Disciples troubled by Jesus’ prediction of betrayal

by Father Mike Stubbs

Adults know that when children are completely quiet, it means that something is wrong.

It is the same as when we are outdoors, and, all of a sudden, all the sounds of nature disappear — no chirping birds, only absolute silence. Something similar happens in Sunday’s Gospel reading, Mk 9:30-37.

Jesus and his disciples are walking through Galilee on their way to Jerusalem. Jesus says something, and immediately the disciples clam up.

It sounds clear enough: “The Son of Man is to be handed over to men and they will kill him, and three days after his death the Son of Man will rise.”

Jesus is making the second prediction of his passion. Nonetheless, his disciples appear befuddled: “But they did not understand the saying, and they were afraid to question him.”

Why could they not understand? What looks clear in retrospect might have appeared more mysterious at the moment. That is always the case, obviously.

But there is also an ambiguity in the Greek text. The word which our Lectionary translates as “handed over” can mean “betray” as well. The disciples may have wondered which meaning Jesus intended. That could explain the disciples’ lack of understanding. With the second meaning in mind, the prediction would carry with it a suggestion of disloyalty. That could explain the disciples’ reluctance to probe further. Could they possibly be the ones to betray him? With the term “handed over,” the second prediction of the passion introduces an element not present in the first prediction, which we heard in last Sunday’s Gospel reading.

We might note that Jesus states this element in the passive voice: “The son of Man is to be handed over.” It does not answer the question: Who will hand him over? That is the question that the disciples are afraid to pursue.

This scene surrounding Jesus’ second prediction of his passion looks forward to another scene later on in his life. During the Last supper, Jesus confronts his disciples about the arrest that will lead to his trial and death: “Amen, I say to you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me” (Mk 14:18). We should note that the word translated here as “betray” is the same word which the Lectionary translates as “handed over” in sunday’s Gospel reading.

In the Last supper scene, the element of disloyalty appears clear. The only question that remains is: Who will betray Jesus?

The name of Judas surfaces as the obvious answer. But then, Simon Peter, the prince of the apostles, puts in his own claim for betrayal. He denies Jesus three times. and the other disciples betray Jesus in their own way: by abandoning him during his passion and death. And all of us, through our sins, share in the responsibility for his death.

So, how do we answer the question implicit in Jesus’ prediction of his passion, “The Son of Man will be handed over, the Son of Man will be betrayed”? If we share with the disciples some responsibility for his death, perhaps we also share with them a lack of understanding, a reluctance to probe further.

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