This week’s readings turn around the idea of sacrifice, how it was from the time of Moses, and how the the prophet Isaiah saw it born out in God’s ‘Servant’. Jesus found it hard for his disciples to understand that he himself would end as a sacrifice, a ‘ransom’ for us all.
These are a few verses from a longer poem that scholars have called ‘The Song of the Suffering Servant.’ It describes in detail the pain and eventual death of one who was devoted to bringing God’s word but has been rejected and mistreated instead of heeded. It may originally have been a reflection on the experience of one of the Old Testament prophets, like Jeremiah whose sufferings are described in the book of that name. The early Christians found in it a prediction to help them understand the meaning of Christ’s crucifixion. The last words we hear today stress what the suffering has done for others: it became a healing sacrifice for ‘many’. This will be echoed in Jesus’ words in the gospel selection.
Psalm 32/33:4-5, 18-20, 22
This psalm of thanksgiving celebrates the works of the Lord, especially in his rescue of those faithful to God’s word. Although more joyous in tone, it fits into the theme of redemption we hear in the other readings today.
We continue with this Letter which draws on Old Testament theology to explain who Jesus is and what he has done for our redemption. The imagery is taken from the Jewish liturgy and the role of the High Priest. As prescribed in the Torah, he went once a year on the Day of Atonement into the most sacred part of the temple – the ‘Holy of Holies’. It was his duty to carry the animal sacrifice that had been made for sins. Jesus in contrast has gone to the highest heaven with his own sacrifice. While Jesus has this heavenly presence and destiny, the author stresses his humanity which he shares with us. We can go to Jesus with full trust for although he was without any sin himself, he suffered the weakness of being human and can therefore thoroughly understand all of our own temptations.
Between last week’s reading from Mark and this week’s, the gospel has the third prediction Jesus made to his disciples about his coming suffering, death and rising. The liturgy has omitted this third prediction, but that theme was carried in the reading from Isaiah. After this last prediction, the Twelve make no answer, though they have earlier ‘been amazed’ and ‘fearful’ of going up to Jerusalem, as Jesus strides ahead of them. That they do not yet understand what Jesus tried to teach them is shown by what we hear today: James and John, two of the first four disciples called, are thinking of what the Kingdom of God could mean for them. Seats on the ‘right’ and ‘left’ of a ruler are the positions of greatest prestige. Jesus immediately lets them know they have not understood the nature of his Kingdom and his glory. It will be reached through suffering, first his own, and then for those following him. (Ironically, when Jesus is on the cross, to the left and right of him will be two crucified thieves.)
‘Cup’ was a metaphor in the Psalms for what lies ahead for someone, either good – a ‘cup of blessing’ – or ill. The root meaning behind ‘baptism’ is being ‘immersed’, and Jesus uses it several time for being totally given over to suffering and finally death.
Mary Healy, in her commentary on Mark, points out that there are strong sacramental aspects to Jesus’ choice of words, relating to the Eucharist and Baptism. We drink ‘the cup of the new and eternal sacrifice’ at mass, and we go symbolically down to the depths in baptism and rise in Jesus. Through the sacraments, the Christian takes part in the life and death of Jesus.
James and John immediately say they are ready to share the cup. Is this a conversion to a new depth or is it a continuation of their lack of full understanding? Mark lets us make up our own minds about that, though the hints are that they are making rash promises while still hoping for the honoured places. Jesus takes up their offer but makes no promise of the reward they want. His reply is mysterious – no indication of who are those ‘to whom they have been allotted’. We are left to reflect on what that means.
It is not surprising that the other disciples are upset that the two brothers have tried to get in ahead of them. From the context it does not seem that they understood better what following Jesus means, more likely that they wanted any honours themselves. Jesus words apply to all of them – and to us. He condemns all ambition to be have a place higher than other disciples. Once again, he stresses that true following of Jesus is serving. There is irony in the image that to be best, one must strive to be least! The underlying meaning is that one no longer thinks of personal ambition at all but about the needs of others and what can be done for them.
In a one-sentence summary of the meaning his own life, he uses the metaphor of ‘ransom’ – paying a high price to rescue others. In the history of the Hebrews, it recalls the word ‘ransom’ used the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt (the Exodus). The phrase ‘for many’ does not mean leaving some out as we might use the word in English (where it may mean ‘a lot, but not all’). In the Semitic languages which Jesus used, the word for ‘many’ is used for ‘all’. The same meaning of ‘many’ occurs in the recent change to the mass translation in in the consecration of the wine, where we used to hear ‘for all’. And like the words in Mark, it means the same – that Jesus died for every human being.