach you to assume the best wherever possible, despite the fact that you know the best is not too often what happens in this world.
Well, today I’d like to add to that pile of advice with “Assume the Least.” That’s right. Not “Assume the best” or “Assume the worst,” but “Assume the least.” And as we meditate on Mark 9 together, you’ll find that lesson coming out of the text in two distinct ways.
First, when it comes to God’s Word, assume that God is speaking to you in the least complicated manner that he possibly can. In other words, don’t assume that there’s some hidden meaning in God’s plain Word so that you don’t waste your time making fanciful guesses about what it is he’s trying to say when he’s already plainly stated exactly what he wanted to say. Assume as little as you can about what he is saying and take his Word at face value.
Second, when it comes to thinking about yourself and just what you deserve from God and other people, assume the least. Don’t assume that people ought to fawn all over you and serve you with their groveling. Assume the least. Assume the role of servant, even when you are in point of fact serving in a position of authority.
So, assume the least in interpreting the Word of God, and assume the least in your service to God. But let’s start with God’s Word and see what it means to assume the least with that. As I said, assuming the least with God’s Word means not getting unnecessarily fancy with your interpretation of it. In fact, the word interpretation is sort of an unfortunate term when it comes to God’s Word, if you ask me. The word interpretation automatically gives the impression that there’s more than one way to take the Word of God, that it is, as we say, “open to interpretation.”
That approach to the Word is what caused the disciples to miss the whole point of the most important lesson that Jesus ever taught them, the one about his life, death and resurrection. “They left that place and passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were, because he was teaching his disciples.” Do you see that? This was an important lesson. It was one he did not want them to miss. He was leaving the crowds behind and traveling incognito because he needed to teach them something important. He needed them to understand this.
“He said to them, ‘The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.’” Obviously most of you already know the importance of that lesson. This was the goal of Jesus’ whole mission on earth. Later he would say, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). This lesson explains how the one, true God can be faithful and just and yet still acquit sinners like you and me in the Court of Eternal Judgment. We don’t deserve a verdict of “not guilty,” but we’ve got one. Why? Because of Jesus’ mission. Because Jesus pleaded guilty to our crimes and took the death penalty for us. That’s what his death and resurrection are all about. That’s what Christianity is all about.
But the disciples didn’t get it. What? Were they just too thick-headed? Was Jesus being unclear? Was listening to him talk about it like trying to read the book of Revelation with all of its picturesque and fantastic imagery?
Absolutely not. Remember what the text said last week? “He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this” (Mark 8:31-32). Remember that? “He spoke plainly about this.” And in today’s text you have Jesus not just saying it once and letting it go, but taking the time to explain it in detail as they traveled through Galilee. Someone was going to hand him over. The authorities would kill him. Three days later, he would rise from the dead.
Most writers who comment on this try to cut the disciples some slack. They say that we have nearly 2000 years of looking back on this to help us understand what Jesus was saying, so it’s hard for us to appreciate how difficult it would have been for them to take this in. Normally I’d say something like that, too, but today I just can’t. Today I say, “Assume the least.” That’s all you had to do, fellas. Jesus took you aside and explained it to you in detail, in the simplest and most straightforward way he could. Don’t assume there was some complicated explanation behind it or some hidden meaning. Assume the least. Take his instruction at face value. What joy and peace would have been theirs as they approached Jerusalem if they had simply assumed the least, taken him at his word and trusted him!
Besides, if they had assumed the least and simply understood Jesus to be telling them exactly what he wanted to say, they wouldn’t have needed the somewhat embarrassing rebuke that Jesus had to give them after they reached Capernaum. If they had assumed the least and allowed God’s Word to be its own best interpreter, they would have been filled with awe and gratitude as they contemplated the Son of God’s humble and amazing mission on earth. They would have seen, even before Jesus said it in so many words, that “even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve.”
Instead they argued about who among them was the greatest, leading Jesus to bring a child into the room and explain that, in the kingdom of God, even the simplest act of service to the least of all God’s children is great in God’s sight: “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”
The fact that Jesus was able to present this lesson, embarrassing though it may have been, in such a gentle manner, is testimony to the great patience and gentle instruction of God. By not assuming the least about their own relative importance, the disciples were, despite the fact that Jesus stood right in front of them, falling into the temptation that had long ago ensnared the Pharisees and Sadducees. They were assuming that the privileged gifts they had received from God were somehow due to their being better than other people who did not seem to be so blessed.
But think about all you’ve heard this morning, brothers and sisters, and repent of the self-important attitude that plagues all sinners by nature—even after they have come to know Christ. Think of the warning of James against selfish ambition and the true source of selfish “wisdom” that furthers your own, personal interests. Think of how easy it is to become impressed with the service you have rendered and to start ranking yourself against other servants of God, like Aaron and Miriam did to Moses.
Repent and see that you have forgiveness not because you deserve it or because you have an admirable track record or because you were somehow born with a better heart than other sinners or that you somehow dedicated yourself more to overcoming that heart. Repent and see that you have forgiveness only because Jesus came as the one person in human history who actually deserved the service of others, yet he served his own life up as a ransom for yours. Repent and find forgiveness in the servant-heart of Christ, whose merit became yours only when your lack of merit became his.
In this is freedom from our natural urge to think about what is better in ourselves. In God’s personal sacrifice for us is a life-altering message that assumes nothing good in us, but lives and breathes the assumption that God says what he means and means what he says, no more and no less. And what does he say? “For Jesus’ sake, my child, you are forgiven. For my Son’s sake, I welcome you as my dear child into the mansions of heaven.” Amen.
Pentecost 18 Assume the Least October 4, 2009
Pastor Aaron C. Frey Mark 9:30-37