We have been getting a number of rousing challenges from Jesus in the past several weeks, as our readings have followed the progress of his ministry, and Jesus repeatedly makes clear that following him is not going to be easy in any way. This Sunday we get another challenge from Jesus to “fish or cut bait” in our relationship with him. Paradoxically, however, if we think we are going to preserve our lives and comfort by turning away from him, Jesus warns us: long term, that’s a bad strategy.
My complete commentaries on Year B (Mark, our current year) are available in published book form here, and Year C has just come out (!) here, and feasts and solemnities are here. Year A will be available soon.
1. Our First Reading is one of the Servant Songs of the Book of Isaiah:
Is. 50:4 The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word him that is weary. Morning by morning he wakens, he wakens my ear to hear as those who are taught. 5 The Lord GOD has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I turned not backward. 6 I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I hid not my face from shame and spitting.
Is. 50:7 For the Lord GOD helps me; therefore I have not been confounded; therefore I have set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; 8 he who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who is my adversary? Let him come near to me. 9 Behold, the Lord GOD helps me; who will declare me guilty? Behold, all of them will wear out like a garment; the moth will eat them up.
The Servant Songs are a collection of long poems in in the second half of Isaiah (Isa 40–66) in which a certain mysterious “servant of the LORD” speaks in the first person of his person and mission. Scholars have a multitude of theories about who the servant is. I believe there are exegetical reasons, when analyzing the final form of the Book of Isaiah, for identifying this “servant of the LORD” as a royal figure (probably also priestly) and aligning him with the promised Son of David of Isaiah 9 and 11. In other words, the “servant of the LORD” is the voice of the Christ.
This passage is like a “little Isaiah 53.” Isaiah 53 is the famous passage which seems to describe Jesus’ Passion ahead of time, and is read during Holy Week. However, Isaiah 50 shares some of the same motifs and concepts, only more briefly.
In this passage, the servant is resolute. He has been sent to encourage the “weary.” He has not shrunk from persecution. He knows God “has his back.” Not only is he not fearful, he challenges his adversaries to step forward, because he knows God will vindicate him in any conflict. He has “set his face like flint,” that is, made an irreversible decision on a course of action.
2. Our Responsorial Psalm is 116. We have seen this psalm many times before, and have discussed its significance as a todah psalm. It is a favorite of ours, and a favorite of the Lectionary.
Psa. 116:1 I love the LORD,
because he has heard my voice and my supplications.
2 Because he inclined his ear to me,
therefore I will call on him as long as I live.
3 The snares of death encompassed me;
the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me;
I suffered distress and anguish.
4 Then I called on the name of the LORD:
“O LORD, I beseech thee, save my life!”
5 Gracious is the LORD, and righteous;
our God is merciful.
6 The LORD preserves the simple;
when I was brought low, he saved me.
8 For thou hast delivered my soul from death,
my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling;
9 I walk before the LORD in the land of the living.
The plain sense of the Psalm is that the he has been resurrected: he was caught “in the snares of death” and the “pangs of Sheol” which is the realm of the dead; then God “delivered his soul from death.” The Psalmist doubtless was using hyperbolic and metaphorical language for some condition that threatened his life; nonetheless, the Church saw and sees in the plain sense of the Psalm a striking anticipation of the resurrection of Christ, and of our personal resurrections. By the way, the sacraments are a participation in the resurrection, especially Baptism and Reconciliation, which we approach in a state of spiritual deadness and leave having been brought to newness of life.
3. The Second Reading continues its march through the Epistle of James:
James 2:14 What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
James 2:18 But some one will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.
This is the famous “faith without works is dead” passage, the gist of which was captured in a Rich Mullins song whose refrain ran: “Faith without works, is like a song you can’t sing, it’s about as useless as a screen door on a submarine.”
Even when I was a Protestant pastor, actively trying to “de-Catholicize” ex-Catholics so they could become members of my Church, I was unimpressed with all the theological pyrotechnics that were often set off in the debate about “salvation by faith alone.” I always felt that, by the time you nuanced your understanding of “salvation by faith alone” enough that you could “squeak it by” what James says in this passage, you’ve more or less arrived at the Catholic position on the subject anyway. Therefore, “salvation by faith alone” was never the big obstacle to my reconciliation with the Catholic Church that is for many others. My issues were elsewhere.
What James says here is pretty self-explanatory. Faith, to be salvific, must express itself in action. Claiming to have saving faith but no demonstrated action is like telling all your friends and neighbors you can really fly, but declining to ever demonstrate your flight powers in person. No one would take you seriously. Neither should they take you seriously if you claim to have faith in Christ unaccompanied by the acts of charity (i.e. love) that faith makes possible.
