Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time



Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

First Reading: Isaiah 50:4c-9a; Response: Psalm 116:1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 8-9; Second Reading: James 2:14-18; Gospel: Mark 8:27-35

The first reading is from a part of Isaiah called Second Isaiah. This prophet’s oracles are found in chapters 40-55. In 1892 a German biblical scholar, Bernhard Duhm, isolated four poems or songs within these chapters. They sing of a Servant of the Lord. They are located in Isaiah 42:1-9, 49:1-6, 50:4-9, 52:13-53:12. Much of the material of these poems details the sufferings, the vicarious death, and ultimate vindication of the unnamed Servant. The identity of the Servant has been debated without definitive conclusion. Sometimes the Servant is a metaphor for Israel as a people. Mostly the Servant is clearly an individual. Though his identity is uncertain, editors attached his oracles to those of Isaiah of Jerusalem, which are found in chapters 1-39. The most likely candidate to be the Servant is the prophet himself, whose oracles are found in these chapters. Editors also added oracles of another prophet called Third Isaiah, chapters 56-66. Our concern here is the Christian interpretation of these poems as predictive of the suffering, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus.

Our first reading is the third of these poems. For Christians acquainted with the Passion Narratives of our gospels, the details of the Servant’s sufferings sound familiar. So similar are they that the author is sometimes called the fifth evangelist. A glance at them makes it easy to see why interpreters saw them as predictive of Jesus. It is not impossible that through inspiration of the Holy Spirit the four poems were intended even in their origin to acquire new meaning in the New Testament. Since our gospels were written 40-60 years after Jesus’ life on earth, and not by eyewitnesses, we may conclude that the gospel authors/editors used the concepts and terminology of the four poems in constructing the Passion Narratives. Note the following expressions and consider how they are reflected in our gospels. “I made no resistance. I have not turned 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.” These expressions determined the selection of this reading to accompany today’s gospel. In the gospel, Jesus speaks of his approaching suffering and death.

Psalm 116 is a song of thanksgiving for deliverance from death. Possibly the psalmist had recovered from a severe illness. Other possibilities: if the psalm originated from King David it could have expressed his deliverance from the rebellion of his son Absalom or recovery from the death of his first child with Bathsheba. It was selected for today’s liturgy to respond to the first reading and connect us with the Passion and resurrection predictions of Jesus in today’s gospel. These verses are the connection with both readings. “The cords of death encompassed me. I fell into distress and sorrow. He has freed my soul from death. I was brought low and he saved me.” The people respond, “I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living.”

Though there is debate about the author of the Letter of James, it is unlikely that the author is James, son of Zebedee, who was already martyred in 42 A.D. The date of the letter is later. Nor is it James, son of Alphaeus, one of the 12 of whom we know nothing. The best candidate is James of Jerusalem, a conservative power in early Christianity. New Testament sources call him the brother of the Lord. Today’s selection takes on Paul’s teaching of being saved by faith. James asserts that it is not by faith alone that we are saved but by faith and works. He gives an example of the importance of good works, then concludes, “So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”

Mark opens this important episode of the gospel with another instance of theological geography. Jesus and his disciples go north out of the Holy Land to Caesarea Philippi, that is, into Gentile territory. The Good News must be taken not only to the Jews but to all nations. This does not seem a crucial issue now, but it was crucial in the first Christian century. Jesus asks his disciples what the latest opinion poll is saying about him, “Who do people say that I am?” They respond, “John the Baptizer or Elijah or one of the prophets.” We know from the gospel that Herod Antipas, murderer of John, was afraid John had returned in the person of Jesus. Since Elijah had been raptured up to heaven in a chariot of fire, and since all people had to die, it was commonly believed that Elijah would return to die. Jesus asks again, “But who do you say that I am?” The spokesman for the 12, Simon Peter, answers, “You are the Christ (Messiah).” This statement is a watershed in the role of the disciples in Mark’s gospel. Up to this point in the narrative they have been clueless about his identity. Shortly before this episode, Jesus displayed his human frustration with them, when he asked, “Do you not yet understand?” Now they finally understood something. But not enough, considering what happened next.

Mark inserts Jesus’ first prediction of his approaching suffering, his rejection by the leadership of his own nation, his death and resurrection. Peter had just proclaimed him Messiah with all the royal power that implies. Now he relapses from that moment of insight. He pulls his Teacher aside and rebukes him for talking nonsense. Bad move! Jesus reacts. Turning to the other disciples, Jesus publicly rebuked Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! Your thinking is human, not of God.” Simon Peter and the other disciples had the wrong idea of the Messiah as it was in God’s plan. The Messiah (Christ) would not set up a political, geographical kingdom in Jerusalem, get rid of Roman occupation forces, and govern with the 12. Calling Peter “Satan” implies that such a plan is diabolic. Mark adds a collection of Jesus’ sayings revealing that not only Jesus will attain a kingdom through suffering and death, but expects the same from those who would follow him as disciples. “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.”