Resituating Priorities – a sermon from Mark 9.38-50

Reading Time: 6 minutes

What is important to you? Is our priority the same as God’s priority? Mark 9 is about how people see others. John felt like people should follow Jesus the way he did it. Jesus disabused him of this misconception and offered a broader point of view.

Sometimes a biblical lesson like this reminds me of a story, and a story can carry the weight of the message much better than just saying we need to make sure we’re looking at the world the same way God is. In this case, I thought about Leo Tolstoy’s story “The Death of Ivan Ilých.”[1]

The Death of Ivan Ilých

In the story, Ivan is a high court judge in nineteenth-century Russia. Tolstoy depicts him as not-a-great husband, but a proud father and an upwardly-mobile member of Russia’s professional class. This is a group which Tolstoy often satires. Ivan lived what appeared to be a good life. He had an important position with the Department of Justice, and what he considered to be a wonderful and prestigious home. In fact, he had just purchased the home and was very proud of it.

That whole notion of prestige is interesting. It’s the one thing that Ivan strives to gain. He was “attracted to people of high station… assimilating their ways and views…”[2] It is what he worked for, not unlike our unwitting disciples who argued in Mark 9.33-37 about who was the greatest only to hear that paradoxical phrase, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9.35).

Ivan took a ‘hands-on’ approach to fitting out his new home, and one day, he went up a ladder while showing the decorator how he wanted some new, auspicious curtains placed. He didn’t buy the curtains because the old ones were worn, but for the status of having new curtains. While on the ladder, he slipped but caught himself. In fact, he was proud of his athletic prowess in catching himself. Yet, in the fall, he did bang his side on the latch on the window. It left quite a bruise. After a few weeks, he realized the pain from that pesky window latch wasn’t going away. Later, he developed a strange taste in his mouth. He saw expensive, celebrity doctors, but no one could explain or treat his condition. It soon became clear that he was dying.

The frustrating thing about seeing someone like Ivan go through the pain and struggle of facing his own death is that he is not a bad person. He was an ethical attorney, a good citizen, an enjoyable friend, an adequate provider, and a fair and loyal employer of his household staff. He never abused his power, although he knew he could.

Ivan’s life was built on surface value. No matter what, he kept up appearances and didn’t allow anyone into that intimate place of sharing his burdens. Whenever he and his wife would argue, he was happy that no one heard. He could continue gaining prestige among the professional class despite his bad relationship with his wife. However, after he became sick, the life of surface value that he had built didn’t include anyone to share his journey through ill-health. His wife and daughter were in their social world and were basically unaware of his struggles. His friends were shallow relations that were not there for him when it really mattered. There was no one to minister to him in his time of need. Some of his friends even began to tease him, in a friendly way, about his fear of death. Some colleagues, people who he would have counted warmly as part of his circle, began looking at him as a man whose job would soon be vacant.

This lack of compassion from his family, friends, and colleagues started to torment him. No one gave him the care he desperately wanted. Yet, he had built the kind of life for himself where there was no one around to do so.


Except, there was one person, the young butler’s assistant Gerásim.

Gerásim brought Ivan his food. This was his job. Gerásim took away Ivan’s chamber pot; this too was his job. Gerásim did it with humility and a cheerful, life-giving disposition, which was not part of his job. He would lift Ivan’s legs to help relieve some pain and discomfort. Sometimes Garásim would do it into the night. This was not part of his job either.

The really beautiful part of the story is the way Gerásim did what he did. It was his disposition. It was the expression on his face. Ivan apologized for his condition and needs, and Gerásim smiled, saying, “Why shouldn’t I help you? You are a sick man.”

Ivan was discovering that power and prestige was not where he thought it was. He had achieved those things—his position, his house, etc.—but when he faced his own mortality, what Paul Tillich calls the “anxiety of non-being,”[3] Ivan realized that power and prestige gave him no comfort.

Ivan would have fit in well with the disciples in Mark 9. He saw himself as one of the greatest. He would fit in with John, who said, “They’re not doing it like we’re doing it, so they must be wrong.” He thought his way and his priorities were the right ones. According to Ivan, everyone else had it wrong. He had a powerful position, was upwardly mobile. What more could anyone want?

Facing Death

Facing death, Ivan found that love, compassion, and comfort were what he wanted. And, in his case, a boy named Gerásim, a peasant with no prospects, delivered the Messianic goods. He did the mundane tasks, like bringing food. He also went above and beyond the call of duty, by holding Ivan’s legs. Most important, he was there.

Ministry of Presence

Have you ever been around someone who is not there? People can be there but not there in any situation. Some of you are not here right now… We have all been around when someone is not there.

Movies play into this sense of present-but-not-really-present all the time. The guard is sitting in the gatehouse but is so engrossed in a book that the baddies sneak right by.

Or, have you ever been reading something when someone asks you a question, and without thinking, you say, “Uh huh.”

Unlike those here-but-not-here responses, Gerásim carried out his tasks with complete presence. He gave his full attention to Ivan. He was there. This is the ministry of presence.

Jesus responded to the disciples by picking up a child (Mark 9.35). I don’t know if he was still supposed to be holding the child when he gave the stark warning about putting “stumbling blocks in front of the little ones.” Children had no status in first-century Palestine. It is as if Jesus looked at Ivan’s life and said, It’s not the power and prestige that you think is important; it’s the relationships. It is love. It is caring. Let me turn what you know on its head; whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.

Things are not as they seem

Out of this sense of things are not as they seem, we meet Gerásim and we get to see what Jesus-in-the-world could look like. We see love, caring, compassion, and presence.

It’s so easy to miss how much more we’re like Ivan than Gerásim. As we hear the story and realize that Gerásim models a Christlike ministry of presence, we might think, “I did something like that” and miss all the times we fought like crazy to live like Ivan. When we hear about the disciples missing what Jesus was trying to teach or Ivan building his life around the wrong priorities, it is easier for us to point at the speck in their eye and miss the plank in ours.

At the end of the story, Ivan died. There was no miracle. Just as he expected, his wife was more concerned with the state of their financial affairs than with the loss of her husband. His friends were down a bridge partner. He colleagues saw an opportunity to fill a prestigious vacancy, and his servant Gerásim was sad he was gone.

Life moved on.

But, before he died, Ivan experienced compassion, presence and love. He saw the face of God in a boy named Gerásim. Friends, we can be the face of God to people we encounter every day of our lives.

Be the presence, compassion, and love of God.

[1] Leo Tolstoy, Great Short Works of Leo Tolstoy, trans. Louise Maude and Aylmer Maude (New York: Perennial Classics, 1967), 245-302.

[2] Tolstoy, 256.

[3] Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1952), 38.

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