From The Gospel of Mark, by Mary Healy, commenting on Mark 9:30-37
Jesus sits, the customary posture for a teacher in the ancient world (see 4:1), and calls the Twelve around him for a further lesson on discipleship. For those appointed to leadership in the community Jesus is founding (3:13–15), there is all the more need to preclude a false idea of authority. If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.
To be first means to have priority over others, as for instance the “leading men of Galilee” (literally, the “firsts of Galilee” in 6:21) had more influence, prestige, and power than ordinary folk. Jesus does not condemn the innate desires for grandeur in the human heart. But he turns human thinking on its head: the only way to fulfill these desires, paradoxically, is to put oneself last in priority. And this is not merely a pious thought; it must be expressed in concrete actions, by becoming a servant (diakonos) of all.
This was a radically unconventional idea in the ancient world, where humility and meekness were viewed not as virtues but as signs of weakness. Those in authority should expect to be served and showered with honors. No one in their right mind would aspire to be a servant. The early Church’s embrace of this new ethic was part of what made Christianity so novel and attractive to many in the ancient world. The same principle is expressed by St. Paul to the believers at Philippi: “Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves” (Phil 2:3–4; see 1 Pet 5:3).
In prophetic style, Jesus follows the pronouncement with a symbolic action: he puts his arms around a child. The connection with his previous statement (v. 35) would be natural to his listeners, since the word for child (both in Aramaic and in Greek) can also mean servant.
Jesus is continuing to overturn their worldview and system of values. In ancient society, children were viewed as nonpersons who had no legal rights or status of their own. Already in the Old Testament God had revealed his special love for the lowly, who are often overlooked or oppressed by the powerful (Deut 10:18; Ps 146:9; Isa 29:19). With his gesture Jesus shows human affection for this child (see Mark 10:13–16), and at the same time teaches his disciples to have a whole new esteem for and responsibility toward those who seem the most helpless or inconsequential.