Today's first reading was one of Carroll Stuhlmueller's favorites. He always reminded his students, "It gives us the best biblical definition of a disciple of God." Just one problem: for some unknown reason the first part of Deutero-Isaiah's verse 4 has been left out of our liturgical selection. "Yahweh God has given me a well-trained tongue, that I might know how to speak to the weary a word that will rouse them. Morning after morning he opens my ear that I may hear…."
Every morning God's true disciples hit the floor listening, expecting to hear something today they never heard yesterday. The prophet believes they're especially to listen for the voice of the "weary," those who desperately long to be roused by God's word.
Psychologist and author Eugene Kennedy once mentioned something I've never been able to shake. "One of the main tasks of organized religion should be to make this life more bearable for people, to make it a joyful experience." Trained in pre-Vatican II religion classes, I once thought organized religion's main task was to get people into heaven. Then I started studying Scripture.
It's evident Deutero-Isaiah, who didn't even know about a heaven/hell afterlife, would have heartily agreed with Kennedy, as would the author of James' letter. It doesn't take a doctorate in Scripture to realize the latter is fed-up with some religious people's habit of just telling those in need, "I'll say one for you." The writer believes the weary really aren't helped by someone's promise of a future life that will eventually eradicate the problems they're facing in this life. What about doing something right here and now to get rid of at least some of those problems? "Faith itself," he writes, "if it does not have works, is dead. . . . Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works."
Today's gospel pericope couldn't mesh better with our first two passages. It provides us with the first of three steps Mark believes are essential to dying with Jesus. (We'll hear the second step next week. But we'll have to wait five more weeks to learn the third.) The three are found in successive chapters: 8, 9, and 10. Each artificially follows an identical prediction/misunderstanding/clarification pattern. Jesus first predicts his passion, death and resurrection. Someone then says or does something which shows a total misunderstanding about dying with Jesus. Finally, Jesus clarifies what dying is all about.
Peter is the first "misunderstander." He ". . . took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him." Jesus instantly cuts him down, "Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do."
Two important points: Satan in Hebrew originally referred to an obstacle in someone's path, and disciple in Greek is literally a "go-behinder." Jesus tells Peter that his plans for a "no death" Christianity is an obstacle to his ministry. If he's a real disciple, he should position himself behind, not in front of him.
Also, because it would make no sense for Jesus to encourage someone to carry a cross before his own crucifixion, scholars generally believe the historical Jesus originally told his followers to carry their "tau." It's a "T," the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Pious Jews embroidered them on their tunics as an outward sign they were willing to follow Yahweh's will to the extreme, to the tau.
Mark's Jesus basically teaches that the first step in dying with him is the determination to do whatever God asks of us, no matter the consequences.
No doubt Deutero-Isaiah and the author of James are nodding in agreement.