Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them,“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition, copyright © 1989, 1993 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

What to do with this educator’s commentary

This commentary invites you as a teacher to engage with and interpret the passage. Allow the text to speak first. The commentary suggests that you ask yourself various questions that will aid your interpretation. They will help you answer for yourself the question in the last words of the text: ‘what does this mean?’

This educator’s commentary is not a ‘finished package’. It is for your engagement with the text. You then go on to plan how you enable your students to work with the text.

Both you and your students are the agents of interpretation. The ‘Worlds of the Text’ offer a structure, a conversation between the worlds of the author and the setting of the text; the world of the text; and the world of reader. In your personal reflection and in your teaching all three worlds should be integrated as they rely on each other.

In your teaching you are encouraged to ask your students to engage with the text in a dialogical way, to explore and interpret it, to share their own interpretation and to listen to that of others before they engage with the way the text might relate to a topic or unit of work being studied.

Structure of the commentary:

The world behind the text

See the general introduction to Mark.

The world of the text

Text & textual features

Characters & setting

Ideas / phrases / concepts

Questions for the teacher

The world in front of the text

Questions for the teacher

Meaning for today / challenges

Church interpretations & usage

The World Behind the Text

See general introduction to Mark.

The world of the text

This narrative fits in a series of teaching stories in Mark’s Gospel. Jesus is still in the north, at the top of Lake Galilee. He will soon head south, towards Jerusalem for the last big journey. As the reader begins this story, they would be aware of how the disciples have struggled to accept the challenges that came with the role.

Text & textual features

This narrative continues a series of events in which the disciples seem to fail to appreciate their mission. The problem is evident quickly: what have the disciples been arguing about? The answer to the questions who is the greatest, will be a recurring theme over the next chapter.

The story captures the disciples ‘arguing… on the way’ about who is the greatest.  The word used in the text is ‘arguing’,but the original could be understood as ‘considering, pondering or reasoning’.  Either way, repetition of the phrase ‘on the way’ continues to suggest that the disciples are still ‘on their way’ to understanding.

Jesus sits down, assuming the posture of the authoritative teacher.  He specifically singles out the twelve to speak to – this inner circle of disciples need some direct teaching.

Jesus asks them what they are arguing about – their silence indicates a level of embarrassment and some awareness that what they were doing would not be acceptable to their leader. Jesus’ instruction is a firm reminder, “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and servant of all.”

Jesus’ words explicitly challenged the hierarchical world of the time. Servants or slaves were the lowest of the classes. Owned by their masters, their role was the ultimate model of service given in no expectation of reward or even acknowledgment. Women, next on the social ladder, had a similar role: to serve the men in their households. It is perhaps unsurprising that the 12, all free men, would have found the expectation that they would become ‘servants of all’ difficult to comprehend or accept. In the following chapter they will again demonstrate their failure to understand (Mk 10:35-40).

Mark’s use of the word ‘then’ shows an immediacy which is striking. Having told the 12 that they need to become servants, he brings one of those most vulnerable in society, a child, to them. Again, the expectation of the men is turned upside down: whoever welcomes a child, welcomes me….

It is hard to exaggerate the significance of this gesture of divine identification with a child. 
Not only does it challenge the disciples’ notion of messiahship, it goes to the heart of
their – and our – understanding of God… Jesus’ gesture of hugging the child in front of all
shows more powerfully than any words could express the preciousness of each and
every human life in the sight of God.

(Byrne, 2008, loc. 3547)

Characters & Setting

Jesus calls together the 12 for this teaching – note Mark’s naming of them alone; the wider discipleship group are not included, just this inner circle. This is the third time Jesus has called this small group together for specific ‘remedial’ teaching. He calls them together in Capernaum: Jesus’ home town (also referenced in Matthew 4:13, Mark 2:1 & Luke 4:23) and Peter’s home. 

The story unfolds in a house.  The specificity of the location indicates that the issue is going to be about community and interpersonal relationships.  The reader does not know whose house this is, but it is likely that it was the home of one of the group gathered. 



In this passage Jesus flips the first and last on its head, focussing on service.  The word used here for servant in diakonos.  It is the basis for the term we know as deacon.  Jesus’ intention, spoken and demonstrated is clear: discipleship is not about greatness; it is about the reverse – being prepared to servant, just like a servant. The placement of the child indicates that this service is for all – including those most vulnerable in society.  


In the cultural world of Jesus, a child was a non-person; they had no rights, were dependant on others and there was nothing to be gained socially by showing kindness to a child.  They might have been precious to their parents but by bringing the child to the centre of the conversation it is a way of teaching the disciples.  Jesus takes the child as symbolic of the weakest and most vulnerable human being and instructs that this ‘social non-entity’ is worthy of respect and care.  In doing this, he shows the disciples that if they seek true greatness, they must be a sign of God’s love to all.

Questions for the teacher:

What is the text saying? What am I wondering about the text?
How can you enable your students to engage with the actual text? What might they wonder about?
What of this information is important to share with the students?

The world in front of the text

Questions for the teacher:

Please reflect on these questions before reading this section and then use the material below to enrich your responsiveness to the text.

How do you respond to the text?
What does the text tell us about the world that God desires? What might the Holy Spirit be asking you and asking us to do?
In what ways do you hope your students will respond to the text? What do you want them to know, believe and do?

Meaning for today/challenges

This text is often used in discussions on leadership.  The concept of ‘servant’ leadership has been a very popular one written about my many academics.  Servant leaders and servant people – the Mother Teresa’s of the world – inspire and influence.  Not only do they care for and aid, but they also inspire others to act in a similar way. They are lived witness to the message of Jesus. We are challenged to not expect from others a level of service we would not consider giving. Status still operates in contemporary society; explicitly in occupations most often held by women or those of disadvantage, and subtly in organisations that preference some groups over others. The egalitarian kingdom Jesus declared is still ‘on the way’.

Church interpretation & usage

Pope Francis has spoken extensively on social justice issues, particular regarding the “poor.” His mission and ministry are to include and encourage rather than exclude and condemn. In a number of documents, Pope Francis has addressed issues such as the plight of refugees, homelessness, discrimination and those marginalised through poverty, injustice or economic greed. Like Jesus, he models compassion and urges us to reach out to those who are the ‘outsiders’ in our world today.

In his reflection on the Markan text and the plight of the Syrophoenician woman. Pope Francis urges up us to foster our ministry of discipleship with “concrete attitudes of charity to our neighbour.”

Liturgical Usage

This reading forms part of the Gospel reading on the twenty-fifth Sunday of ordinary time.  It is accompanied by Wisdom 2:12, 17-20 and James 3:16-43.  Each of the readings point to concepts of servant leadership and humility.