Women Set the Bar for Discipleship in Jesus’ Life in Mark’s Gospel
Jesus’ disciples are not portrayed as great men in Mark’s Gospel. They wanted to be celebrities. They want to wear medals. Their self-promotion shows that they struggled at the same level we do. As mediocrities we hope that our petty contributions will be acknowledged by others. Jesus’ disciples wanted to be on a stage, at the center of audience attention, because they were fallen creatures as we all are. But the women in Jesus’ life, dismissed in their own culture, were the models to emulate while the disciples are mirrors of our self-centeredness. We can aspire to be like the women, but we can identify with the self-centeredness and self-flattery of Jesus’ disciples. If there was hope for Jesus’ disciples, there is hope for us.
It’s Not a Gender Issue
But it’s not a gender issue. Men or women can achieve true greatness in Jesus’ sight. But it is the women in Jesus’ life who prove to be great because they are lowly servants, the ideal posture for Jesus’ disciples. His male disciples are never portrayed as servants, focused on quietly serving Jesus and other people’s needs and interests. Instead, they think of self-promotion and visibility.
Mark’s Gospel is not afraid to show us how obtuse and self-centered Jesus’ male disciples really were. Remember, they are mirrors, not our models. They remind us of our inadequacies. Their favorite indoor sport was to argue about who was the greatest (Mk 9:34). They wanted a stage, an audience, with lights and smoke, and spontaneous applause at the end of their vacuous concert and a rich financial gate. They wanted medals, but had no scars from battle.
This self-focused vocation can be a problem in any century. Do you know any Christian males who lead, speak, talk, write, or sing for Jesus? Are they known for a lifetime of lowly sacrificial service to the poor, the less fortunate, the needy, the prisoner, immigrants, legal or illegal, people of color & those who cannot repay them financially? Any males come to mind?
Serving is the Signature of Greatness
But with the women in Mark, its different. Woman score high in Mark’s gradebook of discipleship. The grade of greatness is service. Serving Jesus and other people is the distinguishing fingerprint of discipleship. In direct response to James and John’s request for special stage seating in Jesus’ kingdom, Jesus teaches them that the mark of true greatness is not seen on stage, but in serving, as illustrated by his own example of service.
Jesus called them and said to them, "You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles dominate them, and those in high positions use their authority over them. But it is not this way among you. Instead whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant (διάκονος), and whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served (διακονηθήναι) but to serve (διακονησαι), and to give his life as a ransom for many." Mk 10:41-44
The first example of service in Mark’s Gospel is performed by the angels who served (διηκόνουν) Jesus after his temptation in the wilderness (1:13). How appropriate: the opening scene for service is unseen, in a dry remote place, a long way from the gawking fans and the nearest stage. Service is an act performed for Jesus’ welfare, but not seen by anyone. No fans around.
The very first person, though, who serves Jesus, is Peter’s mum-in-law.
“He came and raised her up by gently taking her hand. Then the fever left her and she began to serve (διηκόνει) them.” Mk 1:31
Simon’s mum-in-law is unnamed, a minor character in Mark’s story; but she adumbrates the major theme of service. Her response to Jesus’ healing work in her life shows itself in service to him. She sets the standard of discipleship. She foreshadows Jesus’ major statement about greatness in Mark 10:41-45 and serves as a striking contrast to the self-promoting request of Jesus’ male disciples, James and John (Mk 10:35-37).
Women at the Cross of Jesus
The final signpost of service, of ideal discipleship, is spotlighted at Jesus’ cross. Just as Jesus served by giving his life as a ransom, so also women served him over a period of time. Mark highlights their presence and their consistency of service to Jesus:
“There were also women looking on from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. When He was in Galilee, they were following Him and were serving (διηκόνουν) Him. Mk 15:40-41
The essence of these women’s discipleship was service, unflagging service to Jesus throughout his public ministry. They weren’t on a Christian show-business stage, in front of self-promoting lights and machine-generated smoke, stage playing for audience applause and recognition. They were anonymous, but yet active and effective. While Jesus’ male disciples were absent, cowering in fear, women followed and served Jesus all the way to the cross. Women followed Jesus for the right reason: to serve him all the way to the end.
From his first miracle in Capernaum to the cross outside of Jerusalem, it was women who served Jesus. Mark fails to mention any males who followed Jesus in order to serve him, not even one of his own male disciples. They followed Jesus for the wrong reasons. The absence of males serving Jesus is conspicuous. The presence of women at the cross is equally striking.
Ideal Disciples are Servants
The great people around us are not the ones monkeying for Christian attention, playing to the church crowd for their applause, shopping for “likes” on their Facebook, selling their CD’s online to make another million, or titillating your emotions at a show-business like concert. James and John lusted for a stage, confusing Christian celebritytism for true greatness. Mark turns our attention in another counter-cultural direction, off-stage where there were no celebrities, no audience, no lights or stage—just a wilderness and a cross.
The ideal disciples of Jesus are the servants, unknown, unseen, unrecognized, and often un-thanked. They serve Jesus out of gratitude for what Jesus has done for them. Peter’s mum-in-law sets the stage early in Mark for service. After he healed her, she began to serve him. The women at the cross set the bar for ideal disciples. Their quiet service to Jesus lasted throughout his public ministry. They are the ideal disciples of Jesus.
Service: The Right Reason to Follow Jesus
Only twice are people mentioned as servants in Mark. Both times the examples are women. Mark’s jab at the male ego is not so subtle. Women follow Jesus for the right reason—to serve him. They are our models. Males follow him for self-focused purposes. They are our mirrors. We can identify with their self-centeredness. Jesus did not give up on them and he will not give up on us either. Jesus remains unflinchingly loyal to us. There is hope for us.
So service to Jesus is not a gender issue. Jesus calls all of us to follow him in order to serve him and our neighbors unflaggingly over a lifetime. Service to Jesus and to others is the mark of true discipleship, the true mark of greatness.
Colvin catches a wee bit of Mark’s emphasis on serving:
1. Neighbors are rich and poorer,
Neighbors are black and white,
Neighbors are near and far away.
2. These are the ones we should serve,
These are the ones we should love,
All these neighbors to us and you.
3. Loving puts us on our knees,
Serving as though we are slaves,
This is the way we should live with you.
Jesu, Jesu, fill us with your love,
show us how to serve,
the neighbors we have from you.
 “The Son of Man” is the celestial figure from Daniel 7:13-14 who takes his elevated place next to God in heaven. The contrast is conspicuous. Even the glorious Son of Man, elevated and enthroned in heaven, focused his attention on the interests of others by serving. His high status did not prevent him from stooping low to become a servant, even a slave to sinners.
 to give only the main facts and not the details about something, especially something that will happen in the future.
 Both verbs, “following” and “serving” are in the imperfect tense, indicating that the women’s following of Jesus and serving him were accomplished over a period of time; following and serving was a long-term pattern for them, not a one time stage performance.
 Tom Colvin’s arrangement of a Ghana folk song, 1963; sung to the tune of Chereponi. The church, both in modern and historical hymnody, needs additional songs and hymns that do two things: (a). accurately reflect the message of servanthood and true greatness in Mark’s Gospel, eschewing Christian celebrityism and protesting the staged self-promotion of popular Christian musicians and artists, and capturing the profundity of women’s service to Jesus (2) maintain a firm grip in its lyrics to the biblical text throughout the entire song. Hard to find such today in either traditional or contemporary music. Tom Colvin’s song is a wee start. Jesus’ church needs a diversied and steady diet of hymns & songs that feeds us the message of how to measure true greatness.