REFLECTIONS ON THE READINGS FOR THE 29th SUNDAY OF THE YEAR,
21st October 2018 CYCLE B
Isaiah 53:10-11; Psalm 32:4-5, 18-20, 22; Hebrews 4:14-16; Mark 10:35-45
The first reading today is the final part of the fourth Servant Song in Isaiah. It speaks of the servant’s suffering and the reaction of his contemporaries towards him, leading to the concluding verse of this whole section, words of thanksgiving for God’s wonderful deliverance of God’s faithful servant from the power of death. The servant is likened to an offering for sin. What is striking here is the use of the root of the Hebrew word for ‘righteous’, (‘tzadak’), used at the beginning of Isaiah as a requirement of human behaviour, whereas from chapter 40 onwards, it has been descriptive of God’s action. Here the two are combined: God’s righteousness is now to be a characteristic of the whole community. This whole section needs to be seen as a dramatic reversal of the state of affairs described at the beginning of Isaiah, in 1:4, where the people were “laden with iniquity”; now the servant will “bear their iniquities”. It is understandable that the writers of the New Testament should see these verses as playing a prominent part in Christian expressions of their faith, applying the sufferings of the servant to Jesus, and understanding his sufferings as effective for all human sin. However, we must remember that the words translated “infirmities” and “diseases” were used originally to express the broken state of the nation after the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BCE. At one level the servant was himself the suffering community; at another, the figure of the servant was used of that part of the community which was being restored through God’s saving power.
The theme of God’s love of ‘righteousness’ is continued in the verses we read from Psalm 32 today, a psalm which calls us to praise and declare God’s greatness, describing God as creator and defender of God’s people, watching over those who trust in the love of the Eternal One.
The writer of Hebrews, having worked with the theme of fidelity, exemplified by Jesus and called for in his followers, now speaks of mercy. The combination of “mercy” and “grace” is common in both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures and should inspire us with confidence. The summons to approach God “with boldness” calls for such confidence before God, which is exemplified in Christ’s prayer.
The suffering of the servant in Isaiah is echoed in our reading from Mark, for this section has been preceded by the third prediction of the passion. Once again, the failure of the disciples to grasp Jesus’ meaning is demonstrated; they fail to see the implications of his teaching for their own lives. The attitudes which Jesus demands of his disciples are based on his own life of service and his acceptance of death. It’s significant that this incident is recorded immediately after the statement that Jesus was now going up to Jerusalem. No sooner is the end in sight, than the disciples begin to ask for a share in Jesus’ future kingly power. Mark reminds his readers that Jesus is indeed going to be proclaimed king in Jerusalem, but it will involve shame and crucifixion. The application of this teaching to the life of Mark’s own early Christian community, where the threat of persecution was a very real one, would have been clear to them. There may well have been church leaders there whose attitude was similar to that of James and John, seeing leadership in terms of status and privilege and who needed to be reminded that true greatness is seen in service. Jesus’ reply speaks again of the necessity for suffering. The metaphor of “the cup” is used in the Hebrew Scriptures of what God has in store for an individual, whether this is good (Ps 23:5) or bad (Ps 75:8). Water was another metaphor used of calamity in the Hebrew Bible (e.g. Ps 42:7; Isaiah 43:2) and the verb “to be baptized” was used in contemporary Greek of being flooded with calamities. The disciples’ ready answer, “We can”, shows that they do not understand what Jesus is asking them, any more than they understand the implications of their own request to “sit at” Jesus’ “right and left”, for there is a hint here of the account of the death of Jesus, when two robbers are crucified on his right and left – perhaps deliberate irony on Mark’s part.
This week’s Sunday Readings Commentary was prepared by
Sr Margaret Shepherd, NDS, London, UK
[Copyright © 2018]
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