Thursday, October 15, 2015

"And Ransom Captive Israel": Readings for the Twenty-Ninth Sunday of Ordinary Time

The Messiah died.

As Christians we have become numb to the oddity of such a message. The thought was apparently abhorrent to some of Jesus' disciples. When Jesus announces his coming passion, Peter protests, “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you” (Matt 16:22). Likewise, Paul explains that Christ (the Greek word for "Messiah") crucified was "a stumbling block for Jews and folly to Gentiles" (1 Cor 1:23).

Indeed, it is hard to find clear evidence that ancient Jews before Jesus believed the future Messiah would be defeated. Yes, the idea could be seen as hinted at in Daniel 9, where we hear about a future "anointed one" (i.e., "Messiah") who will be "cut off" (Dan 9:26). But the disciples apparently didn't think this passage relevant for Jesus' mission.

More popular seems to have been the vision of the Messiah in the non-biblical work, the Psalms of Solomon, which depicts the Messiah as a triumphal figure who defeats the enemies of God's people (cf. Ps. Sol. 17)

This Sunday's Gospel contains one of Jesus' clearest passion predictions. In fact, not only does Jesus announce his coming death, he also explains the rationale behind it--he will give his life as a "ransom" for many.

What does that mean?

Let us unpack the readings and find out.

FIRST READING: 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.
Following the work of Bernard Duhm, scholars have traditionally identified four distinct passages in Isaiah 40-55 which speak of a Servant figure in terms of the "Four Servant Songs". These are found in Isaiah 42, 49, 50, 52-53. 

There is considerable controversy among contemporary interpreters regarding the identity of Isaiah's Servant. There are some reasons to think the Servant is an image of collective Israel. Israel, for example, is clearly in view in Isaiah 41 and there is overlap between that chapter and the language of the Servant songs.

Still, it is notable that in a number of places the Servant is distinguished from Israel. In Isaiah 49:5 we read that he will "bring Jacob back" and "restore the preserved of Israel". Here it is hard to see the Servant as just a metaphor for Israel since the Servant seems to be God's agent to restore God's people. 

That the Servant is to be distinguished from Israel is also suggested by the language in the Song of Isaiah 52-53. Among other things, of the Servant we read that "there is no deceit in his mouth"--a line that, within the larger context of Isaiah, would seem difficult to see as applying to Israel. 

Of course, other aspects of the Song in Isaiah 52-53 also makes it clear that the Servant is something more than just a corporate figure for Israel. Throughout the prophet speaks of how the Servant's actions benefitted "us". The Servant bears the iniquities of the people so that they can be "made whole" and "healed". 
  • “he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (53:3). 
  • “he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken” (53:4)
  •  “he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities” (53:5)
  •  “upon him was the chastisement that made us whole and with his stripes we are healed” (53:5)
  •  “all we like sheep have gone astray. . . the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (53:6)
  •  “the righteous one, my servant, [shall] make many to be accounted righteous” (53:11)
So who is this figure in Isaiah 52-53?

Some scholars have argued that the Servant is none other than Isaiah himself. Others have noted that much of the language of the passage evokes the figure of Jeremiah (Jer 10:18-24; 11:19). 

Notably, in Isaiah 49:5 we read that the figure will "restore the tribes of Israel", a task that might seem to point to some sort of eschatological identity. This might explain why in 1 Enoch, the section known as the Book of Parables appears to apply certain aspects of Isaiah's Servant imagery to the eschatological figure. 

Within Isaiah, the identity of the Servant remains a bit of a mystery. However, the reason for his death is not unclear. 

The context of passage involves the hope for the redemption of God's people, identified here as "Daughter Zion" (cf. Isa 52:1-5, 9). Of course, the imagery of "redemption" immediately triggers economic language--Israel is being "bought back". 

