The Babylonian Empire had replaced the Assyrians in conquering Israel by the time of the second author of the Book of Isaiah, whose work we hear today. The people had been taken to Babylonia and lived in exile there. Our first reading for this Twenty-fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time was written early in their long exile. It is one of four “songs” of the Servant of the Lord, also called the Suffering Servant (Is 50:5-9a). This person is one who has been called by the Lord and formed to speak the Lord’s words. Today’s song is the third one. The Servant has had a rough time. He has listened and followed the Lord’s word. He has not sinned or turned against God in any way. Yet he has met opposition from those around him. He has been physically assaulted and insulted in many ways. Nevertheless, he remains steadfast in trusting the Lord. He challenges his opponents to come before the Lord with him and see, trusting that because the Lord God is his help, none will prove him wrong.
Psalm 116 continues the theme. In time of trouble, the faithful one calls upon the Lord and the Lord responds. The faithful one is saved and “shall walk with the Lord in the land of the living.” In the time this psalm was written, the people did not believe in eternal life or heaven. The psalmist believed that after death all that remained was a shadowy netherworld from which no one could ever return. This psalm was one of praise for healing of a potentially mortal illness, but for Christians, it is also a reminder that the Lord God protects those who are faithful. “I will walk before the Lord, in the land of the living.” Christians extend the land of the living to eternal life, beyond that which we experience here and now.
St. Mark drew on the Suffering Servant prophecies in presenting the life of Jesus. In today’s reading, Jesus and his friends are on the road (Mk 8:27-35). Jesus asks them what they are hearing people say about him. Some think he is his cousin, John the Baptist, returned from the dead. Others think he might be Elijah, the prophet who was expected to return before the coming of God’s Anointed One, the Messiah, the Chosen One. The Messiah would bring reconciliation between God and humanity. When Jesus asked them who they themselves thought he might be, Peter responded for them. “You are the Christ.” The word Christ as used here means the Anointed One, the Chosen One.
It seems rather incongruous that the very next thing we hear about Peter is when Jesus rebukes him, calling him Satan, meaning adversary or enemy. What is going on?
Jesus knew that he had enemies in high places. His teaching about the importance of caring for each other and for God’s “little ones” – those of any age who were unable to fend for themselves – was a threat to the wealthy and powerful leaders of his people and to the Roman conquerors. Rome did not deal gently with those it perceived to be a threat. Nevertheless, he was on his way to Jerusalem, called to speak the truth of God’s care for all to the leaders of his people as well. He warned his followers that it would not go well for him. Most likely he would be killed.
Peter and most others were expecting a messiah who would deliver the country from the Romans. Not someone who would be killed by them. What kind of a messiah would not lead the people to triumph over their enemies? God was on their side, so they would triumph militarily as they had in former ages. Besides, Jesus was his friend. What kind of friend would not try to protect the companion he loved and followed?
But Jesus knew that violent revolution would not bring true freedom. He was not called to be that kind of chosen one. That was not God’s way. St. Mark has Jesus saying, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” This was written about 35-40 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, so it is from the perspective of one who knew what had happened to Jesus. The people were experiencing persecution and rejection from their communities. It was not an easy thing to be a follower of Jesus. Mark’s words were intended to encourage the community and make it clear that Jesus was the one to whom the Suffering Servant songs of Isaiah had pointed. This really was the one the Lord would raise up and whose faithfulness would be vindicated.
How does it all play out in everyday life for the believer? St. James speaks of this (Jas 2:14-18). Faith in the Lord is important. But for James, the proof of the pudding is in what people do, not in what they say. How do we respond to the poor in our midst? If we simply throw kind words but don’t include food, clothing, shelter, and other necessities, we are not living out our faith. Jesus healed the sick, fed the hungry, forgave those who hurt him. His followers must do the same. A life of faith requires commitment to sharing and serving those in need of help. The gifts and talents we have received must be shared.
Daniel Berrigan, SJ once said, “If you are going to follow Jesus, you better look good on wood.”
What wood will I need to look good on?
What am I called to do? Who am I called to help? What will my friends on social media think if I support an unpopular cause? Will my family support me or will they oppose my positions? Will they just write off what I say? Does it matter?
As we continue to live our daily lives, may we be ever more aware of the needs of those around us. May we choose to believe that they are trying hard and doing their best, even if they aren’t able to achieve “success” in the ways our family or friends would define it. May we meet them as companions in the journey, not as outsiders who intend to “save” them from their situation and then get on with our lives again. May we walk with the Lord in the land of the living, in all his many disguises.Read More