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SEPTEMBER 17, 2006: TWENTY-FOURTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR

Readings: 

Isaiah 50:5-9a
James 2:14-18
Mark 8:27-35

Last week's readings were a good introduction to today's readings. What we surfaced about the Christian's ability to hear, will now be amplified by the Christian's obligation to hear.

One cannot have been Carroll Stuhlmueller's student without bowing reverently when approaching Deutero-Isaiah's third song of the Suffering Servant - today's first reading. Carroll always stressed that it presents Scripture's best definition of a disciple of God. "Morning after morning," the prophet reflects, "Yahweh opens my ear that I may hear . . . ."

True biblical followers of God aren't people who adhere to a strict regimen of prayer and penance, or get theology or Scripture degrees. Faithful disciples hit the floor every morning listening, attentive to what God is saying today that they didn't hear God say yesterday.

Mark agrees with the hearing definition of discipleship, especially when he treats a huge problem in his Roman community. Some had developed ways of following Jesus which left out imitating his death.

Of course, no one believed they died with Jesus by actually having themselves nailed to a cross. Dying can take different forms. But before anything else, a Christian is expected to die in the same way the historical Jesus died, long before his physical death. We're actually called to imitate the kind of dying which led to his physical death.

Mark creates three significant narratives to remind his readers about the forms their deaths are to take. Found in three successive chapters (8, 9, 10), each has been constructed using the same pattern. Jesus always begins by predicting his passion, death and resurrection, then one or more of his disciples says or does something to show they're not willing to die. The passage ends with Jesus clarifying what it means to die.

Today's gospel is the first in Mark's series. Peter is given the honor of making a Christian fool of himself. After Jesus' initial prediction, "Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him." Jesus doesn't appreciate Peter's concern. "At this he turned around and, looking at his disciples, rebuked Peter and said, 'Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as humans do.'"

Mark closes the passage by having Jesus remind his followers of the first way of dying with him. "Those who wish to come after me must deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me."

Scripture scholars believe it wouldn't have made sense until after his own crucifixion for the historical Jesus to use the word "cross" in this context. He probably told his followers to carry their "tau."

Tau is the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet - a "T." Pious Jews used it to show they were totally open to Yahweh's will. (More than 1,000 years later, Francis of Assisi would use it in the same way.) In our culture we say someone did something from A to Z; they said from Aleph to Tau, or simply, to the Tau. Carrying your tau means, like Deutero-Isaiah, to listen for and respond to God speaking in your life. It's easy to understand, after Jesus' death and resurrection, how Christians converted the tau into a cross.

Mark believed the first step in dying with Jesus revolved around a willingness to imitate Jesus' determination to accept God's will as his own. Only by losing one's life on that level would one eventually save one's life. According to James, it's the sort of "work" which gives life to faith.

No wonder early Christian communities turned to Deutero-Isaiah's four songs of the Suffering Servant when they attempted to understand Jesus and his effect on their lives. Especially in the third, they discovered what Jesus discovered: having an open, listening relationship with God always trumps having a relationship with a set of laws or a religious institution.