The middle section of the long Old Testament book of Isaiah is particularly about the peoples’ sorry state in exile in Babylon and the encouragement forf them that all will be well eventually. The section begins at chapter 40 with comforting words and ends in Chapter 55 with a confidence for the future. And the section contains four songs about the servant of the Lord. In the first song (Isaiah 42:1-9) the servant will gently bring peace to the people and to all nations in line with God’s intentions. The second is at the beginning of chapter 49, about the nation of Israel itself as in some way the servant accomplishing God’s will. The third song in chapter 50 speaks of the servant as an individual prophet announcing the good news of God in the face of all difficulties. And our reading today is just a small part of the final song (Isaiah 53:10-11); it speaks of the servant as a righteous person overcoming all sinfulness so all might be righteous. Christians apply many of the descriptions of the servant in these songs to Christ Himself, for He, through much suffering, maintains His righteousness and enables it freely for all to attain; we see Jesus as the ultimate case of unselfishness and suffering that benefits others.
In the letter to the Hebrews the author interprets the history of the chosen people with all its ups and downs, and constantly points out the message it has for the Christians he addresses. The second reading is the next three verses after last week’s reading (Hebrews 4:14-16). It develops this Christian interpretation of the suffering servant, but sees Jesus as the genuine priest, unlike all the others with their own sins, for He has not just symbolically entered the inner sanctum of the Temple, but has actually entered heaven itself. Being one of us, Jesus has won the possibility of ultimate success for everyone – the culmination of God’s creative act of unselfishness and risk-taking.
Mark wrote the good news of Jesus Christ for the early followers of the Way of Jesus. The purpose of this gospel is to give the people some understanding of the transformation potential that Jesus should have on the readers’ lives. Mark does this through the format of a report of the public life and death of Jesus, his sayings and his deeds and the reaction of those around him, especially the disciples; it expresses his understanding of the significance of it all for life in his time (and in ours today). The third reading (Mark 10:32-45) we have for today is one of undoubted reliability, for no gospel writer would have portrayed the disciples in such a bad light had it not been past down to them from the disciples themselves, who admitted their unworthiness. The story is made public here so as to remind us Christians even to this day, that we can easily get the message of the Kingdom of God quite wrong because of our self-confidence and selfishness. The disciples thought the kingdom was to do with earthly power politics and selfish promotion. They just had not understood the main message Jesus was trying to put across to them; until He had actually died and it began to dawn on them what it was all about then they began to see things differently.
The first reading is from the Book of Wisdom. We had a reading from this book on the 25th Sunday of Ordinary Time and comments there explained something about the book in general and the first 5 chapters in particular. The books that are in the Christian bible are called canonical (from the Greek κανων meaning rule or standard), because they are approved by the Church as giving reliable teaching about God and how we should live. However, non-Catholic Christians generally don’t recognise the Book of Wisdom as belonging to this group, as it was only regarded as special by the Jews living outwith Israel. For this reason it is regarded as of secondary value and is called deutero-canonical. The passage we have today (7:7-11) is all about the gift of true wisdom which Solomon prayed for and from which we learn how true wisdom surpasses many things that might tempt us. The name ‘Sophie’ comes from the Greek for wisdom which is personified as a lady.
The second reading is just two verses from the Book of Hebrews (4:12f). The author of the letter to the Hebrews as a knowledgeable and thoughtful Christian in the first century after Christ, has taken historical events and theological ideas from the Old Testament and used them to express his religious ideas . In the unit that is our short reading he begins with the relevance and vitality of the word of God, referring ambiguously between the words of the Hebrew Scriptures that he knows so well and Jesus Christ the very Word of God incarnate into our world: literally “Living indeed (is) the word of God and effective…” This Christ is dynamically challenging to the way of life that we lead: “sharper than any two-edged sword”; not just to the way that we live in this secular society: “penetrating into (the) division of soul and spirit” but also sensitive to the inner thoughts and intentions that we have: “judging of thoughts and heart’s intentions”. And it is to Him that we have to give a report, literally “the word,” thus rounding off this poetic passage with the word word with which he began. The writer must think that the convert Jews whom he addresses are getting lax even by the standard of the Wisdom in their Book of that name; so he speaks of the wise word of God that strikes at their inner attitudes (and seems to find them wanting).
The third reading is a unit from the gospel of Mark (10:17-30) as his account draws towards the final days of Jesus in Jerusalem. He is wanting to focus the reader more on the essential core attitude of being a follower of Christ, telling us how Jesus tries to bring his disciples to some sort of understanding. The unit is not difficult in itself but two points might be noticeable. The man seeking advice from Jesus refers to him as “Good teacher.” We live in a time when there has been some sorting out of the language we might use about God in relation to the three Persons of the Trinity and to the divinity of Christ; so that when Mark writes that Jesus replies “No one is good but God,” we are given cause for pause. Matthew, when copying this story into his gospel avoids this difficulty altogether with “Then someone came to him and said, ‘Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?’ And he said to him, ‘Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good…” (Matthew 19:16f). We are reminded by this that the revelation of the Incarnation and of the Trinity presents us with a mystery that only through the centuries has come to be expressed in what we think of as precise and clear wording. In addition to being reminded of this mystery we might also be surprised by Jesus referring to the disciples as children. It was, we are told, fairly normal for a Jewish teacher to refer to his ‘students’ in this way, but it can also remind us of our relationship with God in Christ, as disciples – people not only struggling to understand, but also to follow in the way that we live.
