There’s a wonderful short story by Leo Tolstoy called The Three Hermits. He tells about a bishop who was sailing from Archangel to Solovotsk with a group of pilgrims when he overheard a fisherman telling them about three hermits who lived in an earthen hut on an island that was at that moment just barely visible at the horizon. According to the fisherman, these three hermits were very holy men who spent their days praying for the salvation of their souls and for the needs of the world. The fisherman had met them the previous year when his boat was damaged and he put in to their island to repair it.
‘One is a small man and his back is bent,” said the fisherman. “He wears a priest’s cassock and is very old; he must be more than a hundred, I should say. He is so old that the white of his beard is taking a greenish tinge, but he is always smiling, and his face is as bright as an angel’s from heaven. The second is taller, but he also is very old. He wears a tattered peasant coat. His beard is broad, and of a yellowish grey color. He is a strong man. Before I had time to help him, he turned my boat over as if it were only a pail. He too, is kindly and cheerful. The third is tall, and has a beard as white as snow and reaching to his knees. He is stern, with over-hanging eyebrows; and he wears nothing but a mat tied round his waist.”
The bishop was intrigued, and, because this small unnamed island fell within the territory of his authority, he convinced the ship’s captain to bring him to the island. The captain brought the ship as close to the rocky shore of the island as he dared, and the bishop was able land on the island in the ship’s boat. As he stepped ashore, the three hermits came to greet him. The old men bowed to him and he made the sign of the cross and blessed them, at which they bowed even lower.
“I have heard,’ said the bishop, “that you, godly men, live here saving your own souls, and praying to our Lord Christ for your fellow men. I, an unworthy servant of Christ, am called, by God’s mercy, to keep and teach His flock. I wished to see you, servants of God, and to do what I can to teach you, also.”
The old men looked at each other smiling, but remained silent.
“Tell me,’ said the Bishop, ‘what you are doing to save your souls, and how you serve God on this island.”
The second hermit sighed, and looked at the oldest, the very ancient one. The latter smiled, and said: “We do not know how to serve God. We only serve and support ourselves, servant of God.”
“But how do you pray to God?” asked the Bishop.
“We pray in this way,” replied the hermit. “Three are ye, three are we, have mercy upon us.” And when the old man said this, all three raised their eyes to heaven, and repeated: “Three are ye, three are we, have mercy upon us!”
The Bishop smiled as he told them they were praying incorrectly. With that he launched into a brief lecture on theology and how God had been revealed in the world and in the scriptures. And then, because it was the prayer Jesus had taught his disciples and because it is written in the scriptures, he began to teach them the Lord’s Prayer.
The three hermits, who had spent years mostly in silence, struggled as they tried to learn the prayer the bishop was teaching them, but eventually, after several hours and much repetition, they seemed to have learned it.
It was getting dark and the moon was rising over the sea as the bishop returned to the boat. As he bid them farewell, the old hermits bowed down to the ground. The bishop raised them up and kissed them, then reminded them to keep praying in the way he had taught them. As the ship made for the open water, the bishop could still see the three old men standing by the shore, their voices floating across the water as they practiced saying the Lord’s Prayer as he had taught them. The bishop sat in the stern, contented, as the ship sailed on and the island disappeared below the horizon.
It was a pleasant night, so the bishop continued to sit in the stern, thinking and gazing out across the sea as the moonlight sparkled and danced across the waves. Suddenly he saw something white and shining on the pathway the moon was casting upon the sea. Was it a gull, or perhaps the sail of another ship? The bishop realized that it was moving toward them very rapidly.
The bishop called to the helmsman, “What is that, my friend? What is it?” the
Bishop repeated, though he could now see plainly what it was—the three hermits were running upon the water, all gleaming white, their grey beards shining. They were approaching the ship as quickly as though it were not moving.
The steersman looked and let go the helm in terror. “Oh Lord! The hermits are running after us on the water as though it were dry land!”
The passengers hearing him, jumped up, and crowded to the stern. They saw the hermits coming along hand in hand, and the two outer ones beckoning the ship to stop. All three were gliding along upon the water without moving their feet.
