Sep 12, 2021: 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Faith without works

1st Reading – Isaiah 50:4c-9a

The Lord GOD opens my ear that I may hear;
and I have not rebelled,
have not turned back.
I gave my back to those who beat me,
my cheeks to those who plucked my beard;
my face I did not shield
from buffets and spitting.

The Lord GOD is my help,
therefore I am not disgraced;
I have set my face like flint,
knowing that I shall not be put to shame.
He is near who upholds my right;
if anyone wishes to oppose me,
let us appear together.
Who disputes my right?
Let that man confront me.
See, the Lord GOD is my help;
who will prove me wrong?

The passage from Isaiah that we read today is a portion of the third Servant Song, which we also read on Passion (Palm) Sunday.

Isaiah offered words of hope to the Israelites while they were in exile in Babylon. He also helped them find meaning in the suffering they were enduring. In this context, the suffering servant Isaiah writes about is the nation of Israel; however, before this poem found its way into the Book of Isaiah, it may well have existed independently and have been referring to the prophet himself.

Whether we think of the servant as the nation in exile or the prophet, the lesson is the same. Rather than avoid the suffering he is facing, he accepts it and professes confidence in God.

The Lord GOD opens my ear that I may hear; 

Open ears are symbolic of openness to God. Note that the servant takes no credit — it is God who opens his ear; his readiness to accept God’s will is a gift of grace.

and I have not rebelled, have not turned back. I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; My face I did not shield from buffets and spitting.

A heavy price is exacted from the speaker. Like the prophets before him (Amos 7:10-17; Micah 2:6-10; Jeremiah 20:7-18), the servant is tested by various torments.

He willingly hands himself over to be beaten and shamed. He does not try to escape or defend himself; he does not recoil from his call. If he suffers in silence, it is not out of cowardice but because God helps him and makes him stronger than his persecutors.

No explanation is given as to why his prophecy should elicit such a violent response, or even who his persecutors might be. All we know is that his ministry generates this response and that he does not abandon it or take himself out of harm’s way.

Christians see the servant’s docility as a reference to Christ:

“His self-discipline and wisdom enabled him to communicate to us the knowledge of the Father. And he was obedient onto death, death on the cross; he offered his body to the blows they struck, his shoulders to the lash; and though he was wounded on the chest and on his face, he did not try to turn away and escape their violence” (Saint Jerome, Commentarii In Isaiam, 50, 4).

The Lord GOD is my help, therefore I am not disgraced;

Despite his maltreatment, he is confident that God is with him. This is remarkable because at the time, suffering was generally thought to be the result of some kind of sin against God. Most in his position would have interpreted his abuse as evidence that God is on the side of their persecutors.

There are no grounds for the speaker to make this claim other than utter confidence in God.

I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame.

A phrase frequent in prophetic preaching (Ezekiel 3:8-9; Luke 9:51). It has special meaning here when you picture a face covered with spittle.

Note the speaker’s confidence is not that God will take away this suffering, but that God is present and will help him carry out his call.

He is near who upholds my right; if anyone wishes to oppose me, let us appear together. Who disputes my right? Let him confront me.

The language in these last verses is legalistic, calling to mind a court of law. The servant challenges his opponents to bring their case against him.

See, the Lord GOD is my help; who will prove me wrong?

A profession of exceptional confidence. With God at his side, no one will be able to make a case against him. Saint Paul will later refer to this verse when describing Christ in the role of intercessor on behalf of the elect, in the suit constantly pressed against them by the enemies of the soul: “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect?” (Romans 8:33).

The entire reading reinterprets the customary understanding of suffering, which was traditionally understood as a sign of alienation from God. However, here we see that even in adversity, even at our lowest point, God is with us as an advocate. He may not alleviate the affliction, but God stands by us; the suffering strengthens the one who laments.

The messianic nature of Isaiah’s suffering servant songs was only understood after Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection. Once the early church came to terms with Jesus’ crucifixion, the suffering servant songs were used to probe the mystery of suffering. In them was found the profound truth that sometimes, in order to be faithful to one’s vocation, one must accept suffering.