Nonetheless, let’s keep in mind that we are not “earning” our salvation. Faith itself is a gift. Faith enables us to receive grace, which is the power of God enabling us to act. Salvation is all grace; it is all God’s power acting in us, that is, the Holy Spirit.
4. The Gospel is Mark 8:27:
27 And Jesus went on with his disciples, to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do men say that I am?” 28 And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others one of the prophets.” 29 And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.” 30 And he charged them to tell no one about him.
31 And he began to teach them that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 And he said this plainly. And Peter took him, and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter, and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not on the side of God, but of men.”
34 And he called to him the multitude with his disciples, and said to them, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35 For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.
The Gospel passage falls naturally into three sections. In the first, Jesus asks his disciples who they think he is: “Who do you say that I am?” This is a fundamental question that every human being will have to answer at some point, in this life or the next: who do you say Jesus of Nazareth is? A fraud? A well-meaning but self-deluded holy man? A failed prophet? A great moral teacher who met a tragic end? The son of God? God become man?
Peter responds, “You are the Christ.” Christ is Greek meaning “anointed one” and is synonymous with the Hebrew meshiach, “Messiah.” The term is used about nine times in the Psalms to refer to the Davidic king: Psa. 2:2; 18:50; 20:6; 28:8; 84:9; 89:38,51; 132:10,17. For the Jews of Our Lord’s day, “the Christ” referred to the anticipated Son of David, the rightful heir to the throne of Israel, who was expected to return and resume his reign over the nation at any moment. By identifying Jesus as “the Christ,” Peter is acknowledging him to be the son of God by virtue of the Davidic covenant (Ps. 2:7; 89:3,20,26-27) and rightful ruler and lord of all Israel and the nations (Ps. 2:8; 89:27). It is not yet a confession of “one person in two natures, fully God and fully man,” but it is a total recognition of and submission to Jesus’ lordship and authority.
In the second section, Jesus teaches the disciples about his suffering and death, and Peter takes him aside and rebukes him for doing so. Jesus in turn rebukes Peter, saying he has allied himself with Satan in this matter.
Peter’s rebuke of Jesus is, in one sense, a failure to understand Scripture. Although there were Scriptures, like the passage from Isaiah 50 in the first reading, that implied the Christ would suffer abuse, the disciples, along with almost all Jews of their day, did not recognize the implications of these biblical texts.
Peter’s rebuke of Jesus also symbolizes our own unwillingness to accept the suffering and death involved in following Jesus. We would all prefer to follow a Jesus who is politically powerful and successful. Understandably, we would prefer not to see our Lord mocked, abused, and killed, nor experience those same things ourselves.
It is a mistake to abandon the Gospel to preach about political strategies, whether of the right or the left, whether good or bad. Jesus did not promise us a successful political strategy, nor temporal success and power. The “normal” situation of the disciples of Christ in the Gospels is a situation of persecution. In a sense, practicing Christians have been “lucky” in America for the past several generations. Now, things are returning to “normal.”
Finally, Jesus concludes this Gospel reading by summarizing his message: ““If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.”
This is not a comfortable message. A cross was an instrument of torture and death—most people in Jesus day did not want to look at a cross or even think about a cross, because it was such a terrible way to die. The condemned criminal had to drag his own cross to the place that he would be executed by crucifixion. Jesus is saying, “If anyone wishes to follow me, you have to recognize that you are heading to death. You have to give up hope in this life, like a man who knows he is going to be executed, and you have to daily accept whatever suffering comes your way because you are following me.”
But here’s the paradox: it is only by giving up one’s life that one can “save it,” by which Jesus refers to eternal life, life with God in the world to come, which begins in our soul even now.
If we choose to follow Jesus, it means a path of suffering and even death.
On the other hand, if we choose not to follow Jesus, we are still going to experience various kinds of sufferings in this life—different kinds than if we followed Christ, but sufferings all the same—and we are still going to die, because no one gets out of this life alive. And, after suffering and dying, we will not have the hope of eternal life, because we rejected Jesus’ offer of it.
Both suffering and death are inevitable in this life. The attempt to “save” our lives is ultimately futile. It leads to a lifestyle of fear and desperate flight from pain and discomfort. The wise choice is to give up our lives, to accept suffering and even death with Jesus, for Jesus, and in Jesus, and put our hope in the life to come.