Our first reading today is again taken from one of the so-called Servant Songs in Isaiah. The Servant in these passages suffers on behalf of others. While in their authorial intention, the Servant Songs are about Israel being delivered from its captivity in Babylon, in their deepest meaning, they are about Jesus Christ and his redemptive suffering and death for us. In the Lord’s passion and death, evil did its worst and was defeated.
Our epistle reading, taken from the Letter to the Hebrews, tells us explicitly what our first reading only hints at. This is not surprising given that Dei Verbum, the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, asserts: “God… wisely arranged that the New Testament be hidden in the Old and the Old be made manifest in the New.” (sec. 16).
What is it that our reading from Hebrews makes explicit? As this brilliant letter does in a number of places, our passage for today sets forth in very practical terms why it is important for Jesus to be truly human and truly divine. As a human being, he experienced everything we experience but did so sinlessly. Because he became human, now that he is “seated at the right hand of the Power,” (to borrow his own phrase- Mark 14:62), Jesus is able “to sympathize with our weaknesses” (Heb 4:16).
What the inspired author of Hebrews likely means by using the word “sympathize,” which is Greek in origin, is probably closer to our word commiserate, which, stated simply, means to share someone else’s misery. In her novel Absolute Truths, Susan Howatch’s character Martin Darrow says to another of her characters, Bishop Charles Ashworth:
It makes all the difference to know there's someone else screaming alongside you - and that's the point of the Incarnation, I can see that so clearly now. God came into the world and screamed alongside us (New York, Fawcett Crest, 341)Surely, the Incarnation conceived of as God entering into the world to scream alongside us is not too far from what the inspired author of Hebrews had in mind when composing this passage. Prior to his excursus on the Incarnation, Martin said, “God, isn’t life bloody sometimes?” To which the circumspect Bishop Ashworth simply replies, “Yes.” (Ibid.) Because Jesus came to share our sorrows we can approach the throne of grace boldly in prayer for timely help (Heb 4:16).
Our Gospel reading for today is still in the section of Mark’s Gospel often called “On the Way” (See Mark 8:14-10:52). It is called this because these lessons occur as Jesus and the Twelve make their way from their native Galilee to Jerusalem, a trip they make only once in St Mark’s Gospel. Jesus teaches these lessons in discipleship as he makes his way to the cross. While it occurs a few verses before the beginning of today’s reading, this lesson begins, as do the other two, with Jesus predicting his passion and death (Mark 10:33). Without a doubt, these lessons are provocative and challenging. Our response upon reading or hearing them is to domesticate them, water them down, reduce them to our measure. But it's good to let ourselves be provoked by Jesus, who loves us and wants us to be saved.
Each of the three discipleship lessons follows a three-fold pattern: Jesus predicts his passion and death, the Twelve demonstrate they don’t understand by faltering or failing in some way, after they falter, Jesus teaches the Twelve what it means to be his disciples. How the Twelve fail to grasp the fundamentals of Christian discipleship in our Gospel today is that the brothers, the sons of Zebedee, James and John, ask Jesus to let them sit on his right and on his left when he attains his glory. Jesus quickly points out, before the glory it gets pretty gory. Note: even before they tell Jesus what they want, the brothers tell the Lord they want him to do whatever they ask. Isn't that the way with us sometimes? Knowing best, we want God to carry out our demands?
In no uncertain terms, Jesus tells James and John have no have no idea what they are asking (Mark 10:38). He asks, “Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” (Ibid.). Demonstrating that they have no clue, they respond: “We can” (Mark 10:39). Jesus then tells them, “The cup that I drink, you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized” (Ibid.) But the Lord still insists that whoever sits on either side of him in glory is not his to determine (Mark 10:40).
The martyrdom of James, known as James the Greater, to distinguish him from James, Jesus’s relative, known as James the Just, and James the son of Alphaeus, called James the Lesser, is written about in the Acts of the Apostles, which tells of Herod having him “killed by the sword” (Acts 12:2). While Tradition tells us John did not die a martyr, it hands on two attempts to take his life. First, he was boiled in oil in Rome, but emerged from the cauldron not only alive but seemingly renewed in strength, a kind of baptism. It is also handed on that John drank from a chalice that was poisoned and survived. Given their response to Jesus’s prediction of his passion, they likely would have protested any prediction of their own martyrdom with even greater vehemence. This is why Jesus speaks vaguely about what will befall them both.
The heart of today’s lesson is the same as the heart of the previous lesson: “whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant” (Mark 10:43-44). The Greek word for “servant” in this passage is diakonos, which, translates into English as “deacon.” Jesus tells them that he, who is the greatest, is great because he came not to be served but to serve, to be a deacon, and like Isaiah’s Suffering Servant, to give his life for others.
According to Jesus, at least for the Twleve, it is not enough to be a servant. He tells them that to be the greatest in God's kingdom they must become the slave (in Greek doulos) of all. This is made very clear in the Kenotic Hymn, found in Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, which, referring to Jesus, begins:
Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross (Phil 2:6-8)I read recently that among the early Mennonites, who suffered persecution and death, the least useful person was chosen to be the pastor because the pastor was most likely to be martyred, and you didn't want your one cobbler or blacksmith to get killed. Whether this is wholly true or not I don’t know and neither did the Mennonite pastor who shared it. However, she did say she carried this anecdote close to her heart. By doing so, I think she is serving in the manner of Jesus. While this lesson is relevant to all who seek to follow Jesus, I think it is especially applicable to those of us called to holy orders. We are ordained, not to be served but to serve our sisters and brothers. This explains why the first ordained office is that of deacon. To do otherwise is to be guilty of clericalism, which has proven catastrophic for the Church’s witness.
As last week’s Gospel demonstrated, far from being a blessing, riches and material comfort are perhaps the greatest obstacles to entering God’s kingdom. According to Jesus, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for someone who is well-off to enter into the kingdom of God (Mark 10:25). The Lord is not exaggerating when he says it takes an extraordinary act of God for someone who is rich to be saved. It was just such an act that Jesus tried to perform in his encounter with the rich young man, whom Jesus loved (Mark 10:21). Nonetheless, the young man rebuffed Jesus because he “had many possessions” (Mark 10:22), which he apparently valued more than eternal life. For a rich person to enter God’s kingdom, s/he must have the change of heart the rich young man failed to have as a result of his encounter with Jesus.
Like James and the many other Christian martyrs, the cost of following Jesus is your life. According to Jesus, the only way to save your life is to lose for his sake and the sake of God's kingdom. This is true whether you are killed for your faith or whether you pour out your life in service to others. In this and every Eucharist there is an exchange of gifts. Just as Jesus offers himself to us body, blood, soul, and divinity, in exchange, we offer ourselves to the Father, through him, by the power of their Spirit, body, blood, soul, and humanity. It is by offering ourselves as a living sacrifice through Christ that we are able to go forth and bear witness by selflessly serving others in his name for the sake of God’s kingdom (Rom 12:1-2).