Suffering has a role in God’s mysterious plan.

2nd Reading – James 2:14-18

What good is it, my brothers and sisters,
if someone says he has faith but does not have works?
Can that faith save him?
If a brother or sister has nothing to wear
and has no food for the day,
and one of you says to them,
“Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,”
but you do not give them the necessities of the body,
what good is it?
So also faith of itself,
if it does not have works, is dead.

Indeed someone might say,
“You have faith and I have works.”
Demonstrate your faith to me without works,
and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works.

As we continue our study of the Epistle of Saint James, the author addresses a misunderstanding in the church regarding the nature of true faith.

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?

Using the popular format of diatribe, the author asks a rhetorical question that implies “nothing” as its answer, because true faith does not exist apart from deeds. The mere suggestion is ludicrous.

Can that faith save him?

Another rhetorical question asked of an imaginary opponent.

Because genuine faith leads to obedience to God’s will, and because obedience results in works, a faith without deeds cannot obtain salvation (see Matthew 7:21).

James’ point is not that we earn God’s favor through good works. Rather, his point is that a person who has faith, who has experienced God’s saving power, will naturally act with love toward others.

If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it?

James provides a straightforward example to illustrate his point. The situation is not far-fetched, as these circumstances would have been very common in the early Church.

Characterizing the one in need as “a brother or sister” indicates that they are from the same community. Their basic needs for food and clothing are recognized by fellow believers, but their response is “go in peace,” the standard expression of dismissal.

As Christians, their faith holds that all are part of the body of Christ, and what they do for the least of their brothers, they do for Christ (Matthew 25:35-40). The believers in this example have failed to live our that faith.

If Christians have no concern for each other’s needs, how little care would they have for those they viewed as outsiders?

So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

Living faith must be practical, expressed in action.

James does not place faith and works in opposition to each other, nor are they mutually exclusive. He is contrasting a living faith and a dead one.

Indeed someone might say, “You have faith and I have works.” Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works.

James resumes his imaginative dialogue. He exposes the absurdity of separating faith and works by asking: How can a saving faith be demonstrated except through some kind of visible or tangible action?

James’ opponents want to separate faith and works so that they can be ranked, with faith being held as predominant. James insists that such a separation is impossible: if they cannot show this through their own actions, he will show it through his.

Gospel – Mark 8:27-35

Jesus and his disciples set out
for the villages of Caesarea Philippi.
Along the way he asked his disciples,
“Who do people say that I am?”
They said in reply,
“John the Baptist, others Elijah,
still others one of the prophets.”
And he asked them,
“But who do you say that I am?”
Peter said to him in reply,
“You are the Christ.”
Then he warned them not to tell anyone about him.

He began to teach them
that the Son of Man must suffer greatly
and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes,
and be killed, and rise after three days.
He spoke this openly.
Then Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.
At this he turned around and, looking at his disciples,
rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan.
You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”

He summoned the crowd with his disciples and said to them,
“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself,
take up his cross, and follow me.
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
but whoever loses his life for my sake
and that of the gospel will save it.”

As we noted last week, miracle stories direct our attention to the identity of Jesus. Who is this person who can perform such acts of power?

Between last week’s story of Jesus healing the deaf man and this week’s gospel reading, Mark recounts a second story of Jesus feeding the multitude (Mark 8:1-10), another story of Jesus having a controversy with the Pharisees as they ask him for a sign (Mark 8:11-13), a conversation with the disciples about their lack of understanding (Mark 8:14-21), and the miracle story of the curing of a blind man (Mark 8:22-26).

Now in today’s reading, Jesus explicitly asks the question these miracle stories have been prompting in us: “Who do people say that I am?”

This is the turning point of Jesus’ public ministry in Mark’s gospel, where the disciples first recognize him as the Messiah. After this episode, Jesus begins making his way to Jerusalem and to his cross.

Jesus and his disciples set out for the villages of Caesarea Philippi.