The first reading comes at the beginning of the Bible (Genesis chapter 2, verses 18 to 24), just after the beautiful poem about God’s work of creation which He saw as very good. The passage is an extract from a story about the creation of people and their fall from grace. The extract tells of God after creating a man, making all the animals, but finally forming a woman as a suitable partner for him; it ends with an expression of the most desirable arrangement for marriage in the situation of the writer and of the original hearers of the story, with the need to keep their numbers up and to have a close knit community – “.. a man leaves his father and mother and joins himself to a wife, and they become one body;” a similar family situation is the blessing of the Psalm (128) which is used as a response to the reading.
Singing of the wonderful works of God in Psalm 8, the Jews would recall that humans were made just a little lower than angels and were to be crowned with glory and splendour. But the writer of our second reading (Hebrews, chapter 2, verses 9 to 11) realises that prior to the coming of Jesus humans had failed to live up to this grand position they had been given in God’s creative scheme. As a Christian with knowledge of the Hebrew bible, the writer chose a legitimate alternative translation of ‘a little lower than’ and applied verse 5 of psalm 8 to Jesus, writing that He was ‘for a short while made lower than the angels and is now crowned with glory and splendour’ – the Son of God was made man (human), lived and died and is now risen and seated at the right hand of God. The reading then says that now there is a human like ourselves, Who can lead us who are failing, along the way to salvation – that Person is Jesus Christ, the Word of God.
In the gospel reading (Mark, chapter 10, verses 2 to 16), Mark tells his readers of Pharisees coming to Jesus to question Him about divorce. There were at the time two different views among Jewish groups, both accepting that a man could give a writ of divorce to his wife according to the Law (Deut 24:1ff), but one group thought this was only in the case of her adultery, the other in the case of much lesser dissatisfaction. Mark writes that Jesus replied by referring to the original plan of God that was written in Genesis (and is the last part of the first reading) adding that the Law they referred to was only an inferior application because of human weakness. In the story, the disciples are surprised and quiz Jesus when they are alone, but He re-affirms his original reply and even adds that a woman shouldn’t divorce a man (something not really thought possible by most Jews). It is likely that this whole issue was a matter of some discussion in the early church, for in Matthew’s gospel, in a parallel story, Jesus seems to support the Deuteronomy ruling. Much earlier, when Paul thought the plan of God was about to be completed and the world come to an end, he wrote that it was best not to marry at all, though if one did, the rights of husband and wife over each other were equal. So even in the early church there were different views about marriage and divorce..
The first reading is from Numbers chapter 11, verses 25-29. The Book of Numbers is the fourth book of the Pentateuch which is a name for the first five books of the Bible, called by the Jews, the Law. Probably largely put together in the 8th century BC, the Pentateuch has the pattern of the whole creative plan of God: it starts with creation then the failings of the human race, and so God choosing a group of humans for special attention to try to begin to recover the situation; this is followed by migration to Egypt and their being enslaved there; eventually they are rescued by God and, wandering through the desert for years are, supposedly, made into a better people, ready to enter the Promised land, a title which stands for the completing of God’s whole plan for the universe – not that it has worked itself out yet. The same pattern is poetically expressed in the poem at the beginning of the Bible (Genesis chapter 1). In the first reading the organisation of the group in the desert is developing – is developing problems; for there are some ‘unauthorised’ charismatic people playing a part in their emerging organisation; many think that the gift of God should be limited to those at the head of the structure, but Moses, in our account, thinks not, but rather that the spirit should be on all.
From the reading of James (5:1-6) we get a glimpse of some of the problems with some of the people who count themselves as Christians. It is an easily understood passage, not unlike a lot of the messages in the books of the prophets and even in preaching to this day. Positively it is an encouragement to social justice – a message that is appreciated by the less well-off more than by the richer people; but it is they who are the real targets of the diatribe. The reference to “the murder of the righteous one”, could well refer to the crucifixion of Jesus, but it might also apply to suppression of the talents of those who are innocent, which is partly the message of the gospel reading.
The gospel reading (Mark 9:38-48) brings together in an interesting way, two passages that at first seem quite disconnected, and includes a universal proverb. The first incident is very like the message of the first reading; it is about someone who has not been appointed to do so (to exercises a spiritual power), who is casting out a devil in Jesus’ name; and when the disciples complain to Jesus about this, He makes much the same judgment about it as did Moses in the book of Numbers in a somewhat similar case (in the first reading); He uses the proverb ‘who is not against us is for us;’ so Mark represents Jesus’ view as not seeing the followers of Jesus as an exclusive group, nor even one with a monopoly on doing good, and even using the power of His name. The second part of the reading is about scandalising a child, where it is quite possible that ‘child’ refers to a disciple or to an innocent enthusiast; if this is the case then it makes more sense in this context and even could link with the end of the reading from James. It goes on then to stress how radically we must act in order to rid ourselves of any evil we have.
