Exploring the Readings at Mass—Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B)

Welcome to this reflection on the theology of the Sunday readings at Mass. 

Thank you for taking the time to read my blog. I sincerely hope that this reflection will inspire you, answer some questions you may have, help you to see how fantastic Sacred Scripture is and perhaps begin to share some of my love and passion for the Bible as you begin to comprehend how layered and multi-faceted, and what a carefully considered part of the Mass the readings are. If you want to know how these posts came about, please read my first post in this series here.

Great readings this week, some really powerful themes; Saint James on the Reformation classic- faith or works, Isaiah's stunning prophecy about what would happen to Jesus and Peter's God-given insight into the true identity of Jesus.

This Sunday the theme for the readings might be summed up as:

Jesus the Suffering Servant

The readings are:
  • Isaiah 50: 5-9
  • Psalm: 114: 1-6, 8-9; Response: v. 9
  • Second Reading: James 2: 14-18
  • Gospel: Mark 8:27-35
First, a little preliminary survey of each of the books.

I will post the same, or similar prelims week on week, for each book as we encounter them. We have interesting themes in the first and second readings this week; The Suffering Servant of Isaiah and the faith and works discussion in James.

The Book of Isaiah as we know it today in the Bible is actually a collection of writings which represent a tradition that extended over a span of some three hundred years. The whole text can be sub-divided into three major parts: (i) Isaiah 1-39, for the most part, presenting the teaching of the prophet himself, who laboured in Jerusalem from 740 until sometime after 701 B.C.; (ii) Isaiah 40-55 (generally referred to as Deutero-Isaiah (second -Isaiah)), containing the oracles of another prophet in the tradition of Isaiah, who announced God's word to the exiles in Babylon sometime between 550 and 539 B.C.; and (iii) Isaiah 56-66, Trito-Isaiah (third Isaiah), reflecting the same tradition at a later stage in Jerusalem after the Exile but before the arrival of Ezra and Nehemiah, perhaps around 500 B.C.

Isaiah is often considered the greatest of the Old Testament prophets because of the sheer range and vision of his prophecy. As I wrote in my post on the Eucharist, words have great meaning and power for the Hebrews. Thus their names are more than mere labels; they tell the identity, the significance, the sign-value of the person who bears them (hence the significance of the divine name of God for example). The name Isaiah means "God is salvation" and what is most extraordinary perhaps about this book is that it contains prophecies of Jesus, so numerous, so beautiful and so much more famous than any other prophet, that it has been referred to as the "Gospel of Isaiah".

Isaiah has also been called "the Shakespeare of the prophets", for his poetic turn of phrase rivalled only by Job and Psalms for poetic grandeur. At least ten of Isaiah's passages have become unforgettable to all English-speaking peoples, immortalised in Handel's world famous oratorio, The Messiah: 11:1-5; 7:14; 40:9; 60:2-3; 9:2; 9:6; 35:6-6; 40:11; 53:3-6; 53:8.

This prophet and his followers lived long before Christ, yet the detailed prophecies of the life of Christ we find in Isaiah are far more numerous and far more specific than anything else in the Bible. At least seventeen of them were fulfilled in truly remarkable detail.

Take the time to look up the following seventeen passages. These are only part of the more than three hundred different prophecies in the Old Testament that are fulfilled by Christ. Even though the New Testament writers (especially Matthew) deliberately used the style and language of Old Testament prophecies to describe events in the life of Christ—as a modern preacher might use the King James English to describe current events—the statistical odds that one man could fulfil all of these prophecies so completely is not much better than the odds that a monkey could type out Isaiah by randomly throwing marbles at a computer keyboard. Compare:-

1). Isaiah 7:14 with Matthew 1:22-23;
2). Isaiah 9:1-2 with Matthew 4:12-16;
3). Isaiah 9:6 with Luke 2:11 (see also Ephesians 2:14-18);
4). Isaiah 11:1 with Luke 3:23, 32 and Acts 13:22-23;
5). Isaiah 11:2 with Luke 3:22;
6). Isaiah 28:16 with 1 Peter 2:4-6;
7). Isaiah 40:3-5 with Matthew 3:1-3;
8). Isaiah 42:1-4 with Matthew 12:15-21;
9). Isaiah 42:6 with Luke 2:29-32;
10). Isaiah 50:6 with Matthew 26:26, 30, 67;
11). Isaiah 52:14 with Philippians 2:7-11;
12). Isaiah 53:3 with Luke 23:18 and John 1:11; 7:5;
13). Isaiah 53:4 with romans 5:6, 8;
14). Isaiah 53:7 with Matthew 27:12-14, John 1:29 and 1 Peter 1:18-19;
15). Isaiah 53:9 with Matthew 27:57-60;
16). Isaiah 53:12 with Mark 15:28; and
17). Isaiah 61:1-2 with Luke 4:17-21.