A town at the foot of Mount Hermon and close to the headwaters of the Jordan River, about twenty miles north of the Sea of Galilee.

Herod the Great built a marble temple to Caesar Augustus there, and his son Philip changed the ancient town’s name from Paneas to Caesarea. To distinguish it from the other Caesarea, the well-known Mediterranean port, it was known as Philip’s Caesarea, or Caesarea Philippi.

Along the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”

Jesus is not seeking information as much as he is guiding his disciples to consider the question, and by answering it, learn something. He is also preparing them to make their own assessment of him.

It’s interesting to think about how we would answer this question today, in modern times. Certain aspects of our culture seem to place Jesus on par with Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, but Jesus isn’t a figment of our cultural imagination, he was an actual person who lived in history. Others want to diminish Jesus’ stature to that of simply a nice person or a good teacher. This is not unique to our time, of course; countless people and cultures have tried to minimize the role of Jesus and his impact on humanity.

They said in reply, “John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others one of the prophets.”

This response shows that Jesus’ ministry, particularly the miracles he has performed, has caused many conversations about his identity. These specific answers point to prophets who have already died. Popular opinion seems to concur that Jesus is a true prophet, and perhaps one who has come back from the grave.

And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?”

Jesus puts the question to them more personally, asking how those in his inner circle identify him.

Peter said to him in reply, “You are the Christ.”

Peter speaks for the group when he proclaims that Jesus is the Christ, a Greek word meaning “the anointed one.” The same term in Hebrew is messiah.

In every gospel, Peter is portrayed as the spokesperson for the disciples as he professes this faith in Jesus (see Matthew 16:13-20, Luke 9:18-21, John 6:67-69).

Then he warned them not to tell anyone about him.

Jesus prohibits them from making his messianic office known, to avoid confusing it with false interpretations of the nature of the Messiah. As Jesus is about to explain, the Messiah must suffer and die, a reality that neither the people nor even Jesus’ closest friends are prepared to accept.

He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days.

This perception of the Messiah differs radically from the expectations of the people, including his closest friends. Their idea of the messiah was someone whom God would send to save them from their political enemies. So when Peter said to Jesus, “You are the Christ,” he is saying that he believes God has sent Jesus to save the Israelites from the Romans, just as he sent Moses to save the people from the Egyptians, David to save them from the Philistines, and Cyrus to save them from the Babylonians.

It is because of this misunderstanding that Jesus tells the disciples to be quiet: he knows that they do not yet understand the full truth of what they have professed.

He spoke this openly.

In contrast to teaching in the form of parables, which he often did. Some translate this as “he spoke plainly about this.”

Then Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.

When even Peter, the leader of the Twelve, fails to accept that the Messiah must suffer, the wisdom of Jesus’ secrecy regarding his messianic office becomes apparent.

The word used here for “rebuke” is the same one used earlier in Mark’s gospel for when Jesus silences demons (3:12) and calms the stormy sea (4:39).

Recall Saint Paul’s remark that for many, “the word of the cross is folly” (1 Corinthians 1:18).

At this he turned around and, looking at his disciples, rebuked Peter and said,

Mark employs full irony by noting that Jesus rebuked Peter in turn, using the same exact verb.

By looking at all of the disciples when addressing Peter, Jesus indicates that his reply is intended for the entire group.

“Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”

Rather than supporting Jesus on the necessity of his suffering, Peter suggests that it isn’t necessary. Mark’s Gospel is written to Christians who are facing persecution and possible martyrdom; as such, he is holding up Jesus as a model to them. Jesus chose suffering and the cross, which ultimately led to eternal life.

Anyone who tries to persuade another that suffering isn’t necessary is acting as Satan, tempting the person who must face suffering to be unfaithful. Jesus rejects Peter’s temptation in the harshest of terms.

By telling Peter to “get behind me,” Jesus is telling him to be a follower; he is not yet equipped to lead.

He summoned the crowd with his disciples and said to them,

Mark emphasizes the lesson to be learned from this interchange by having Jesus explain it to both the disciples and the crowd.