The book of Wisdom from where the first reading (Ch 2:12, 17-20) comes, is from the first section of the book (chapters 1-5) which illustrates the attitude that others might well have towards the believing Jews, who think themselves superior. The whole book seems to have been written originally in Greek and probably in Egypt where there was a ‘colony’ of Jews; it probably dates from the first century BC. The reading suggests that the way of the ‘godless’ may be troublesome to the Jews; but these were not really godless in the sense of being wicked people, many of them had good standards of behaviour both private and public, and what they wanted out of life was a pleasant and satisfying life for themselves and for others. The Jews in Israel at the time of Jesus did not accept this Book as part of their Scriptures and even now it is Catholics, not the Protestants, who have this book in their Bible. However, the writer is picking up on a theme in Isaiah and elsewhere, that those who are righteous will be opposed by others who will treat them badly and even condemn them to death (as we saw in the suffering servant song in last week’s reading from Isaiah). The responsorial psalm is the congregation’s response to the reading and is very aptly chosen.
The reading from James (3:16-4:3) comes across like preaching in the early church and has the same pattern and general sense as Paul’s letter to the Galatians (5:19-23) namely, a longish list of sins then “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness…” where James has “But the wisdom from above is first of all pure, then peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy…” But it is the list of evils and sins that makes us wonder at the state of the early followers of the Way of Jesus – it seems that they were not all the saintly enthusiasts we might imagine.
The gospel reading (Mark 9:30-37.) takes us further into the second half of the Gospel the beginning of which we had last week. The plot is moving now towards the fulfillment and completion of Jesus’ life on earth. We read a second prediction of Jesus’ passion and resurrection; it is what might be expected by those who have grasped the message of the first reading; so Jesus is now worried about too much public exposure and especially about the use of the word Christ which has for most of his contemporaries the implication of some grand almost secular political power on the side of the Jews. We see this as we read of the disciples, upon hearing the prediction, arguing about who will share positions of power in the coming kingdom. Again and again Mark indicates that the disciples just don’t understand what Jesus is talking about. But the message of Jesus is not to be understood so much as to be lived out in our attitude to others different from ourselves “whoever wants to be first must be last.”
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…”
At the end of the creation poem in Genesis chapter 1, we read that “God looked at all He had done and behold (it was) extremely good.” But the rest of the Old testament is largely about the mess that people are making of this creation. It was probably when Moses led enslaved tribes out of Egypt to freedom, that they adopted Yahweh as their god – or rather he adopted them. It sowed the belief that God would always see them alright. But about 500 years later, after a lot of ups and downs, they lost the land they believed God had given them and almost lost faith too. But a prophet, one of the guardians of the faith, in his role of discerning the original and future plan of God for creation, told the people in dire straits that God would one day restore them to prosperity; we read of this expectation of the restoration of damaged creation in poetic and symbolic form in the first reading from Isaiah 35:4 – 7 – the blind will see, the deaf will hear etc.
About 600 years after Isaiah’s pronouncement, and after many disappointments and disagreements amongst the Jews, Jesus became one of them – one of us. It is probably a cousin of His who wrote the letter of James, where chapter 2, verses 1 – 5 are an example of the many wise things that he points out to those Jews living outwith their homeland and who had become followers of Jesus’ Way (Christians). Although he tells them to treat people fairly, he makes no mention in the whole letter of the non-Jews among whom they were living. Yet we know that Paul had worked widely in the area particularly welcoming Gentile converts. This might be one of the many aspects of this letter that made the early church hesitant about adopting it as part of their scriptures. However James’ suggestions for relationships with others is good and applicable also to us today, and we would even want to develop the idea to cover relationships with people of other faiths and of none, and extend them to cover people with other differences from what we might feel is the norm.
We know that Paul and Peter didn’t always see eye to eye about what attitude to have towards Gentile converts – Peter wanting to hold on to his Jewish customs and regulations. Mark was more in favour of Paul’s liberal attitude, but when writing his Gospel he could find little evidence of Jesus’ attitude to non-Jews. But he does tell the story of a Syro-phœnician woman where she says, even the dogs can eat the scraps under the table; and he improves on that in today’s gospel reading (Mark 7:31-37), where Jesus cures a deaf mute in Gentile territory. In this passage Mark seems to have in mind the words of the prophet that were in the first reading; indeed, Mark uses the same, vary rare word for the speech defect (μογιλαλον) that is in Isaiah. Yet he may not have also knowingly reflected the words of God at the end of the creation poem (quoted above) when he writes about the onlookers of the miracle, saying “He has done all things well.”