JANUARY 15TH, 2017: SECOND SUNDAY OF THE YEAR
The LORD said to me: You are my servant,
Israel, through whom I show my glory.
Now the LORD has spoken
who formed me as his servant from the womb,
that Jacob may be brought back to him
and Israel gathered to him;
and I am made glorious in the sight of the LORD,
and my God is now my strength!
It is too little, the LORD says, for you to be my servant,
to raise up the tribes of Jacob,
and restore the survivors of Israel;
I will make you a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.
Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God,
and Sosthenes our brother,
to the church of God that is in Corinth,
to you who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be holy,
with all those everywhere who call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father
and the Lord Jesus Christ.
John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him and said,
"Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.
He is the one of whom I said,
'A man is coming after me who ranks ahead of me
because he existed before me.'
I did not know him,
but the reason why I came baptizing with water
was that he might be made known to Israel."
John testified further, saying,
"I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from heaven
and remain upon him.
I did not know him,
but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me,
'On whomever you see the Spirit come down and remain,
he is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.'
Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God."
I presume Scripture scholars didn’t choose our liturgical readings. If they did, there’s no way the most important verse of today’s first reading would have been left out.
This second song of Deutero-Isaiah’s suffering servant revolves around his belief that he’s totally failed as Yahweh’s prophet. Immediately after God assures him, “You are my servant through whom I show my glory,” Deutero-Isaiah shakes his head and (in the omitted verse) says, “. . . I thought I had toiled in vain, and for nothing, uselessly, spent my strength.” In other words, “How could I have shown your glory when I screwed up the only ministry you gave me?” There’s no deeper mystery in all of Scripture. God’s actually held in higher esteem when we fail, not when we succeed.
Not only that, but our failures lead God to expand our God-given work, not decrease it. “It is too little,” Yahweh tells the prophet, “for you to be my servant, to raise up the tribes of Jacob and restore the survivors of Israel; I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” Instead of just proclaiming God’s word to Jews, now Deutero-Isaiah will proclaim it to every person on the face of this planet.
Though as Christians we believe the risen Jesus shares his/her ministry with every disciple, none of us can be certain about the limits of that ministry. In some sense, that ministry is always in flux, it never stays the same. Not only Deutero-Isaiah, but also Paul of Tarsus provides us with an example of a mobile ministry.
Originally biblical followers of Jesus were divided into three categories. A “disciple” was anyone committed to carrying out Jesus’ message and lifestyle. An “apostle,” a disciple called to go out on a special, specific ministry – like the “72” in the Synoptic gospels. The “twelve,” a group of apostles who frequently accompany the historical Jesus on his itinerant preaching trips. Membership in the twelve could change, but always had to be twelve to symbolize Israel’s twelve tribes: among other things, an outward sign Jesus was directing his reform to all Jews, not just to a couple of tribes. Sadly, Luke is the one who confuses the terminology by employing the now-familiar phrase the “twelve apostles.”
Paul wrote I Corinthians more than 25 years before Luke wrote his gospel. So when in today’s second reading he calls himself “an apostle of Christ Jesus” we presume he’s simply saying the risen Jesus set him aside for a special ministry, not that he’s one of the twelve. And because biblical “call narratives” were composed long after the original event, we also presume the details of that ministry weren’t outlined the instant he felt called. That his ministry would eventually revolve around evangelizing non-Jews probably didn’t occur to him until long after he sensed he had an apostolic call. As we see in Acts, he first tried to proclaim the faith to Jews in synagogues, failed and only then turned to Gentiles.
Parallel things can be said about John the Baptizer. It’s one thing for Matthew, a Christian author writing almost 50 years after John’s martyrdom, to label this wilderness prophet Jesus’ precursor, it’s a totally other thing to surface what the historical John thought of himself and his failed ministry. Today the vast majority of scholars agree the coming of Jesus as such played no part in his preaching.
All these biblical failures force each of us to examine our own lives and the callings we’ve received. Have we ignored other callings from the risen Jesus simply because we somehow screwed up past ones?