This week we are treated to one of the most salient texts in Deutero-Isaiah, one of the four Songs of the Lord's Servant (42: 1-9; 49: 1-7; 50:4-11; 52:13-53:12). The theme and tone that these texts share distinguish them from the rest of Deutero-Isaiah. The fact that each of them can be removed from its present context without interrupting the general flow of the text suggests that they were composed in light of each other and that together they comprise an independent collection. However, it is important to note that there exists a development of theme in them along the lines of the major portions of Deutero-Isaiah.

The first Servant Song (42:1-9) speaks of the servant's call to ministry in a manner consistent with the international perspective characteristic of the first stage of prophet's ministry under the shadow of Cyrus' advance (the Persian king who, at the time of Deutero-Isaiah, had overthrown the Medes and was advancing against Babylon) cf. 41:1-48:22. By comparison, the remaining three Servant Songs (49:1-7; 50:4-11; 52:13-53:12) reflect a personal aspect of suffering and affliction that corresponds with the tenor of the stressful days of restoration (49:1-54:17).

Disciples of the prophet produced their final version of the text prior to 515 B.C. The last editors of the complete Isaian collection located it in its present setting in the book when they completed the whole work between 450 and 400 B.C.

Scholars still debate who the Servant is: Israel, Cyrus or the prophet himself are all mooted as candidates. Closer analysis indicates that the Songs refer to Deutero-Isaiah himself, but they also point beyond him to the perfect Servant whom God will send in the future (42:1-12; cf. 9:1-6; 11:1-9).

The literary form of the Servant Songs derives from the "Confessions" of Jeremiah (Jer 11:18-12:6; 15:10-21; 17:14-18; 18:18-23; 20:7-18). Indeed, the witness of Jeremiah's prophetic career and suffering introduces the theme of the last three Songs (Is 49:1; cf. Jer 1:5; Is 50:4-11; cf. Jer 20:7-13; Is 53:7; cf. Jer 11:19). Each Song indicates a development in the prophet's vocation.

Specifically, this week's reading concerns the third Song which runs 50:4-11 in its entirety and concerns The Disciple's Submission. The servant who proclaims the good news announcing peace (52:7) experiences affliction on account of the word he preaches (50:5-6, cf. Jer 20:7-13). His capacity to accept suffering stems from his training as a prophet in the school of Isaiah. By his obedience, he contradicts the rebellious who refuse to listen to the Law (50:4-11; cf. 30:8-14). In him, we contemplate an intimate connection between suffering and God's word both in listening and in speaking. For one whose heart is set on God, affliction can be a means of purification leading to a deeper hearing of the divine word. The Lord does not neglect but speaks most deeply to the afflicted. This truth is in opposition to the traditionally held view that suffering is God's punishment for sin (Gn 3:14-19; 12:17; 42:21; Jos 7:6-13; Jb 33:19-30). In this Song, however, the servant provides the axiom for apostolic preaching when he testifies that God's word releases a life-giving power for "the weary" as His prophet speaks from his tribulation (50:4, cf. 40:29-30; cf. 2 Cor 4:7-5:10; 11:21-12:10). Even as he suffers, the Lord's servant has a boldness to confront his adversaries in court to prove righteousness (50:8-10). This righteousness comes from trust in the Lord (50:10, cf. 30:15).

The Song describes the Servant as the disciple who confronts the world. This applies to Jesus in its first half (Is 50:4-7) and to every Christian in its second half (50:8-10). When the members of the Sanhedrin spit on Jesus and strike Him in the face after finding Him guilty of blasphemy , ironically, they are revealing Him to be the Servant of the Lord for whom such treatment was prophesied (Mk 14:65; Mt 26:67). Again the Gentile soldiers demonstrate the same point in the Praetorium when they mock Jesus as a deluded king just before taking Him outside to be crucified (Mk 15:19; Mt 27:30).

Paul alludes to the second part of the Song when he encourages all Christians to take up the attitude of the Lord's Servant by challenging every accusation of guilt (Rom 8:31-33; cf. Is 50:8-11). Because the Christian has received justification through faith in Jesus Christ, he or she has been freed from all condemnation before God (cf. Rom 3:26; 5:1-11). Therefore, following the model of the Servant, the Christian must confront interior accusation confident of the vindication that comes through faith.

