Oct 18, 2015: 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

The son of man did not come love

1st Reading – Isaiah 53:10-11

The LORD was pleased
to crush him in infirmity.

If he gives his life as an offering for sin,
he shall see his descendants in a long life,
and the will of the LORD shall be accomplished through him.

Because of his affliction
he shall see the light in fullness of days;
through his suffering, my servant shall justify many,
and their guilt he shall bear.

Today’s first reading is the conclusion of the fourth Suffering Servant Song of Isaiah.  This short passage contains several related themes: a partial portrait of the servant, an example of vicarious suffering, and a proposal for breaking the vicious cycle of violence.

The LORD was pleased to crush him in infirmity.

The reading begins on a disturbing note: the suffering of the servant was brought on by the Lord.

It’s possible to view the misfortune of sinners as punishment for their offenses, but what should we make of the suffering of the righteous?  If God causes suffering (or allows it to happen), he seems unjust.  If he cannot prevent suffering, then seems powerless.  If God is testing the righteous, he seems impulsive, erratic — is he toying with us?

If he gives his life as an offering for sin, he shall see his descendants in a long life, and the will of the LORD shall be accomplished through him.

The innocent servant endures his agony to expiate the guilt of others.

In this light, the reason for the Lord’s delight is clear: this death will win life for others, and life is God’s will for his people.

Because of his affliction he shall see the light in fullness of days;

The servant will eventually be relieved and will experience “fullness of days” — that is, an abundance of spiritual graces.

Through his suffering, my servant shall justify many, and their guilt he shall bear.

So often violence begets violence; however, this servant offers no defensive response, no retaliation.  He is cast as a scapegoat, the sacrificial animal upon whose back the sins of others are placed and whose death removes the guilt of the very ones who killed it (see Leviticus 16, especially verses 7-10 and 20-22).

The violence inflicted upon the servant is accepted, embraced, and put to rest — putting an end to the violence perpetrated in the original transgressions as well as the violence inherent in the sacrifice itself.  In so doing, reconciliation with God is accomplished.

2nd Reading – Hebrews 4:14-1

Brothers and sisters:
Since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens,
Jesus, the Son of God,
let us hold fast to our confession.
For we do not have a high priest
who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses,
but one who has similarly been tested in every way,
yet without sin.
So let us confidently approach the throne of grace
to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help.

We continue our study of Hebrews, which today outlines a double exhortation: to hold fast to faith and to approach the throne of grace with confidence.

Brothers and sisters: Since we have a great high priest

This is the only place in the Letter to the Hebrews where Jesus is designated a “great” high
priest: an indication of his superiority over the Jewish high priest.

who has passed through the heavens,

Just as the high priest passed through the veil to enter into the Holy of Holies (the inner sanctuary within the Temple in Jerusalem), so Christ passed through the heavens into the presence of God.

Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession.

The confession being referenced is that of “Jesus is Lord” (Romans 10:9, 1 Corinthians 12:3).

As the Son of God, Jesus’ sacrifice far exceeds anything that the high priest’s ritual could have hoped to accomplish.  Therefore, “let us hold fast to our confession.”

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin.

Jesus’ exalted status (great high priest, Son of God) has not distanced him from us.  He knows our limitations; as a man, he shared many of them.  He was not only tested once, in the desert (Matthew 4:1-11), but throughout his life (Luke 22:28).  He was tried to the limit, but he did not succumb to sin.

Jesus had two distinct natures: he was fully human and fully divine.  These natures co-existed substantively and in reality in the single person of Jesus Christ.  No human can reach across the chasm of sin by his own power; but being one with God, in his divine nature, Christ could and did.

As an authentic human being, Christ carries all the members of the human race with him as he approaches the heavenly throne, and in so doing, he gives us access to God.

So let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help.

Unlike the Jewish high priests who only approached the mercy seat alone and only on the Day of Atonement, Christ enables us to approach God continually, and with confidence.

Gospel – Mark 10:35-45

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Jesus and said to him,
“Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”
He replied, “What do you wish me to do for you?”
They answered him, “Grant that in your glory
we may sit one at your right and the other at your left.”
Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking.
Can you drink the cup that I drink
or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”
They said to him, “We can.”
Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink, you will drink,
and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized;
but to sit at my right or at my left is not mine to give
but is for those for whom it has been prepared.”
When the ten heard this, they became indignant at James and John.
Jesus summoned them and said to them,
“You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles
lord it over them,
and their great ones make their authority over them felt.
But it shall not be so among you.
Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant;
whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.
For the Son of Man did not come to be served
but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Today’s gospel reading is filled with misunderstandings, paradoxes, and reversals.  James and John seek places of prominence in Jesus’ kingdom; Jesus informs them that real prominence is found in service, not authority.

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Jesus and said to him,

Along with Peter, James and John comprised the inner circle among the disciples. These three were the only ones present at the transfiguration, at the raising of Jairus’ daughter, and in the garden of Gethsemane.

“Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”

In the parallel gospel (Matthew 20:20), their mother is the one who makes the request.

He replied, “What do you wish me to do for you?” They answered him, “Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left.”

The request recalls Jesus’ promise of twelve thrones in Matthew 19:28 — Jesus said to them, “Amen, I say to you that you who have followed me, in the new age, when the Son of Man is seated on his throne of glory, will yourselves sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”

The thrones closest to Jesus, immediately to right and left, would be places of honor.

