29th Sunday in Ordinary Time B
Readings: Isaiah 53:10-11 Hebrews 4:14-16 Mark 10:35-45
Today’s readings challenge us with the cost of Christian discipleship, modeled on Jesus, who identifies his mission with the suffering servant of Second Isaiah. For the followers of Jesus greatness consists, not in lording it over others, but in selfless service in imitation of “the Son of Man,” who “has not come to be served but to serve and to give his life in ransom for the many” (Mk 10:45).
The first reading is taken from the fourth so-called Servant Song of Second Isaiah. It begins with the confession of a group that has witnessed the ignominious life and death of the servant but now realizes that his sufferings were borne, not for his own sins, but for theirs. In the verses before our reading they confess: “We had all gone astray like sheep,/ each following his own way;/ but the Lord laid upon him the guilt of us all.” This new understanding of God’s servant was undoubtedly influenced by the suffering of prophets like Moses, Jeremiah and possibly Second Isaiah himself. In retrospect, they now realize: “The Lord was pleased to crush him in infirmity.” But the servant’s suffering and death are not the last words here. They have come to realize that “If he (the servant) gives his life as an offering for sin/ he shall see his descendants in a long life,/ and the will of the Lord shall be accomplished through him.” By voluntarily offering his suffering and prophetic mission as a sacrifice to atone for the nation’s sin, the servant brings salvation for others. Clearly Jesus, who “has not come to be served but to serve and to give his life in ransom for the many,” has modeled himself on this servant. In the last lines, the Lord himself speaks of his servant’s triumph and the salvation his innocent suffering will bring. “Because of his affliction he shall see the light in fullness of days;/ through his suffering, my servant shall justify many,/ and their guilt he shall bear.”
The Epistle continues the selections from Hebrews with an exhortation to the community to hold fast to its original profession of faith because it has in Jesus a sympathetic high priest who knows weakness and temptation. Although Hebrews presents the resurrected Jesus as the great high priest who has passed through the heavens, it also stresses that in his earthly existence he was perfected through suffering, obedience, and testing (see 2:10-18). Therefore, he is able to sympathize and offer mercy and favor to the readers who have also endured great suffering because of the faith (see 10:32-34) and may now be tempted to apathy or apostasy (see 3:7-4:13; 5:11-6:12; 10:35-39).
The gospel reading follows Jesus’ third and most explicit passion and resurrection prediction in Mark, as he deliberately completes his journey to Jerusalem to fulfill his destiny (Mk 10:32-34; see 8:31; 9:30-31). For the third time, the obtuse disciples fail to grasp the harsh reality and significance of Jesus’ passion for his Messianic destiny, and he must teach them that discipleship means a life of self-sacrificing service modeled on his own life (see Mk 8:32-38; 9:32-37).
Despite the fact that Zebedee’s sons, James and John, have been a part of the inner circle of disciples from the beginning (see Mk 1:19-20; 5:35-43; 9:2-13), they ignore their master’s words and impertinently request positions of honor at his right and left when he comes into glory in his Messianic kingdom (10:35-37). In exasperation, Jesus exclaims, “You do not know what you are asking!” He then asks, “Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” With complete misunderstanding, they confidently respond, “We can.” This answer is bitterly ironic in light of their cowardice in Gethsemane, where they will sleep in Jesus’ hour of agony and then desert when he is arrested (Mk 14:32-50).
The other disciples are not spared in this selection. They had previously argued about greatness after the second passion prediction (9:33-37), and now are indignant at James and John’s request. Jesus has to teach them all about the revolutionary nature of God’s kingdom. Just as they had learned that worldly riches are a hindrance for entrance into the kingdom (10:17-31), now Jesus proclaims that greatness in the kingdom is not based on a powerful exercise of authority, making its “importance felt,” but on humble service (diakonia), like that of a servant (doulos) who serves the needs of all. This service is rooted in Jesus’ own mission as the servant spoken of in Second Isaiah, who give his life as a ransom for many (Mk 10:45; Isa 53:11-12). “You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”