Psalms is the Bible's manual of inspired song and prayer. The collection of 150 Psalms represents the culmination of a long tradition that extends across almost the full span of the history of ancient Israel, from the Exodus (c. 1280 B.C.) until the last centuries of the Old Testament era (c. 200 B.C.). In Hebrew the canon of the Bible is called the TNK or Tanakh, which consists of Torah (teaching), Nevi'im (Prophets), and Ketuvim (writings)—thus TaNaKh. Psalms makes up the first of the writings in the Hebrew text. One of the most powerful things we know about the Psalms is that this is how Jesus Himself prayed.

The Letter of St. James, was written not to a single congregation but to "the twelve tribes in the Dispersion" (1:1). This may refer to Hebrew Christians who were exiled from Palestine and had settled throughout the Mediterranean world. This living situation beyond the borders of Israel was known in Jewish tradition as Dispersion, or Diaspora. Others read this as a reference to the universal Church, the family of Christian Jews and Gentiles who together formed "the Israel of God" (Gal 6:16).

It is difficult to date because it contains very little information about the historical circumstances. If the epistle was written by James of Jerusalem, the "brother of the Lord", then it must have been composed before his death in the early 60's. How much earlier than this it can be dated is all but impossible to determine. Evidence within the letter is supportive of an early date: it is markedly Jewish in its outlook; it addresses believers who gather together in an assembly (literally "synagogue", 2:2); and its illustrations drawn from nature and experience are suggestive of a Palestinian setting (1:11; 3:6, 12: 5:7). Of course, no one of these considerations proves that the letter must have been written in the days of James of Jerusalem, but together they create an impression that its author was living in the earliest decades of the Church, i.e. at a time when the mission field of the Gospel was still concentrated in Israel and its environs and before Christianity and Judaism had irrevocably distinguished themselves from one another (the parting of the two is clear by the late first century).

Some scholars maintain that an unknown Christian wrote the letter using "James" as a pseudonym. The Scripture scholar Raymond E. Brown suggests that if the book is pseudonymous, the most likely date is after the death of James ca. 62, in the range 70-110; most likely the 80's or 90's. However he also posits that 'James listed first among the "brothers" of Jesus in Mark 6:3; Matt 13:55, not a member of the Twelve but an apostle in a broader sense of the term (1 Cor 15:7; Gal 1:19)...is the only truly plausible candidate' (Brown, R. E., An Introduction to the New Testament, New York, Doubleday, 1997, p. 725 f.).

Modern scholarship often distinguishes between James the Just and the author of the letter bearing his name. In other words, despite general agreement that 1:1 refers to James of Jerusalem, it is held that a later admirer of James wrote in the name of this revered figure in order to instruct believers near the end of the first century. Often the proponents of this theory contend that the Greek style of the letter is too smooth and sophisticated for the work of a Galilean Jew, whose first language must have been Aramaic. They also state that the epistle's mention of "elders" in 5:14 reflects a stage in the development of Church leadership more advanced than that which existed in James' lifetime. Neither argument is decisive, for one thing, scholarship continues to produce evidence that Galilee was thoroughly bi-lingual during the New Testament period (residents being conversant with both Aramaic and Greek), so the ability of a Palestinian Jew, especially one who was intellectually gifted, to write in excellent Greek is far from impossible (a good example of this would be the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, who was educated in first-century Jerusalem and acquired an impressive command of Hellenistic Greek, as well as classical Greek literature). Second, unless one disregards the Book of Acts as a witness to history, it is clear that a hierarchical system of leadership (with "elders" or "presbyters") had emerged well before the end of the first century (Acts 14:23; 20:17; cf. 1 Pet 5: 1-2). Further, it reasonable to say that the opening self-description of James as a "servant" of the Lord Jesus (Jas 1:1) makes the most sense if James himself is the author of the letter. In other words, it presupposes that he is already known to his readers and feels no need to assert his authority or credentials. A pseudonymous author, hoping to borrow the reputation of James for himself, would have given a sufficiently explicit description of James to help readers identify precisely which James he was claiming to be.

Excursus: If the brother of Jesus thing is bothering you, read this.

