Thursday, October 18, 2012

Suffering and Leadership: The 29th Sunday of Ordinary Time

The Readings for this upcoming Lord's Day focus on the themes of suffering and leadership: in particular, how Christ, our definitive leader, embraced suffering on our behalf, and so modeled true leadership for all who would follow him.

1.  Our First Reading is Isaiah 53:10-11:
The LORD was pleased
to crush him in infirmity.

If he 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.

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.
This is an excerpt from the larger "Suffering Servant Song" that extends from Isaiah 52:13–53:12.

The second part of Isaiah (Isa 40–66) is characterized by several "Servant Songs," that is, long poems about, or spoken by, a mysterious "servant of the LORD."  The identity of this "servant" is a great matter of scholarly and religious debate.  At times, the Servant seems to be a personification of the people of Israel (Isa 49:3), but at other times, it is clear that the Servant is an individual who has a mission to serve Israel and the Nations (Isa 49:6).  This tension may be resolved by understanding the servant to be an individual who represents and embodies his nation.  In ancient Israel, there were two such persons who, at various times and in various ways, represented and embodied the whole nation: the king, and the High Priest.  It is interesting, then, to note that the Servant is described both in kingly language (e.g. "establishing justice," a royal duty, Isa 42:3-4) and priestly language ("making his life a sin-offering," Isa 53:10).  When interpreting the final form of the Book of Isaiah, I believe it is warranted to interpret the Servant as a future Son of David, a king who had priestly status ("after the order of Melchizedek", Ps. 110).  [Daniel Bock argues this in greater detail: --> D. I. Block, “My Servant David: Ancient Israel’s Vision of the Messiah,” in Israel’s Messiah in the Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls (eds. R. S. Hess and M.D. Carroll R.; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 17-56.]  Of course, this is precisely what the Church does, identifying Isaiah's "Servant" as Jesus of Nazareth, Son of David and High Priest after the order of Melchizedek.

When I was younger, I was greatly bothered by this verse: "The LORD was pleased to crush him."  This made it sound like God was cruel toward his own Son, and this harsh image of God, combined with sufferings in my own life, drove me for a while into a serious depression.

Therefore, care must be taken in interpreting this verse.  We should keep a few factors in mind: first, the Hebrew verb haphetz often means "to take delight in," but at other times functions as an idiom merely indicating the desire or will of a person without necessarily indicating that the action gave "pleasure."  So to take this language literalistically, as if it made God "happy" to crush his servant, would be to over-read the text.

Secondly, we should note that the "crushing" and "sufferings" of the servant are not the end of the story: afterward, the Servant sees his "descendants in a long life," "light in the fullness of days," and he "justifies many."  So ultimately God vindicates the servant and makes him victorious; it was with this final goal in mind that God willed his sufferings.  The sufferings were willed for the triumph they would bring, not for their own sake.

Thirdly, the doctrine of the Trinity sheds light on how the cross is an expression of love.  Without the doctrine of the Trinity, the passion and suffering of Christ could be interpreted as an act of cruelty by God: God sent some lesser, innocent creature (Jesus) to be killed for the sake of sinners.  But in light of the Trinity, we see Jesus also is God.  So God did not send someone else to suffer, but Himself took flesh and willingly accepted suffering and death to make satisfaction for sin and demonstrate his love to mankind.  Both the Father who gave up his only begotten son (which involves a mysterious sort of co-suffering or com-passion), and the Son who was willing to give up his life for his Father and his brothers, are God and show us God's love.  The Cross is the cooperative act of both Father and Son, both acting in love and out of love.

This applies to our lives in this way: when we begin to embrace our sufferings willingly, with love, they begin to be redemptive.  They begin to participate in Christ's redemption of the world.  We are not going to avoid suffering in this life, but we can transform suffering into salvation for ourselves and others by embracing it with love.  [A recent spiritual classic on love and suffering is Fr. Jean C.J. d'Elbee, I Believe in Love:]

2.  The Responsorial Psalm is Ps 33:4-5, 18-19, 20, 22
R. (22) Lord, let your mercy be on us, as we place our trust in you.
Upright is the word of the LORD,
and all his works are trustworthy.
He loves justice and right;
of the kindness of the LORD the earth is full.
R. Lord, let your mercy be on us, as we place our trust in you.
See, the eyes of the LORD are upon those who fear him,
upon those who hope for his kindness,
To deliver them from death
and preserve them in spite of famine.
R. Lord, let your mercy be on us, as we place our trust in you.
Our soul waits for the LORD,
who is our help and our shield.
May your kindness, O LORD, be upon us
who have put our hope in you.
R. Lord, let your mercy be on us, as we place our trust in you.
In this Psalm, we express our trust in God, that as our lives repeat the experiences of the Servant, and we undergo suffering ourselves, that the LORD will ultimately "deliver [us] from death" and show us his kindness.  The "mercy" spoken of in this psalm is the Hebrew hesed, which usually has the more specific sense of "covenant faithfulness."  So in the words of this Psalm, we are asking God to be faithful to his covenant, the New and Eternal covenant, which he extends to us through the Eucharist.

