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OCTOBER 21, 2012: TWENTY-NINTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR

Readings: 

Isaiah 53:10-11
Hebrews 4:14-16
Mark 10:35-45

Today we hear Mark's third, most painful way in which we're to die with Jesus.

Following the three-fold pattern of prediction-misunderstanding-clarification which he introduced in chapters 8 and 9, the evangelist begins his narrative with Jesus' foretelling the passion, death and resurrection he'll soon experience in Jerusalem. (Just one problem: those who created our liturgical reading omitted Jesus' prediction! If you're reading the gospel today, please include it. One day, Mark will personally thank you.)

James and John immediately step up and make fools of themselves, asking for the "glory seats," - a complete misunderstanding of what Jesus had just said about dying. The brothers are asking for a "Plan B," a way of being another Christ without enduring the suffering and death of the first Christ. After telling them they're not smart enough to even know what question to ask, Jesus clarifies in what his cup and baptism consist.

"You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many."

When I ask my students about the money value of a ransom, they logically answer, "There is none. The more important the person, the higher the ransom." When Jesus says he regards his life as a "ransom," he's saying he's only as valuable as the many he's ransoming are valuable. His worth comes from their worth.

Reaching this frame of mind about one's life is Mark's third way of dying with Jesus. Nothing causes more pain and death than constantly trying to be the servant (or slave!) of others. Nothing could be more counter to James and John's plan to one day sit on their glory seats and lord it over others. Jesus demands we be counterculture in the most intimate areas of our lives: how we relate with and to others. How many of us would rather follow the misunderstanding than be committed to the clarification?

The author of our Hebrews passage thinks it essential to the salvation Jesus offers that he not lord it over us, but becomes one with us. "We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin." Jesus values us enough to suffer the same human pain all of us are expected to endure. He doesn't look at us and the world from the outside in, but from the inside out.

Five hundred years before Jesus' birth, the disciples of Deutero-Isaiah, without our concept of an after-life, were forced to explain why such a good man had suffered such a horrible death. Today's pericope from the Fourth Song of the Suffering Servant shows they eventually reached the conclusion that the prophet's becoming one with all of them during his ministry had eventually forced him to accept their own sinful weakness and suffering. By dying he saved them from death. ". . . Through his suffering, my servant shall justify many, and their guilt he shall bear."

Those who contend that the historical Jesus planned to set up the glory-seated hierarchical structure of our church certainly have an obligation to explain the process by which James and John's misunderstanding became the norm and Jesus' clarification was discarded.

Wouldn't it be great if each of our churches prominently displayed a banner reading, "It shall not be so among you?"