Exploring the Readings at Mass—29th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B)

Welcome to my reflection on this week's Sunday readings at Mass, where I look at the Scripture we will hear at Mass on Sunday in its historical, social and theological context to see what wisdom can be gleaned.

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.

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

Jesus Our Saviour, Our Life

The readings are:
  • Isaiah 53:10-11
  • Psalm: 32:4-5, 18-20, 22; Response: v. 22.
  • Second Reading: Hebrews 4: 14-16.
  • Gospel: Mark 10: 35-45
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, so you can skip it if you're familiar with the book and get straight to the relevant text.

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 fourth Song which runs 52:13-53:12 and is God's revelation that points unmistakably to Jesus as the Messiah and Saviour by virtue of His suffering and death. Only Jesus totally fulfils its precepts. The Song tells us what is unique about Jesus compared to other figures in the Bible and in other religions. Both in structure and content, the Song of the Suffering Servant reveals Jesus as the source of our salvation (cf. Acts 8:32-33, within 8:26-40).

The second (Is 53:1-11a) and third (53:11b-12) parts of the Song foreshadow the stages of Jesus' passage from death to life. By its structure, the Song prefigures the sequence of events that Jesus noted in His Passion predictions (Mk 8:31; 9:31; 10:32-34; cf. 1 Cor 15:3-5): He suffered (53:7), died (53:8), and was buried (53:9), and was raised from the dead (53:10-12). Furthermore, the description of the Servant's beginnings when his compatriots disrespect him (53:1-6) contains allusions to the days of Jesus' ministry. The anger of Jesus' opponents spills over in their desire to destroy Him: the Pharisees and Herodians plot His assassination (Mk 3:6; cf. Is 53:5; cf. Lk 13:31-33), His neighbours and kinsmen at Nazareth mistrust Him (Lk 4:16-30; Mk 6:1-6; Jn 7:5), and His opponents disdain His teaching (Jn 7:1-8:58; Lk 10:13-16).

The Song of the Suffering Servant is at the heart of the Gospel because it shows us that Jesus has atoned for our sin. This is the Good News of our salvation. The early Christian profession that "Christ died for our sins, in accordance with the Scriptures" primarily alludes to the Servant text (1 Cor 15:3; cf. Is 53: 4-5, 10). When Jesus declares His death will be "a ransom for many", He is revealing Himself as the promised Servant (Mk 10:45; cf. Is 53:10-12). He makes the same point again at the Last Supper when he states that His blood will be poured out "for many" (Mk 14:24; Mt 26:28; see Is 53:11-12). His death is the sacrifice that makes atonement for sin and reconciles mankind to God in the New Covenant. The term "for many" is not exclusive but inclusive in that the saving work of Christ reveals God's desire that all people be saved (1 Tm 2:4).

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 to The Hebrews, claims to be a “word of exhortation” (13:22) and lacks the formal features common to a letter of the time; an introduction by the sender to the recipients and an opening word of thanksgiving. Rather, it reads somewhat like a homily, its literary rhythm alternating back and forth between doctrinal exposition and moral exhortation in the same way any oral preaching tends to.
Hebrews follows a carefully planned literary structure expressed with a rhetorical finesse unmatched in other writings of the New Testament. The work is equally unique in its subject matter, drawing on a extensive and sophisticated use of the Old Testament in comparison with the New, with particular emphasis on priestly and sacrificial issues. No New Testament writing reflects more deeply on the priesthood of Jesus Christ, and none gives more attention or puts more emphasis on covenant theology.

The Gospel According to St. Mark
The first thing that strikes you about Mark’s Gospel account is the pace at which the story develops. Mark’s work contrasts Matthew’s sure pedagogy and Luke’s composed account which keeps an eye on literary effect and chronological continuity. Mark simply proclaims the Good News that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, has come down to save mankind from death and sin by means of his death and resurrection. In this Gospel it seems possible to overhear, through the informality of writing, the voice of the storyteller himself. In this sense, Mark allows us to reach behind the Gospels to a time in history when the gospel story was circulating among the churches in fragmentary and oral form. 

Henry Wansborough O.S.B., in A New Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, argues that a study of Mark’s gospel in particular may lead us to a clearer understanding of the personality of Jesus himself. It was Wrede, in his ground-breaking work Das Messiasgeheimnis in den Evangelien. Zugleich ein Beitrag zum Verständnis des Markusevangeliums who first proposed Mark as a theologian concerned with a two-fold mission. Wrede developed a theory that suggested that a secret about the Messiah was an important factor in Mark: although Jesus is the Messiah, he hides this and instructs his disciples to do likewise, only demons recognise his identity. Brown attacks Wrede’s position on this, although he agrees with Wrede’s conclusion that Mark is clearly a theological work, he suggests that it is possible that the christology goes back as far as to Jesus Himself. Brown goes on to state that in his opinion Wrede exaggerated Marcan secrecy that in any case, may have its roots in Jesus’ historical rejection of some messianic aspirations that circulated at the time. Kermode also picked up on Wrede’s discovery in his book The Genesis of Secrecy stressing Marcan obscurity, and suggesting that the Gospel, like the parables, remains a mystery amid moments of radiance, excluding readers from the kingdom. Brown suggests that Kermode has “isolated Mark’s writing from its ultimate Christian theology” and points out that although it is true that the prominent motifs in Mark are disobedience, failure, misunderstanding and darkness, God’s power breaks through at the Gospel’s darkest moment, Jesus’ death on the cross and an outsider like the Roman centurion is not excluded, but rather gains understanding of the truth about Jesus. 