3.  The Second Reading is Hebrews 4:14-16:
Brothers and sisters:
Since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens,
Jesus, the Son of God,
let us hold fast to our confession.
For we do not have a high priest
who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses,
but one who has similarly been tested in every way,
yet without sin.
So let us confidently approach the throne of grace
to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help.
The themes of this reading fit very well with those of the First Reading, which spoke of the suffering Servant of the LORD in Isaiah, whom we identified as a priestly and kingly figure.  Of course, the Book of Hebrews places heavy emphasis on the dual roles of Jesus Christ as priest and king, patterned on Melchizedek of old.  In this Reading, we are reminded that Christ suffered in all the ways that we suffered—indeed, certainly more so.  In Him we may always find a "sympathetic ear."  But it is not simply that Jesus "feels our pain": he is also able to offer effective help, namely, "grace," which is the power of God that enables us not to sin even when undergoing duress.

The altar at every mass represents, in a sense, the "throne of grace."  When we approach the altar to receive the Eucharist this weekend, we are quite literally approaching the "throne of grace" to receive "grace for timely help."  Let's pray at this mass that the sufferings we are currently experiencing may not lead us to sins of despair or anger, but that we may receive God's grace to embrace our individual crosses with love.

4.  The Gospel is taken from Mark 10:35-45
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Jesus and said to him,
"Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you."
He replied, "What do you wish me to do for you?"
They answered him, "Grant that in your glory
we may sit one at your right and the other at your left."
Jesus said to them, "You do not know what you are asking.
Can you drink the cup that I drink
or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?"
They said to him, "We can."
Jesus said to them, "The cup that I drink, you will drink,
and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized;
but to sit at my right or at my left is not mine to give
but is for those for whom it has been prepared."
There is literary irony in this passage.  We the readers know something John and James do not: namely, those who will end up on Jesus' "right" and "left" are two thieves, bound to crosses (Mark 15:27)!  James and John truly do not realize what they are asking.  They have not yet realized that to share in Christ's glory (and his leadership) means to share in the cross: "provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him" (Rom 8:17).

There is also sacramental imagery in Jesus' words.  In one sense, the "cup" and the "baptism" are Jesus' Passion and Cross.  Yet the "cup that I drink" is the Eucharistic cup; the "baptism with which I am baptized" is also our baptism.  The Sacraments flow from the Cross, as St. John will demonstrate poignantly in his Gospel (John 19:34).  Specifically, our baptism is a participation in the death of Christ: "We were buried ... with him by baptism into death" (Rom 6:4).  So is every communion in the Eucharistic body and blood.  Through the sacraments, our lives are conformed to the pattern of death and resurrection that marked the life of Christ.  This gives us the grace to accept with love all the little "deaths" we experience every day, and to have joy through hope in our final resurrection.
When the ten heard this, they became indignant at James and John.
Jesus summoned them and said to them,
"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 the 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."
Here Jesus gives instructions about how leadership should be exercised in the Church.

Some argue that the early Church was completely egalitarian, a "hippie commune" without any clear authorities or "office-holders."  That's not, in fact, what we see in the New Testament, as it is clear that the apostles did exercise authority over the early community, and appointed representatives to act in their behalf and continue to exercise their authority after their deaths.

Jesus did not teach that authority was bad or that there should be no leaders of his new community, the Church.   But he did speak about how authority was to be exercised.  This passage is one of his key teachings on the subject, in which he makes clear that leadership is a form of service, and the one who leads should regard himself as the servant of all.

For this reason, the Popes take the title servus servorum Dei, "servant of the servants of God."  This does not mean that they have no authority.  To the contrary, they need authority in order to serve.  Without authority, they would be impotent figureheads, unable to settle theological arguments and prevent the Church from disintegrating into bickering sects.

Authority and leadership is a necessity in any human society.  Beware of those who (like the communists of a previous generation) say they want to remove all authorities from the Church or society.  As George Orwell pointed out in Animal Farm, these utopian schemes end up simply substituting some less obvious (and probably less benevolent) authority structure in place of what they removed: "Some animals are more equal than others."  Authority and leadership are good when they are exercised by a virtuous person.  The answer to the problem of the misuse of authority is not so much structural as cultural.  Jesus desires to create a new culture of leadership in his new community, the Church.  This culture involves the members being formed in a different way of thinking about what it means to be a leader: it is a form of service and sacrifice, modeled on Jesus' own embrace of the cross so that he could "justify many and bear their guilt."

Let's pray that, whatever leadership role we may have in the family, church, or society, we may exercise that role as a form of sacrificial service.  And let's pray that the Lord will bless us with priestly and episcopal leaders in the mold of Blessed John Paul II, who lived out in front of our eyes what it means to be servus servorum Dei.