James' letter is an amalgam of literary themes, it is full of maxims and practical advice about living. It is not primarily doctrinal and does not have a systematic outline. It does have a unifying theme, however, which is "Be doers of the word, and not hearers." (1:22) Perhaps it was this, combined with Luther's misunderstanding of the relationship between faith and works that led him to brand the work a "right strawy epistle" and it is specifically this issue which the reading addresses this week: that our willingness to put faith into action has a direct bearing on whether or not we will be saved in the end (CCC 162).

Faith and Works

So is there any tension between what St. James teaches us this week & St. Paul's teaching in Romans and Galatians? Martin Luther certainly thought so, to the extent that he relegated the Letter of James to an appendix in his 1522 edition of the New Testament. This is not an option for Catholics, who maintain the inspiration and authority of the book, nor have other Christians followed Luther on this point.

The thrust of Paul’s message on justification is concerned with the salvation of all peoples. How will Israel be saved? Paul teaches that the gospel of Jesus Christ brings “salvation” to Jews and Gentiles alike (Rom 1:16), that one must confess faith in Jesus to be “saved” (Rom 10:9), and that Paul thinks of his missionary efforts among the Gentiles as a means to “save” his Israelite kinsmen (Rom 11:14). In Rom 11:26-27, Paul invokes Christ and the new Covenant when he quotes the words of Isaiah “The deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob; and this will be my covenant with them when I take away their sins.” This message is consistent throughout Scripture: in John’s Gospel (John 4:22) we see Jesus explaining to the Samaritan woman “salvation is from the Jews”, Jesus begins His ministry by reaching out to the Jews, and drawing them to Zion.

We see this clearly in Luke-Acts. Luke uses prophecy and geography to shape his narrative into a continuous unity which first gathers the Jews to Zion from Galilee, He establishes the new Israel and then sends them out to all nations (Isaiah 49:6). By the time the remnant is gathered at the Ascension, they are told to wait for the Spirit and then they will be given power to be witnesses to Jesus in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). At Pentecost, the Theophany of the descending Spirit is a powerful witness and reverses the Tower of Babel incident (Acts 2:5). The Prophecy of Scripture is indeed fulfilled the Jews become a light unto the nations and after the Council of Jerusalem, Paul takes out the message of Christ to the ends of the earth. Paul teaches the risen Christ is our Deliverer (1 Thess 1:10) who takes away sin through the sacraments of the New Covenant (Rom 6:1-11). The Mosaic covenant, however, condemns, not saves. The ceremonial laws expressed a theology of separation appropriate to the Old Covenant as they served through antiquity as the symbol of election, demonstrating Israel’s distinction from the Gentiles. Because the Church is an international community including both Jews and Gentiles, instituted by Christ who came to gather all nations into the fold of the New Covenant, the ceremonial boundaries that divided Israel from everyone else were redundant (Rom 1:5, 16; 3:29-30; Gal 3:28).

These Mosaic rituals constituted ceremonies which were signs of grace but not sacraments of grace. They point to better things to come in Christ (Col 2:16-17), but they did not, in themselves, confer the benefits they direct us towards (Heb 7:18-19; 10:1-4). The sacrifices of the Mosaic Law set the stage for the perfect sacrifice of Jesus, which alone effects a true remission of sins (Heb 10:11-18).

The faith Paul calls us to is not a thought, an opinion, an idea. This faith is communion with Christ, which the Lord gives to us, and which thus becomes life, becomes conformity with Him. Or, to put it another way, faith, if it is true, if it is real, becomes love, becomes charity, is expressed in charity. Without charity, without this fruit, would not faith indeed be dead? Paul teaches us that in Christ, the observance of the Law (e.g. circumcision) counts for nothing—only faith working through love matters (cf. Gal 5:6).

Seen in this perspective, the centrality of justification without works, the primary object of Paul's preaching, does not clash with faith that works through love; indeed, it demands that our faith itself be expressed in a life in accordance with the Spirit.

Whilst Paul is primarily concerned to show that faith in Christ is necessary and sufficient, James accentuates the consequential relations between faith and works (cf. James 2:24). Therefore, for both Paul and James, faith that is active in love testifies to the freely given gift of justification in Christ Jesus. Salvation received in Christ needs to be preserved and witnessed to "with fear and trembling. For God is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure...Do all things without grumbling or questioning...holding fast the word of life"—Phil 2:12-14,16.