“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.

Jesus is insistent, and takes his message further: not only will he suffer, but his followers will also.

The instruction to “take up his cross” does not dictate that Christ’s followers should or would be crucified, but rather that they must follow the pattern of a crucified Jesus and submit to the will of God, regardless of the suffering that may result.

“How hard and painful does this appear! The Lord has required that ‘whoever will come after him must deny himself.’ But what He commands is neither hard nor painful when He Himself helps us in such a way so that the very thing He requires may be accomplished. … For whatever seems hard in what is enjoined, love makes easy” [Saint Augustine of Hippo (between 391-430 AD), Sermons, 46,1].

For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.

In the Greek and Latin Vulgate, the word translated here as “life” literally means “soul.” In the context of eternal life, they are the same.

Whoever wishes to save his earthly life will lose his eternal life, but whoever sacrifices his earthly life for Christ will save his eternal life.

Connections and Themes

  • All three of this week’s readings deal with the nature and consequences of following Christ.
    • The first reading, one of Isaiah’s servant songs, describes one who is just and also suffering. This person is foolish by worldly standards but accepted by God. Many see this suffering servant as a foreshadowing or prophecy of Christ and his passion.
    • The gospel has two major parts: Jesus interrogating his apostles about his identity, and his instruction for them on his impending suffering and death. He also makes it very clear that his followers must deny themselves and take up their own cross. The way of Christ is not an easy one.
    • The second reading from James underscores the need for Christians to take action, i.e., take up their cross. Professing faith in Christ while refusing to live out that faith is actually not faith at all.
  • Isaiah and Mark describe a Messiah that we may not expect or even think we want. We may wish for a powerful savior who will take the world by storm, not someone who will withstand being spit upon, or who will voluntarily march toward their own death at the hands of their enemy. Today we are challenged to accept Christ for who and what he is and to accept God’s plan for our salvation. Are we willing to follow in his footsteps, and accept suffering of our own? Are we willing to help change hearts and minds, beginning with our own? These are not questions to be answered in the future — Christ calls us to follow him today, now, in the present. Will we answer?
  • Jesus poses a direct question to his apostles: Who do you say that I am? This is the question at the very core of Christianity. Each of us must answer it, not only once, but again and again throughout the changing seasons and circumstances of our lives.
    • As Christians, we each stand on our own faith. There is no Christianity by association. It doesn’t matter who our parents say Jesus is, or who our spouses or pastors say that he is. This is the inescapable question that we must eventually answer for ourselves.
    • As we consider this question, it’s helpful to remember who Jesus claimed himself to be. The gospels clearly show that he claimed to be God. He referred to himself as the Son of Man, the Messiah, one who had the power to forgive sins, and one who, along with God, existed before the world was created. He backed up these claims by demonstrating his command of nature and power over sickness and death.
    • Jesus knows exactly who he is, yet he still asks: Who do you say that I am? This underscores the importance of our personal, individual faith. Who we say that he is matters, so much that he asks directly.
  • Jesus and Peter have a very interesting exchange. Think of it: the Church’s first Pope was called Satan by Christ! Like us, Peter was mistaken about the nature of Christ’s kingship and the way he would effect our salvation. Because of this, he is rebuked: “You are thinking not as God does, but as humans do.” This naturally leads us to ask: Well then, how does God think?
  • The answer is that God thinks in ways that are counter-intuitive to us. Those who would save their lives must lose them; those who would lose their lives will save them. The seed must die before it can bear fruit; likewise, Jesus will be killed, but then will be raised from the dead.
  • Note the full arc of Peter’s actions in this gospel account. He makes a great act of faith, acknowledging Jesus as the messiah. However, as soon as Jesus outlines exactly what this means — that he will suffer and die, willingly — Peter (understandably) protests and is rebuked. But then what happens? Peter does exactly what Christ asks: he “gets behind” Jesus and keeps following him, despite his confusion, despite his derision. Are we willing to do the same?

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