Mark then, writes with a two-fold mission. First and foremost seems to be a pastoral aim geared towards building his reader’s faith. Daniel Harrington confirms this in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, explaining that Mark’s writing shows the members of his community how their belief in the salvific significance of the cross related to the traditions about Jesus’ life. Secondly, Mark seems to have been presenting a biographical record of Christ’s life in order that early Christian’s might understand the reality of Jesus’ life and avoid a slip into Gnosticism, where Jesus was considered a myth rather than a reality. This juxtaposed with the writings of Paul, who concentrated his emphasis on the death and resurrection of Christ, saying little about the details of his life, though he undoubtedly exhorted his disciple Timothy to “Remember Jesus Christ” (2 Timothy 2:8). It is interesting to note, however, that even when Mark does engage in polemic, it appears to be polemic with a pastoral aim. The rough form of Greek used by Mark is one internal evidence often cited to prove the Gospel’s Roman origin. There are present numerous loan words derived from Latin as well as some expressions of Latin grammar. This type of Greek was commonly spoken among the lower classes in Rome. Luiz Ruscillio in his work The Synoptic Gospels, also notes these linguistic peculiarities. Clement of Alexandria cites Rome as the place where Mark wrote the gospel (E.H. 6.14.6) and Brown notes that this is a “thesis supported by a large number of scholars”. Ruscillio also notes several other evidences: the connection between Peter and Mark suggested by Papias of Hierapolis; in 2 Tim 4:11 Paul tells Timothy to bring Mark with him to Rome, he is later described as Paul’s fellow prisoner (Philmn 24) and Peter sends greetings from Rome (Babylon) at the end of his first letter (1 Pet 5:13) “…also from my son Mark.”. Harrington adds to this the evidence of the growing sense of impending persecution that pervades the Gospel; drawing a parallel to the threat of persecution the Christian community lived under in Rome at around 60 B.C.43.

This week's Gospel contains Jesus third and final prediction of His Passion & Resurrection (the others
can be found at Mark 8:31-33 and 9:30-32). This third prediction is the most detailed of the three and contains the particulars of His betrayal by Jews and Gentiles. The chalice reference is an obvious allusion to His forthcoming suffering. Indeed, the Old Testament uses the same imagery to depict the misery that God compels the unfaithful to drink (Psalms 75:8; Is 51:17; Jer 25:15). Although Jesus is innocent & pure, He consumes the cup that was filled for sinners. The Baptism reference refers to the immersion in trial and suffering, James and John will share in this as they encounter persecution in the early Church. James' martyrdom is recounted in Acts 12:2 and the exile of John in Rev 1:9.

The articulation of the ambitions of James and John leads Jesus to clarify the true nature of Christian leadership (10:37). His disciples are not to imitate the pomp of and tyranny of Gentile rulers (10:42) but the humility and service He has been modelling for them during His ministry (10:45; Jn 13:15-15; CCC 1551).

Here, as elsewhere, Jesus interprets His Passion as the fulfilment of the Isaian Suffering Servant Prophecy in the First Reading; pouring out His life "for many" recalls how the messianic Servant will make "many" by bearing their afflictions (Is 52:11-12; Rom 5:19).

Drawing them all together...

In this Sunday's readings, we are powerfully reminded of the central mysteries of our faith. The readings bring home to us strongly that every Sunday is a celebration of Easter, the commemoration and joyful remembrance of the death and Resurrection of Jesus. Nothing could be deeper, or more serious, because this is about nothing less than life and death, our understanding of it, its effect on our every day lives. The world is pre-occupied with this theme, and it haunts humanity both consciously and sub-consciously. The horror of death is our great fear, and the mythologies of all nations are filled with stories of the search for immortality, the means to prolong life, or to enhance its quality and duration: The Fountain of Youth, The Elixir of Life, Shangri-La, etc. Mankind yearns to live forever.

The Scriptures do not deny this at all; nor do they provide sentimental answers. Rather they cast life and death in a new form and see both in the context of our relationship with God. This is a transforming understanding, and one that deals in the hard realities of life, not in magic formulas. It is bound up with creation and truth and redemption, with the unfolding of God's plan for the world. It is to do with seeing God in everything, and having the world and history suffused with a new light, and a new meaning given through the understanding of His close love for us, His intimate involvement in the mystery and suffering of the human condition. The Song of the Suffering Servant illustrates this for us;
"The Lord has been pleased to crush with suffering...But his soul's anguish over, he shall see the light and be content. By his sufferings shall my servant justify many, taking their faults on himself."
The assumption of a new attitude to sorrow, and a redemptive expiratory understanding of death, couches our response in a new way; "Through him, what the Lord wishes will be done." Jesus, in his full assumption of our human condition gives new, indeed definitive, meaning to our struggle with pain, suffering and death. And he carries this through death and beyond it to a vision of the after-life. The letter to the Hebrews tells us that in Jesus, the Son of God, "We have the supreme high-priest who has gone through to the highest heaven" so "we must never let go of the faith we have professed". But this is a challenge to overturn the expectations of the world in a new call to servanthood and expiation. Past, present and future are given new meaning. We pray with the Psalmist: "May your love be upon us, O Lord, as we place all our hope in you".


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