The Gospel According to St. Mark is widely accepted as the earliest Gospel, written before 70 A.D. in Rome for Gentile believers by a disciple of Simon Peter who Peter refers to as "my son Mark" (1 Pet 5:13). Mark was also notably an associate of the apostle Paul (Acts 12:25; 15:37). He is the cousin of the missionary Barnabus according to Col 4:10. Tradition states that after the martyrdom of Peter and Paul, Mark was the first to establish churches in Alexandria in northern Egypt. Mark's Gospel is the shortest, and the fastest moving and paints a picture of Jesus that is vivid and dynamic, focusing most of his attention on Jesus' mighty works. This week's Gospel has the disciples identifying Jesus with the greatest men of their history: Elijah, John the Baptist, the prophets. But no one dares to call Jesus the Messiah of God, until Peter speaks up, claiming "You are the Christ." The change that has come about in Peter as a result of his proximity to Jesus can only be the work of God. But it does not stop Peter trying to prevent Christ from undergoing His Passion. Satan wishes to impede Our Lord from accomplishing His mission on earth. In order to follow after Christ in His saving work we must set aside all insufficient reasoning. For if our conviction goes so far as to embrace Christ and His Passion, our lives will be saved.

Drawing them all together...

Today's liturgy presents us with echoes of Good Friday, the readings evoke the mystery of Christ's passion. This is about Incarnation, apostleship and the nature of suffering. St. Mark's Gospel is (typically) short and direct: at its very heart is the question posed today to the disciples at Caesarea Phillipi—the most fundamental question of the Christian life, and one asked throughout the world at all times:
"But you, who do you say that I am?" 
Up to this point Jesus had been seen as an incredible miracle worker, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, wielding power over nature. People were caught up in the marvel of His ministry, and rightly saw Him as the Messiah, or anointed one, the hope of all the people. So it is doubly mysterious that He should then come out with His strange and frightening words about suffering and death. The disciples' dreams of victory and glory over oppression would end not in a victor's wreath, but the bloody crown of martyrdom. When Jesus goes further and tells them that true apostleship means a head-on confrontation with, and acceptance of, this frightening dimension of life, one can understand their deep apprehension.

The remarkable thing is the consistency of the witness of Scripture to the mystery of the nature if human experience and God's plan of redemption. The Songs of the Suffering Servant in the prophecies of Isaiah have always gripped the imagination: "I offered my back to those who struck me, my cheeks to those who tore at my beard." Who was he? The Prophet who must speak God's word at all cost? The people of Israel called to suffer for the sins of the world? The Messiah who will save his people? But why should it have to be like this? Faith does not provide easy answers, or wave any wands. God enters into His creation to it's very depth, and assumes the ultimate darkness of the human condition, as is explained in the parables of the lost sheep and the missing goat in Luke 15. God has followed humanity into the desolation which sin had ripped open in the fabric of reality. God did not merely glance down and lovingly summon humanity to return; rather He personally entered into the vacuous, dark, visceral, reality of our sinfulness.

The glory comes in the Lord's words to the Apostles, "...to be put to death, and after three days to rise again." Jesus comes not to change, but to transfigure human experience and our understanding of it. As the French poet and philosopher Paul Claudel put it:
“Jesus did not come to explain away suffering, or to remove it. He came to fill it with His presence.” 
Jesus provides an inner illumination and peace, as long as we are prepared to abandon self-assertion and arrogant autonomous independence before God. The fullness of the mystery is already in the Psalm: "He has kept my soul from death, my eyes from tears and my feet from stumbling. I will walk in the presence of the Lord in the land of the living." echoing the stark choice given to Hebrews in Deuteronomy 30:15.


Boadt, L., Reading the Old Testament, New York: Paulist Press, 1984.
Brown, R. E., An Introduction to the New Testament, New York, Doubleday, 1997.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, New York: Doubleday, 1995.
Duggan, M., The Consuming Fire, San Francisco: Ignatius, 1991.
Fuller, R.C., Johnstone, L., Kearns, C., A New Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, London: Nelson, 1969.
Horrell, D. G., An Introduction to the Study of Paul, London: T&T
Ignatius Catholic Study Bible New Testament, Second Edition RSV, San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2001.
Kreeft, P., You Can Understand The Bible, San Francisco, Ignatius, 2005.
Letellier, R., Sunday & Feastday Sermons Cycles A, B, and C, New York: St. Pauls, 2011.
Magnificat Monthly Vol. 2, No. 12/ September 2012.
Magnificat Monthly Vol. 5, No. 12/ September 2015.
McKenzie, J.L., Dictionary of the Bible, New York, Touchstone, 1995.
Ratzinger, J., Jesus of Nazareth, London: Bloomsbury, 2007.
Ratzinger, J., Saint Paul, San Francisco: Ignatius, 2009.


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