Such language fits into the a larger motif of the book. Israel has been sent into captivity for its sins, which are described in terms of debt. This is particularly clear in Isaiah 50:
Thus says the Lord:
“Where is your mother’s bill of divorce,
with which I put her away?
Or which of my creditors is it
to whom I have sold you?
Behold, for your iniquities you were sold,
and for your transgressions your mother was put away.
The language here is debt-servitude--a debtor who is sold into slavery by his creditor because he or she cannot pay back what is owed. The practice is also found in the New Testament in the parable of the wicked servant in Matthew 18:24-25. 
When [the king] began the reckoning, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents; and as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. 
In short, in Isaiah, Israel owes a debt to God by virtue of sin. Yet the "debt" is ultimately paid off in someway by the Suffering Servant, who is "wounded" for the transgressions of "the many". 

The precise logic of Isaiah remains a bit obscure, but what remains clear is that the Suffering Servant somehow "bears" the sin of the people.

Before moving on, it is necessary to point out that the language is unmistakably cultic. The passage explicitly describes the way he offers himself as a "offering for sin". The language here employs terminology from Israel's cult. Here the Servant is identified as not only a sacrificial victim but also as a priest, i.e., the one who offers the sacrifice. Thus it is no wonder that the language of the Suffering Servant passage appears applied to a passage in the Dead Sea Scrolls describing a priestly figure (cf. 4Q541[4QApocryphon of Levib]). 

Indeed, the Servant is said to "bear" (nasa') the people's iniqiuties, a term elsewhere associated with the cult. Among other places, the language of "bearing" iniquities is linked to the activity of the scapegoat who, like the Servant, "bears" the sins of the people in Leviticus 16:22. 

In addition, it is worth noting that Servant is also "afflicted" (Isa 53:4)--a term also linked to the Day of Atonement (Lev 16:29).  

The imagery is coherent. In the Old Testament, the language of sacrificial atonement (kipper) appears closely linked to the idea of a "pay off" (Num 31:50) or "ransom" (Exod 30:16). In sum, among other things, the sacrifices of atonement serve to "pay" the price of failing to keep the law.[1] 

That the imagery of debt and atonement were conceptually linked is also suggested by the fact that the Jubilee Year, which announced the remission of debts, coincided with the Day of Atonement (cf. (cf. Lev 25:8–10; 11Q13 [11QMelchizedek]). 

All of this comes together to suggest a coherent picture: Israel is in exile because of its debt--sin--and is awaiting "redemption" and "atonement". Isaiah 52-53 identifies the sacrificial offering that pays the price needed--the sacrifice of the Suffering Servant. 


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.
The Responsorial Psalm works quite well with the Suffering Servant passage in that it suggests that God will deliver the righteous from death. To be fair, Isaiah 52-53 doesn't explicitly mention "resurrection". Nonetheless, that ancient readers easily linked the passage to Christ, who suffered, died and rose again, is not hard to understand. The Isaianic passage describes not only how the Servant is "cut off out of the land of the living" and describes his "grave", but it also announces that he will have his days "prolonged" and that he will see the outcome of his obedience (cf. Isa 53:11). 

The message is clear: the one who puts his or her trust in the Lord will not be disappointed. Even if it seems that all is lost, God is trustworthy and he will vindicate the righteous. 

SECOND READING: 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 Second Reading has not been chosen because of the Gospel, but in this case the overlap with the message of the Gospel is clear. As the Gospel identifies Jesus as the one who gives his life as a "ransom for many"--imagery that seems to evoke Suffering Servant imagery--Hebrews makes it clear that Christ is our heavenly high priest who offers himself so that we can receive mercy from the throne of grace. 

GOSPEL READING: 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."
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."
It is helpful to contextualize our Gospel reading within the larger framework of Mark's Gospel. The story presented here comes at a key moment in the Gospel. For one thing, it comes on the heels of Jesus' third and last passion announcement. It also comes right before Jesus' arrival at Jerusalem. The only thing Mark narrates after this before Jesus' entrance into Jerusalem--something that has long been anticipated in the Gospel story--is a brief healing episode (cf. Mark 10:46-52). 

That means that Mark 10:35-45 is the last private conversation Jesus has with his disciples before arriving at Jerusalem in Mark's Gospel. 

