By FATHER DONALD DILGER
Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading: Isaiah 53:1-11; Response: Psalm 33:4-5, 18-19, 20, 22; Second Reading: Hebrews 4:14-16; Gospel: Mark 10:35-45
The first reading is from the collected oracles of an unnamed prophet whose work is found in Isaiah 40-55. Embedded in his oracles, his prophetic statements, are four poems called ‘The Songs of the Servant of the Lord.” Today’s liturgy gives us part of the fourth of these poems. The four poems had a huge influence on the formation of the theology of St. Paul’s Letters, on the four gospels, and on other New Testament documents. The four gospels as we now have them, though based on the memories of eye and ear witnesses of Jesus, were put into final form by authors not thought to have been present with Jesus in his time. The gospels were written anonymously 40 to 65 years after Jesus’ earthly ministry. The names they now have were attached later and may or may not be accurate. The names are not part of revelation. Paul was the first of the New Testament authors, and he has no claim to have been an eye or ear witness except in a later vision. Besides oral tradition and some written tradition, New Testament writers relied heavily on the Old Testament. In the Passion Narratives, the Servant Songs are foundational.
Therefore, we see expressions in our first reading that recall the Passion Narratives of our gospels. “The Lord was pleased to crush him in our infirmity.” Our gospels insist that it was the will of the Father that the Son undergo the weakness of the cross and death. The Son obeyed his Father’s will. “If he gives his life as an offering for sin . . . .” That Jesus took on the burden of suffering for sinners is a given in Paul’s theology and in our gospels. Example: “The Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many,” in today’s gospel. Foundational to the teaching of Jesus’ resurrection to glory, “Because of his affliction he will see the light in fullness of day.” A verse of the fourth Song of the Servant, “Through his suffering my Servant shall justify many, is the source of our confusing use of the word many in the Words of Institution in our Eucharistic Prayers, “. . . the blood of the new and eternal covenant, which will be poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” The final statement in our first reading, “. . . and their guilt he shall bear,” is the Old Testament foundation for the theology of Jesus’ vicarious suffering. The vicarious nature of his suffering is expressed for example in words so familiar, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”
Psalm 33 is not the most obvious selection to respond to the first reading, but it can be done. The following words of the second set of verses can echo the suffering and vindication of the Servant of the Lord, “The eyes of the Lord are upon those who revere him . . . to deliver them from death.” The psalmist praises the Lord for his kindness, trustworthiness, justice, righteousness. “The Lord is our help and our shield.” After praising the Lord, the psalmist adds a prayer of petition, “Lord, let your mercy be upon us, as we place our trust in you.”
Taken by itself and out of context, the reading from Hebrews reminds us that this is the only New Testament document that calls Jesus ‘priest’ and ‘high priest.’ The author gives us a consoling thought. “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness, but one who has been tested in every way, yet without sin.” High priests of the Old Testament offered sacrifices of atonement not only for the sins of the people but also for their own sins. Our high priest, Jesus, the Son of God, was without sin. Therefore, he offers his sacrifice only for the sins of his people. Because he became one of us even in temptation, “Let us with confidence approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help.”
Immediately preceding the episode of today’s gospel, Jesus spoke his third prediction of his arrest, rejection by chief priests and scribes, being handed over to Roman authorities in Jerusalem, torture, execution, death and resurrection. The fact that Jesus and company were on the way to Jerusalem for Passover stirred within the disciples the false idea that he was about to set up his kingdom in Jerusalem. With this idea came the ambition to get the most important posts in his kingdom. The youngest among them, James and John, sons of Zebedee, approach Jesus, “Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right hand and the other at your left.” Jesus informed them they had no idea what they were asking. He elaborates, “Can you drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” They did not understand that he was using Old Testament terminology to express his own martyrdom. With the impulsiveness of youth they answer, “We can!” Jesus assures them they will drink that cup and will undergo the kind of baptism he will undergo. He was speaking of their coming martyrdom. This implies that by the time Mark wrote his gospel about the year 70, the Zebedee brothers were no more. We know from Acts 12:2 that James was martyred in 42 A.D. in Jerusalem. The legend that John was boiled in oil and unharmed, then lived into old age, has no credibility.
The other 10 disciples overheard the attempted power-grab of James and John. They were indignant. To them, it was conceivable that the Zebedee brothers had succeeded, since they were especially close to Jesus, probably first cousins. They knew that Semitic tradition leaned toward keeping power in the family. Jesus knew of their indignation and countered with a lesson in humility. The lesson is given on two levels — Jesus to his disciples in the 30s of the first century, and Mark to the leaders of Christian congregations in the 70s of the first century. The lesson goes like this. Among the heathens, rulers lord it over their subjects. Not so among followers of Jesus. “Whoever wants to be great among you shall be your servant. Whoever wishes to be first shall be the servant of all.” The lesson in humility closes with a prime example. “For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to give his life as a ransom for many.”