The first reading is the third of four ‘Servant Songs’ found in this part of the book of Isaiah. These songs focus on and develop the idea of being a servant of God and of others – of living for other people. They introduce the notion of inevitable suffering, of disappointment, difficulties and even disaster; these must be faced up to with dignity and with faithfulness to the cause of serving others whatever the trials or troubles encountered; the aim of the servant is the good of others. Sometimes these songs may have been applied to a prophet who had the role of pointing out in words and by the example of his own life, the message of God and the way that folk should live. Prophets often suffered for their delivery of an unwelcome message so that these poems sometimes merit the title ‘Suffering Servant Songs.’ But at other times these songs may apply to the nation of the Jews as a whole; for they fell into the temptation of thinking that being chosen by God was a privilege that elevated them above others and should defend them from foreign interference, whereas being chosen is being challenged with the humble task of living for the good of others and suffering any consequent troubles. Christians, following the lead of the New Testament writers, applied these songs to the life of Jesus, God who became a man to dwell among us in order to benefit the whole of humanity for all time, but whose message was disturbing to many, especially the leading lights among the Jews at the time – those in authority, the Scribes and the Pharisees; some of the words of our reading today from Isaiah 50:5-9 have been used in describing the passion and suffering of Jesus.
The second reading from James 2:14-18 deals with the relationship of faith and good works, which must have been something of a contention between Christians in James’ day, as it was at the time of the Reformation; but the issue can arise for any of us at any time when we think that because we have faith it means that we are safe and secure, and when this confidence leads to a neglect of living how we ought to live – living for the sake of others – as Jesus gave his whole life for the love of us all. Believing is not just accepting certain doctrines, nor just an emotional devotion to the person of Christ, but more than anything it is living in a particular way.
The gospel reading is the central turning point in Mark’s Gospel (Chapter 8: 27-35) where Mark has Jesus explicitly moving towards his passion and death. With regard to the name Christ which for Mark, his readers and all Christians may be taken as a sort of surname of Jesus or as referring to the sum of one’s beliefs about this Son of God made man; but for Peter at the time and most of the crowd that followed or heard of Jesus, it would have had the connotation of an earthly leader who would establish Israel in its ideal grandeur and forcibly subdue all opposing regimes bringing the expected time of fulfillment foretold in their Scriptures. It must be partly because of this expectation that Mark has Jesus wanting to keep this hush-hush yet not to deny the title a more spiritual meaning. Jesus doesn’t really fulfill the earthly expectations of a glorious King like David was imagined to be; but Jesus is much more the suffering servant who lives and dies for others. Like most Jews, Peter couldn’t accept this notion of being a servant, especially a suffering one. And we notice that when Jesus says to Peter “Get behind me” it is an ambiguous phrase, and could equally mean ‘back me up’ or ‘be a follower of mine.’ Indeed the same Greek phrase is used by Mark later when he has Jesus say “if anyone would ‘come after me’ let him deny himself…”