Studying God’s Word

Isaiah 53:10-11
Hebrews 4:14-16
Mark 10:35-45 [146B]
The readings for the Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time address the mystery and meaning of Jesus’ suffering and death. The early Christians relied heavily on Israel’s prophetic tradition and the oral tradition connected to Jesus (and later recorded in the written Gospels) in making sense of the cross.
The closing words from Jesus in today’s Gospel reading are key to putting the cross in perspective: “For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Jesus offers these remarks in response to James and John, who are reacting to Jesus’ third Passion prediction (see Mk 10:32-34). 
Peter, James, and John are often associated in the synoptic Gospel tradition as the three (of the Twelve) closest apostles to Jesus. The request by James and John to share in Jesus’ “glory” is part of the larger three-stage character development of the disciples in the Gospel of Mark. In Mark 1–7 (stage one), the disciples are characterized as not fully comprehending Jesus, but unconditionally following him (see, for example, Mk 4:35-41). In Mark 8–10 (stage two), the disciples begin to more fully understand who Jesus is (especially how Jesus’ suffering is connected to his Messianic identity), but they begin to apply conditions to following Jesus. Today’s Gospel reading is a prime example. James and John present a condition to Jesus: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask… Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left.” Mark 11–16 is stage three. Here the disciples now fully comprehend who Jesus is, and they abandon him.
Jesus uses the request by James and John to foreshadow to them and the other apostles their upcoming martyrdom: “The cup that I drink, you will drink.” But he also uses their request to teach the apostles about the importance of servant leadership: “Whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.” This sets the context for helping the apostles understand how Jesus’ death on the cross is the ultimate act of service to others.
As the early Christians sought to comprehend more fully the meaning of the cross, they relied heavily on the Jewish prophets. The four suffering servant songs found in Isaiah 40–55 [words spoken by the unknown prophet during Israel’s exile in Babylon (597–538 BC) referred to as “Second Isaiah”] provided fertile ground. In today’s first reading, we hear an excerpt from the fourth and longest suffering servant oracle, Isaiah 52:13—53:12. This fourth oracle is the exiled, Israelite community reflecting on the death of its prophet. Professed nearly six hundred years before the death of Jesus on the cross, here we find the Israelites offering a prophecy that was fulfilled in Christ: “Through his suffering, my servant shall justify many, and their guilt he shall bear.”
The author of Hebrews, writing perhaps as early as the late 60s AD, offers some profound insights into the suffering of Christ. Jesus, the “great high priest,” suffered and died on the cross so that he was able “to sympathize with our weaknesses.”Traditional Jewish high priests sympathized with the people on the level of sin. But Jesus, who was “without sin,” needed to sympathize another way: he chose to suffer with us.
Dr. Daniel J. Scholz