Homily for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 13, 2009
Isaiah 50: 4-9
Mark 8: 27-35
Christian Brothers, Iona College
“The Lord God opens my ear that I may hear” (Is 50: 4).
The 2nd part of the book of the prophet Isaiah contains 4 poems about the Servant of the Lord. Our 1st reading was 6 verses from the 3rd of these poems.
It’s not at all clear who this Servant of the Lord is: some unknown individual of Isaiah’s time, some future individual, or Israel collectively. Different parts of the poems make it seem like now one, now another of those possibilities.
What is clear thruout these poems is that the Lord has chosen this Servant of his: “Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one with whom I am pleased, upon whom I have put my spirit…” (42:1); “The Lord called me from birth, from my mother’s womb he gave me my name. You are my servant, he said to me…” (49:1,3); “The Lord God has given me a well-trained tongue, that I may know how to speak to the weary a word that will rouse them. Morning after morning he opens my ear that I may hear” (50:4).
It’s also clear that the Servant suffers a great deal: “I gave my back to those who beat me” (50:6), and similar passages; and the Servant remains unshakably loyal to God: “I have not rebelled, have not turned back. I have set my face like flint” (50:5,7), and so on.
Finally, it’s clear that God saves or vindicates his Servant: “The Lord God is my help, therefore I am not disgraced; [I know] I shall not be put to shame. He is near who upholds my right” (50:7-8).
Whomever the prophet may have meant by these poems, from the beginning the Church has seen in them an image, a figure, of our Savior. He is the Lord’s true servant, intent entirely on doing the Father’s will. There are echoes of these poems at Jesus’ baptism and transfiguration and in the details of his passion. The Father has chosen him to be the Christ, as Peter recognizes (Mark 8:29), but—as we considered last week in reference with the “messianic secret” (cf. 7:36), and which Jesus exercises again this evening: “he warned them not to tell anyone about him” (8:30)—that role doesn’t promise national liberation and political power. Jesus makes clear today that it means rejection and suffering (8:31,34). The fate of Jesus mirrors that of the Servant of the Lord. But God will also vindicate Jesus; he will rise (8:31) so that he’s not shamed (cf. Is 50:7), but glorified instead. The Lord God proves to be his help, and no one will be able to deny it on the day of judgment: “Who disputes my right? Let him confront me. See, the Lord God is my help; who will prove me wrong?” (50:8-9).
Peter was reluctant to believe that the Son of Man “must suffer greatly and be rejected… and be killed” (Mark 8:31). He didn’t grasp the identity of the Son of Man with the Servant of the Lord. As events proved, Peter and the rest of the 12 were even more reluctant to identify themselves with the Son of Man, to see that they also might have to suffer and be rejected, be put on trial and condemned. It’s one of the indications of the truth of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus that they were so convinced after Jesus’ crucifixion; convinced not only in mind but even in their total commitment. St. John Chrysostom, whose memorial we ordinarily observe on Sept. 13, writes in a homily on 1 Corinthians:
How [do you] account for the fact that these men [the apostles], who in Christ’s lifetime did not stand up to the attacks by the Jews, set forth to do battle with the whole world once Christ was dead—if…Christ did not rise and speak to them and rouse their courage? Did they perhaps say to themselves: “…He could not save himself but he will protect us? He did not help himself when he was alive, but now that he is dead he will extend a helping hand to us? . . .” Would it not be wholly irrational even to think such thoughts, much less to act upon them? (Homily 4, 3.4, in LOH 4:1345-46)
Evidently Peter and the rest had also come to see themselves as the servants of the Lord, chosen, destined for rejection in this world, redeemed and vindicated by Jesus—who is not John the Baptist, who is not Elijah, who is not a prophet, who is the Messiah for the world to come.
That identity between the Christ and his disciples Jesus spells out with terrifying clarity when Peter objects to the prediction of suffering and death (8:32): Peter is a satan, an “adversary,” a “tempter,” for thinking to mislead Jesus from his true role as the Father’s servant; moreover, if we wish to be with Jesus, we must walk the same road that he does, the way of the cross (8:34). The Christian way of life makes us, also, servants of the Lord who have been chosen, who will be rejected for identifying ourselves as Christ’s people—sometimes openly persecuted, as is happening now in Pakistan, India, and elsewhere; sometimes more subtly persecuted, as when defenders of human rights are harassed, threatened, and assassinated (as happened to a priest in the Philippines last Sunday); sometimes just pushed aside as irrelevant.
Jesus promises to those who are unshakably loyal final vindication: “whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it” (8:35). On the last day his disciples will not be shamed but raised up with him.