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Twenty-Ninth Sunday In Ordinary Time, Year B

By Father Donald Dilger
Father Donald Dilger


Isaiah 53:10-11; Psalm 33:4-5, 18-19, 20, 22; Hebrews 4:14-16; MARK 10:35-45 

The first reading is part of the last of four poems embedded in the second part of the Book of Isaiah. Because of these four poems, and especially because of the fourth poem, Isaiah has sometimes been called “the fifth evangelist.” These poems were a major influence on the formation of the theology of St. Paul, the four gospels, and other New Testament documents. Many features of the Passion Narratives in our gospels can be traced back to the fourth Servant Song or Poem.The reading begins with the role of God in the suffering of his Servant, “The Lord was pleased to crush him in weakness.” Recall how in recent Sunday gospel readings Jesus attempted to teach his disciples the necessity of what was to happen to him in Jerusalem. Recall also the teaching of St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:25, speaking of the “foolishness” of the cross in God’s plan, “The foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”

The poem continues. “If he gives his life as an offering for sin… the will of the Lord shall be accomplished through him.” These words influenced the statement attributed to Jesus in this Sunday’s gospel, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” The same must be said of another statement in this poem, “Through his suffering, my servant shall justify many, and their guilt he shall bear.” Both these statements in the poem influenced the development of St. Paul’s teaching of vicarious suffering (suffering for others), and his teaching on justification through faith in the redemptive death and resurrection of Jesus. The proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection has a foundation in today’s first reading; “Because of his affliction, he shall see the light in fullness of days….” The doctrine of the resurrection is seen more clearly in another statement in this poem, a statement not included in the first reading; “Behold, my Servant shall prosper. He shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high.” These words influenced the Gospel of John, in which Jesus does not speak of Passion predictions as he does in the other gospels, but rather, “The Son of Man shall be lifted up….”

The Responsorial Psalm (33), in verse 3, is called a “new song” of praise to the Lord. The Old Testament is otherwise intent that what is offered to God should be new (unused). See for exam-ple 1 Samuel 6:7 and 2 Samuel 6:3 – the Ark of God (of the Covenant) could only be conveyed on a new cart. The themes of the first reading are difficult to find in this Psalm, which is celebra-tory of the Lord’s justice and kindness. Perhaps the Psalm, in the context of the readings of this Sunday, should be understood as a song of praise for what Jesus accomplished for us. The people respond, “Lord, let your mercy be upon us, as we place our trust in you.”

The second reading is another selection in a series of readings from the Letter to the Hebrews. In last week’s second reading the author of Hebrews was pleading with the recipients of his letter to persevere in Christianity, which he called “a place of rest.” He warned them that the Scriptures, sharper than any two-edged sword, would judge them, revealing their most secret thoughts about any plans to leave “the place of rest.” In today’s reading he proclaims Jesus, “our great high priest,” who can sympathize with their weakness and temptations, because he himself was tested in every way, “yet without sin.” He stayed with the plan until the end. He recommends that they approach him, who now sits on the throne of grace in the heavens,  “to receive mercy and find grace for timely help” to overcome the temptation they have to apostatize (reject Christianity).            

The gospel reading is a catechesis about ambition, power and authority. James and John ask Jesus for the first places in his kingdom. There is still the idea among his disciples that Jesus was going to Jerusalem to set up an earthly kingdom. They wanted the most powerful positions in that kingdom. This had nothing to do with the kingdom of heaven, although in his dialogue with the two disciples, Jesus raises it to a spiritual level rather than a political and geographical kingdom. His response overlooks their brash approach. “Can you drink the cup that I am to drink, or be baptized with the baptism with which I am to be baptized?” Young, eager and ignorant of his meaning, they answer, “We can.” Jesus is of course speaking of his death under two symbols.

The “cup” is an Old Testament metaphor symbolizing suffering. The “baptism” is not used in the Old Testament, but was understood as an initiation right into a religion, for example, in Judaism and Christianity. When paired with the Old Testament meaning of “cup,”  “baptism”  becomes a synonym for “cup.” One drinks the cup of suffering or is immersed in the baptism of suffering.

The other 10 disciples become aware of the power grab of James and John. They too are still clueless about the meaning of Jesus’ Passion predictions and what he means by the kingdom of God. All of them need a lesson in humility and the purpose of authority. Jesus notes that heathen rulers lord it over their people, but that is not what Christian rulers will do. Really? “Whoever wishes to be great among you will be the slave of all.” Mark’s catechesis presents a role model for exercising power and authority. “For the Son of Man (Jesus) did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Why does Jesus or Mark choose the title “Son of Man” for this particular catechesis? The Son of Man is a powerful figure in Daniel 7. He receives “dominion, glory, and a kingdom that lasts forever.” Sounds like lording it over his subjects? Not in Jesus’ new interpretation of the title Son of Man as a servant. The lesson that the Marcan Jesus teaches in this gospel reading is what Pope Francis has been teaching about ambition and conniving for power among clergy. How timeless the lessons of the gospels!