The request of James and John highlights their understanding of Jesus' royal role--i.e., his identity as the Messiah. In other words, they seem to anticipate that when Jesus finally gets to Jerusalem, he will reign in glory; they wish to take their seats on his left and right. 

The petition also points towards their expectation that Jesus will fulfill eschatological hopes. Since the time of the Assyrian invasion in the 8th century B.C., ten twelfths of Israel had been scattered to the nations. James and John's stated desire to "judge" the "twelve tribes" looks forward to the vision of the prophets who spoke of the future restoration of all the tribes of Israel. 

Moreover, as Brant Pitre has brilliantly demonstrated, much of the imagery comes from the book of Daniel, specifically, the famous "son of man" vision of Daniel 7.[2] The following chart, which also mentions the parallel passage in Matthew 20, highlights some of the similarities. 

That the passage, therefore, concludes with a reference to the "Son of Man" simply drives home the allusion to Daniel 7. 

In making their request, however, the disciples are clearly revealing their misunderstanding of Jesus' teaching. In fact, Jesus has earlier taught that the disciples should not be self-seeking; the greatest in the kingdom is the one who humbles himself (cf. Mark 8:33-35). 

That Jesus has to go on to contrast the way Gentile rulers govern with a teaching to the other disciples that “it shall not be so among you” probably implies that their vision of the kingdom is in error. In viewing the kingdom in mere political terms James and John have apparently failed to understand Jesus’ teaching. 

For him, the kingdom will not merely involve reigning over one’s enemies from an exalted position―the coming of the kingdom is also linked with his death. Indeed, the only other place in Matthew and Mark where we find language of individuals at the “right hand” and the “left hand” of Jesus is at the crucifixion.

The fact that Jesus’ death is linked to the coming of the kingdom is suggested by the similarities in the language of Mark 10:37 with the crucifixion scene in Mark 15:27, which both envision individuals at the right and left of Jesus. A connection between these two passages is rightly noted by numerous commentators. John Muddiman writes: 
“The only other place in Mark’s Gospel where the right and left hand places next to Jesus are mentioned is 15:27, the Crucifixion scene. Whether or not we read the appeal to fulfillment of Scripture at 15:28, the whole section already bristles with elements of prophecy-fulfillment in regard to the soldiers’ actions and also to the motif of the kingship of Jesus, paradoxically revealed in suffering.”[3] 
The scene wraps up with Jesus' statement, "For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many."

W. D. Davies and Dale Allison highlight numerous parallels between the imagery here and the Suffering Servant passage: [4]
  • The terminology of “the many” plays an especially important role in Isaiah 53:11–12.
  • The language of for many echoes Isaiah 53:11
  •  “gives his life as a ransom” is like the Servant being made a sin offering/pouring out life in Isa 53:10, 12
  •  “to serve” evokes the imagery of the “servant” (Isa 52:13; 53:11).
The Gospel thus identifies Jesus as the one who pays the price for the ultimate redemption of God's people.

Before closing, it is worth noting the imagery Jesus uses for sharing in his suffering: drinking the cup and being baptized. This Sunday let us reflect on what it means to be "baptized" into Christ and to have communion with him in the "one cup" (1 Cor 10:16-17)--it means to be united with the Crucified One. 

To be a follower of Christ is to recognize that he is a Suffering Messiah. And if we wish to be glorified with him, we too must share in his sufferings, learning, like him, how to offer ourselves up a living sacrifices (Rom 12:1) in him. 

[1] Other passages link the notion to "purification". For a fine treatment, see Jay Sklar, Sin, Impurity, Sacrifice, and Atonement: The Priestly Conceptions, Hebrew Bible Monographs 2 (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2005).
[2] See Brant Pitre, Jesus, the Tribulation and the End of the Exile (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2005), 386–90.
[3] See John Muddiman, "The Glory of Jesus, Mark 10:37,” in The Glory of Christ in the New Testament: Studies in Christology in Memory of George Bradford Caird (eds. L. D. Hurst and N.T. Wright; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 57.

[4] See Davies and Allison, Matthew, 3:95–97. 

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