Just before this passage, Jesus has given the most explicit prediction of his suffering.  James and John dismiss the thought of suffering and ask to be vice-regents with Jesus in his glory.

Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup that I drink

The imagery of the cup is one of suffering and death (see Isaiah 51:17-22; Jeremiah 25:15).

“I bless you, Lord, because you have granted me this day and hour, that I may be numbered among the martyrs, to share the cup of Christ and to rise again unto life everlasting, both in body and soul, in the immortality of the Holy Spirit. May I be received among them this day in Your presence, a rich and acceptable sacrifice, just as You have prepared and revealed beforehand and fulfilled, for You who are the God of truth and in You there is no falsehood” [Saint Polycarp of Smyrna (A.D. 156), as recorded in the Martyrdom of Polycarp, 14 (written ca. A.D. 158)].

or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”

Since suffering purifies the soul, Jesus draws the parallel with baptism, which also washes away sin (see Romans 6:3; Luke 12:50).

Their request for a share in his glory must, by necessity, involve a share in his sufferings.

They said to him, “We can.”

This answer clearly indicates that they do not yet understand the nature of Jesus’ life and ministry.  Even if they could have grasped the meaning of his words, they could have hardly imagined their full implications.  They fully believed that Jesus would reign in glory; this belief, while accurate, blinded them from the possibility of his humiliating trial and execution.

Of course, this answer is also full of irony considering their subsequent cowardice during the passion (although James was later martyred (Acts 12:2)).

Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink, you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized;

They will indeed face what he must face, but they will not do so as willingly as they presume.

but to sit at my right or at my left is not mine to give but is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

The parallel account in Matthew (20:23) gives this prerogative to the Father.

This saying implies some subordination of Jesus to the Father and was exploited by the Arians in early Christological debates. For whom these places are reserved is not clear.

When the ten heard this, they became indignant at James and John.

They were probably not upset because the request made was so audacious, but because it was made before anyone else could make comparable requests.  The teaching that follows shows that the apostles were all ambitious and that they all misunderstood.

Jesus summoned them and said to them, “You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority over them felt.

Roman power was exercised primarily through force, intimidation, and an elaborate network of patronage designed to assure absolute loyalty to the emperor.

But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant;

The way of power in secular kingdoms is anathema to true followers of Jesus.  Their leadership and prominence is based on service, not raw power or authority.

whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.

Jesus amplifies the teaching: the greatest among the servants will be a slave, an even lower status than servant.

For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

In the time of Jesus, ransom was the price paid to free someone from slavery.  Sometimes the ransomer offered himself as a substitute for the slave.

Note that Jesus humbles himself beyond slave status: he is a convicted criminal,  executed via crucifixion, a torturous death reserved for pirates and enemies of the state.

“He is our sanctification, as Himself being purity, that the pure may be encompassed by His purity. He is our redemption, because He sets us free who were held captive under sin, giving Himself as a ransom for us, the sacrifice to make expiation for the world. He is our resurrection, because He raises up, and brings to life again, those who were slain by sin” [Gregory of Nazianz (A.D. 380), Theological Orations, 4,20].

“He shared with us our punishment, but not our sin. Death is the punishment of sin
(Genesis 2:17). The Lord Jesus Christ came to die; He did not come to sin. By sharing with us the penalty without the sin, He canceled both the penalty and the sin” [Saint Augustine of Hippo (between A.D. 391-430), Sermons on the Liturgical Seasons, For the Easter Season, (No. 231,2)].

Connections and Themes

  • Today’s readings all revolve around the saving love of God.
    • Isaiah praises the servant who through his suffering will justify many.  The Church sees this as a description of Jesus.
    • The letter to the Hebrews speaks of Jesus as a high priest who is able to sympathize with us because he has been tested in every way.  The important distinction is that he was tested despite being sinless, as was the suffering servant in Isaiah.
    • The gospel reading is the last portion of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, during which he spoke of his impending suffering.  His disciples misunderstand him as he describes his adoption of the role of Isaiah’s servant, the Son of Man who will give his life as a ransom for many.
  • Today’s readings have been called “Christmas in advance,” because they celebrate gifts that are startlingly generous.
  • James and John knew that Jesus spoke the truth, and that generous blessings awaited them.  After all, they had left their lives to become his disciples.  However, they want to know if they could hope for a little more, and asked for prominence in God’s kingdom.  The irony is that as part of the inner circle of apostles, they already had prominence!  Among other things, they along with Peter, were the only witnesses of the transfiguration (Mark 9:2-8), an amazing insight into Jesus’ true nature.  Are we, like James and John, requesting privileges from God that he has already granted us?
  • Jesus did not deny places of honor to James and John, but he described their prominence in terms of service to others.  The closer we are to Jesus, the more we will be expected to emulate him.  In all the leadership roles we occupy, we must be servants, as Jesus was a servant.
  • We must not only emulate Jesus’ in leadership, we must model his self-sacrifice.  We will drink from his cup of suffering; we will be baptized into his death.  Obviously this will come at a heavy price, as we know that much is demanded from those to whom much is given (Luke 12:48).  When we struggle with our hardships, our cross, we look to Jesus. Because he is fully human (and fully divine), he can truly sympathize with our weakness and identify with our suffering.  We can draw strength from his example and adopt his attitude: to serve God with an eternal outlook, not seeking any earthly reward.

 

 

 

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