29th SUNDAY (B) OCTOBER 17, 2021

Isaiah 53: 10-11; Psalm 33; Hebrews 4: 14-16; Mark 10: 35-45

by Jude Siciliano, OP

Dear Preachers:

If nothing else, the disciples were persistent. A few Sundays ago, when Jesus asked, they admitted to him that they had been arguing on the road about, "who was the greatest" among them. Jesus corrected and reminded them that among his own, greatness would be measured by a willingness to be "servant of all" (Mark 9: 30-37). These Sundays we have been on the road with Jesus and his disciples. In recent weeks Jesus’ focus has shifted away from the crowds and he has been spending his energies teaching his disciples. He is preparing them for what will happen when they get to Jerusalem and he is handed over to be put to death.

Today we learn that, while they may be further along the road, the disciples have not advanced very much in their apprenticeship, because they still reveal their ambition for power and priority. Jesus had just made his third prediction of the passion, but his disciples still don’t understand. Today’s gospel confirms that. James and John envision a triumphant entrance with Jesus into Jerusalem and before they get there, they want to secure high places for themselves. They presume Jesus’ enterprise will end in worldly glory and they want to be up close to him to get a large share of the pie.

But if they had really been listening to what Jesus had been teaching them, they would have known that to be close to Jesus in his glory means to be close to him in his humiliation, suffering and death. Jesus had been speaking about his kingdom and James and John want to be there with Jesus when he claims it. But when the time comes for Jesus to be raised on the cross and proclaimed as king from the cross, the disciples’ disillusionment is complete. They missed the lesson Jesus had been teaching them on the road about discipleship. In a way you can’t blame the ambitious two, after all, on their travels Jesus had been performing miracles and attracting crowds. They had just presumed things would keep building and, once in Jerusalem, Jesus would be proclaimed king.

When we plan for our future we look to how we can achieve our goals and fulfill our ambitions. We put failure out of our minds as we forge on. How could the disciples at this high point in Jesus’ and their popularity even imagine the reversal that was ahead of them? The two sons of Zebedee would share in Jesus’ glory: as his disciples they too would come to know suffering and dying in his name. They had envisioned the glories of David’s kingdom; but Jesus’ kingdom would be quite different. They had envisioned sitting with the powerful and triumphant in the halls of power, they certainly weren’t imagining the powers overcoming Jesus and putting him to death.

James and John’s request and the indignation of the other ten, who probably wished they had put the request to Jesus first, provide an opportunity for Jesus to once again spell out what membership in his kingdom means – service. He even takes the opportunity to state it more strongly: anyone wishing to follow him, must be "slave to all." That’s enough to shake them to their roots!

James and John are not the only persistent disciples of the Lord. Mark, the evangelist, is also persistent. He is insistent throughout his gospel that the Twelve just don’t understand who Jesus is and what discipleship entails. Mark is writing for an early church being persecuted because they are Christ’s followers. They are having to "drink the cup" that Jesus drank and that he said his disciples would also drink. Mark paints a picture of the Twelve’s misunderstanding of discipleship as a way of reminding his own community that they must not forget what Jesus taught about service and suffering in his name. Mark’s church is having trouble accepting their suffering and is disillusioned about the Lord’s long delay in returning to bring to completion the reign of God he initiated.

Mark reminds the church, then and now, that Christianity can’t be measured by the ususal signs of institutional success: the size of church buildings; the numbers of adherents; acceptance and esteem in the world; influence in the halls of power; acceptance by world media; achievements of individual members; invitations to sit at prominent places at political banquets, etc. The evangelist stresses Jesus’ rejection of worldly approval and his insistence that his disciples must be found in the least likely places: on the wrong side of the tracks and of popular opinion; among the neglected and rejected; supporting just causes; protecting the environment against "progress"; etc. Mark has proposed to his readers that in the eyes of the world and maybe even to some Christians, Jesus’ followers look like failures and are the least significant. But then, what else would they look like, if they were following their Master who came, he said, not "to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many."

I don’t know what to do with the first reading from Isaiah. It is short and terribly off-putting. In addition, it seems to confirm people’s worse fears about God, especially the One some facilely call, "The God of the Old Testament." God sounds cruel and even sadistic in this brief reading: "The Lord was pleased to crush him in infirmity." I am sure some people suffering disease, or recent loss, will hear a very discouraging message in the Isaiah reading. They, who may already be feeling alone, may be made to feel even more bereft since not even God seems to be on their side in their pain. Does it really "please" God to "crush" someone with infirmity – especially a servant of God? If that is so, who would want to serve, or get close to this God? How could a just God punish a faithful servant? Wouldn’t we expect, instead, that God comes to rescue the just one from suffering, at least, to strengthen a good person through his/her trials?

As a preacher I find this all-too-brief selection in the Sunday lectionary very unfortunate. Perhaps the one who suffers sets an example to others by patiently bearing the agony and not turning away from God. If so, some good may come from the suffering, but all in all, I would vote for another reading that would get this message across with less "baggage." Am I alone in thinking this way or do other preachers find this reading an unfortunate selection this Sunday?

Click here for a link to this Sunday’s readings: