TWENTY-NINTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – B – October 21, 2018

A reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah 53:10-11
A reading from the Letter to the Hebrews 4:14-16
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Mark 10:35-45

 

Dear Friend in Christ,

We must be careful how we interpret the opening words of this Sunday’s first reading from the Prophet Isaiah.  The Lord was pleased to crush him in infirmity.  Taken literally, one could hear that God is sadistic and delights in people’s suffering.  It is true that there have been periods in the Church’s history that would seem to indicate that this was so.  How else explain the wearing of hair shirts or prickly wire tightly wound around the waist?  Why else would there be merit seen in extreme fasting?  Do we believe in a God who looks on people inflicting pain on themselves and delights?

Isaiah’s Suffering Servant songs are taken as prophetic texts that are fulfilled in Jesus.  We will hear the present reading proclaimed on Good Friday.  It is true that some commentators see Jesus’ passion and death on the cross in that light.  But what we ought to hear in this proclamation is God’s delight in the innocent One who takes on himself the sufferings of others merited by their sinfulness.  He is the one faithful to God when the others stray and give themselves to Baal and take up pagan ways.  He is the prophet challenging the Israelites to return to the Lord God and be faithful again.  In so doing, the prophet is rejected and scourged.  

Think of the Prophet Jeremiah who found himself hurled into the cistern, where he sank into the mud.  Why?  Because he warned the king and those in power that if they did not repent, Jerusalem would fall.  It is the Prophet’s fidelity that pleases God.  And God promises reward.  The Suffering Servant shall see the light in fullness of days; through his suffering, (God’s) servant shall justify many, and their guilt he shall bear.  The Suffering Servant becomes the source of blessings for those many others among whom he moves and announces what God wants the people to hear.  That is the charism of the prophet, to give voice to the divine message that calls people to reform their lives.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of those prophets.  Call to mind the marches he led in Alabama and his preaching from the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C.  God did not delight when King was shot.  God was pleased by the changes in attitude that followed from King’s death, changes that he saw from the “mountain top” the night before he died.

Blessed Oscar Romero was another of those prophets, one who shepherded in the midst of the poor ones and challenged the powerful to restore dignity to them.  Changes in El Salvador continue to emerge even as in death the voice of the Archbishop continues to be heard in the land through recordings of his preaching.  Romero was shot during a celebration of Eucharist.  The power of the sign resonates to this day.  The faithful believe that God lifted him up, fulfilling the promise of Eucharist.

The second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews invites us to consider Jesus, the Son of God, the great high priest who has passed through the heavens.  Priests were part of the tradition of the Hebrews, just as they are part of our own.  The priest stands as a mediator between God and the people.  In need of mediation and forgiveness themselves because they are sinners, invoking God’s mercy on himself and on the people with whom he gathers at the table in shared ministry.

The model for priestly ministry is our Great High Priest, the one who does not make us cower in dread, but one who sympathizes with our weaknesses, because he has been tested in every way we have.  Tempted might be a better translation than tested.  Temptation speaks more clearly of inner struggle.  It is important for us to hear in the three synoptic Gospels that Jesus’ public ministry begins with the struggle in the desert.  The implication is clear.  Jesus knew temptations to vary from the Father’s will all through his time of preaching, healing, and forgiving.  The difference is clear also.  Where as we know what it means to succumb to temptation, our Great High Priest did not sin.  The author of the Letter to the Hebrews wants us to know that Christ is sympathetic to our needs and to us, and is always a source of strengthening grace and forgiveness.  Through Christ comes mercy.

An embarrassing moment for James and John, the sons of Zebedee, opens the gospel reading for today.  It becomes clear that the brothers do not understand the kind of Messiah Jesus is.  They have witnessed the miracles, the feeding of the five thousand among those miracles, as well as the healing of the blind, the deaf, the mute, the lepers and the crippled.  Pondering these events and seeing the crowds gathering around Jesus, they have concluded that Jesus is a mighty Messiah about to establish an earthly kingdom.  They want to be in prominent and powerful positions when the kingdom comes.  Remember, they had left everything to follow Jesus.  This was their time to claim the reward they thought should be coming to them.  Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and one at your left.

Jesus does not reprimand them for their boldness and misunderstanding – dare we say, pride?  Rather, this becomes a teaching moment.  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?  What did the brothers know about either?  All they knew was that they could see themselves playing prominent roles in everything they had seen Jesus do so far.  Without a moment’s hesitation, they said: We can.  They do not realize that when Jesus affirms their response that he is telling them that his cross will be a part of their lives.  Their being apostles will mean that they will be martyrs for the cause.  But as for the reward coming?  The Father will determine that.

The other ten are angry with James and John for what they have asked of Jesus.  Part of their anger may well have stemmed from their desire for exactly what the brothers had wanted, prominent positions in the coming kingdom.  So it is time for the Twelve to learn what the Kingdom will be like.  They know how Gentiles exert power by making others subservient.  That is not what it will be like in Jesus’ realm.  There, those who want, in today’s parlance, to be top dogs, will be the servants of everyone else, the exact opposite of what the apostles desired.  By the way, that is why the pope is called the Servant of the Servants of God.  In Jesus’ words, the pope should see himself as the slave of all, because that is how Jesus sees himself.  Pope Francis exemplifies this to the consternation of some who would rather align with James and John’s expectations.  Some do not want to hear that the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.  

See how Jesus is the fulfillment of the Suffering Servant in the first reading?  We who are disciples of this age must hear the lesson and take it to heart.  If we embrace discipleship, we rejoice in being feet-washers and will not be surprised if the cross becomes increasingly evident in our lives.  We might have to give our lives in union with Jesus as part of the ransom for the many.

When we come together for Eucharist, it is community that ought to be immediately apparent.  These people gather in Christ to imitate Christ in loving service, to be one in Christ and one with each other.  We gather for the proclamation of the Word, the prophetic voice forming us, calling us to ongoing conversion and the experience of the forgiveness that is ours in Christ.  The Priesthood of the Baptized gathers with the Ordained Priesthood to co-celebrate and give thanks to God in the renewal of Christ’s dying and rising.  Various ministries, Greeters, Ushers, Lectors, Altar Servers, and Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, remind us that each of us is called to be the servant or slave of all.  We lord it over no one.  We are not passive spectators, but full, active, and conscious participants in the Liturgy.  Together we are Church.

I sat with a friend and listened to him as he poured out his soul in anguish over the news that he had just received that he had Alzheimer’s disease.  He had known success and had acquired considerable wealth.  He had been also a faithful parishioner and had given himself in service of others in the St. Vincent de Paul ‘Society.  I will never forget his words, even as tears welled in his eyes.  This (Alzheimer’s disease) was the last thing that I thought I would have to face.  Cancer would have been preferable.  I wonder how long I will be aware that my faculties are slipping away.  How long will I recognize my wife and daughters?  When will I stop recognizing you?  But I want you to know this now.  If this is the way I am supposed to pour myself out in imitation of Christ, I accept it.  I just hope that when I am completely dependent on others, they will be patient with me.  I pray that I will be able to remember that heaven is coming.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Didymus  

 

   

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