Before the ship could be stopped, the hermits had reached it, and raising their heads, all three as with one voice, began to say: “We have forgotten your teaching, servant of God. As long as we kept repeating it we remembered, but when we stopped saying it for a time, a word dropped out, and now it has all gone to pieces. We can remember nothing of it. Teach us again.”
The Bishop crossed himself, and leaning over the ship’s side, said:
“Your own prayer will reach the Lord, men of God. It is not for me to teach you. Pray for us sinners.”
The Bishop bowed low before the old men, and they turned and went back across the sea. And a light shone until daybreak on the spot where they were lost to sight.
Sometimes a lack of humility—or worse, our own arrogant assumptions—can keep us from seeing and hearing what’s right in front of us. We can be blinded by our own agendas or preconceptions or sense of self-importance so that we fail to see that the people around us are children of God, created in the divine image and likeness of God. We forget our common humanity. It’s just part of human nature.
One day, after a long day on the road, Jesus asked his disciples what they had been arguing about as they made their way back to Capernaum. They didn’t answer his question because they were ashamed that they had been arguing about who was the greatest.
After all this time travelling with Jesus as he taught about the equity and equality that were the hallmarks of the Kingdom of God, after listening to him talk about his own pending crucifixion and humiliation, it seems that they still had it in their heads that the kingdom Jesus was ushering in would be something like a conventional kingdom. They were imagining themselves in some future positions of influence and power. But Jesus had been trying to teach them that God’s kingdom wasn’t like that at all.
Clifton Black, Professor of Biblical Theology at Princeton, points out that here in chapter nine of Mark we see a pattern repeated from chapter eight. The pattern goes like this: a) Jesus predicts his suffering, execution and resurrection; b) the disciples either fail to grasp or refuse to accept what he’s teaching them; then c) Jesus leads them through a teaching moment and expands the definition of discipleship.
“Why this repetition?” asks Dr. Black. “Two reasons. First: Discipleship in Mark is hard to accept. Second: In this gospel Jesus’ closest followers are so dense that light bends around them.”
It’s easy for us to feel a little smug about the disciples being so slow on the uptake, but then we would be committing the same sin of arrogance that they were as they jockeyed for status. We need to remember that we know how the story turns out, but they were living in the middle of it.
When Peter opposed Jesus’ destiny in chapter eight, Jesus responded by roundly chastising him. Here in chapter nine, though, Jesus very quietly teaches them about humility without humiliating them.
“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.”
He doesn’t criticize them for wanting to be first, to have the highest ranking. Instead, he tells them what it takes to accomplish that. If you want to be first you have to be last. If you want to be the greatest, you have to be the least. You have to be everyone’s servant.
To prove his point, Jesus takes a little child in his arms. It’s easy for us to miss the point of what he’s doing here, and there’s a temptation to over-sentimentalize it. But he’s giving them a very clear object lesson—at least it was clear to them in their culture.
The word we translate as “little child,” paidion, was also another way to say “slave.” Think in terms of, “tell the boy to get me a drink,” or “tell the girl to clear the table.” The “boy” or the “girl” might be full-grown adults, but they’re not seen that way. The double meaning worked because in the ancient world of the disciples, a child, like a slave, had the least status of anyone. As Professor Black explains, “A child epitomizes the most subservient human in ancient society, one with slightest status. But in Jesus’ presence a little child literally has ‘standing’.”
“Whoever welcomes a little child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me,” said Jesus. The disciples had almost certainly overlooked that child before Jesus picked her up and took her in his lap. They probably couldn’t imagine that they might learn something from that child, any more than the bishop in Tolstoy’s story could imagine that he might learn something from three old hermits on a remote island. In their pride, the disciples probably just saw a kid, maybe even one who was kind of in the way, a distraction from their lesson in spirituality. Who would have thought that the child would be their lesson in spirituality?
If you want to be first you have to be last. If you want to be the greatest, you have to be the least. You have to be everyone’s servant. If you want to embrace Christ, you need to embrace everyone, even people with no status whatsoever. Even a child. You might be surprised. You might discover that they can run across the water and shine like the moon.
 Commentary on Mark 9:30-37, C. Clifton Black; WorkingPreacher.org, 9/19/21