Thursday, October 18, 2018

His Life as a Ransom for Many: 29th Sunday of OT

The First Reading for this Lord’s Day is personally very significant to me, because it caused me to be disturbed as a young man, and even contributed to a bout of depression I had. 

When I was in college, a group of Messianic (Christian) Jewish singers called “The Liberated Wailing Wall” came to my home church to put on a concert.  One of their numbers was a setting of Isaiah 53 adapted for choir.  They got to verse 10 and belted out in a very catchy way, “It was the will of the Father to crush him!”  Musically, it made a great impact, but the line stuck with me and nagged me for years.  

A few years later I began to face several severe family and career setbacks and began to slip into depression.  “If it was the will of the Father to crush Jesus,” I thought, “How much more is it the Father’s will to crush me?”  I felt that God had it in for me and was trying to destroy me.  I didn’t get over the resulting depression until my old spiritual director assured me that God didn’t want to destroy me, but rather loved me.  That let loose on emotional dam and I had a spiritual experience that enabled me to break through the darkness.

Nonentheless, that line from Isaiah 53:10 begins our First Reading for this Lord’s Day.  Is God cruel?  Why would he crush anyone, much less his own son?  This raises the question of the mystery of redemptive suffering, which we will get into as we explore these readings.

Reading 1 Is 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.

The phrased “it pleased the LORD” is actually a stock idiom in Hebrew, and it doesn’t really necessarily mean that it made the person happy or “pleased” him, but rather that the person decided or made an act of the will to take a course of action.  So other translations are justified in rendering v. 10 as “It was the LORD’s will to crush him”—which correctly does not give the impression that it made the LORD happy to do this.  

The Hebrew word ‘îm can be translated “if” or “when,” and it would be better here to translate “when he gives his life as an offering for sin”—because the prophet is in absolutely no doubt that the Servant of the LORD (for that is the one we are talking about) will indeed give his life as a sin offering. 

The Hebrew word for “sin offering,” ‘asham, refers to specific kind of animal sacrifice mentioned among the sacrifices of Leviticus 1-7.  It is very striking, because a human person cannot become an ‘asham.  An animal can become one, but the human being only sacrifices or offers it.  Isaiah foresees a coming “servant of the LORD,” a human being, who becomes both priest and sacrifice by offering his own life in atonement for sin.  This is mind-boggling and breaks down some category distinctions that are otherwise quite firm in the Old Testament. 

First it says “the LORD willed to crush him,” and then it says “he will give his life as an offering.”  So whose idea is this whole suffering thing?  Does the LORD impose it on the servant, or does the servant choose out of his own free will?  The answer is Yes.  Both are the case.  The LORD wills this passion, but the servant also chooses it freely.  There is union between the will of the LORD and the will of the servant.  At the same time, the servant does not choose this self-suffering for its own sake, in a masochistic way.  He chooses the suffering because he sees that it is the path to gain “long life for his descendants,” “light in the fullness of days,” and “justification for many.” The point is, God does not will suffering for its own sake, but that good may come from it.  

Through his suffering, my servant shall justify many,
and their guilt he shall bear.

This is a priestly act.  It was the duty of the priests to offer sacrifices to atone for the sins of the people, and there were certain sacrifices for sin that the priests themselves ate, as a symbolic act of bearing the sins and guilt of the people on themselves (Lev 6:26; 7:6-7).  But the servant is different, as he is both priest and sacrifice.  This priest will do things that are not anticipated by the Law of Moses.  

“My servant shall justify many.” The term “many” came to have a specialized meaning by the time of Our Lord.  Both the Essenes as well as Pharisaic Jews used the term rab (Multitude) or rabbim  (Many) as a term for a covenant community that represented the whole house of Israel.  The Dead Sea Scrolls, for example, refer to the covenant congregation that lived at Qumran as “the Many.”  This explains Jesus’ use of the term at the Last Supper, “poured out for Many”, as well as in the Gospel reading below. "Many" is a term for the Church, the new covenant community that Jesus formed.

Our Responsorial Psalm is Ps 33:4-5, 18-19, 20, 22

R. (22) Lord, let your mercy (hesed) 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 (hesed) 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 (hesed),
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 (hesed), 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.

Psalm 33 is an unusually cheerful psalm for Book I of the Psalter.  Most psalms in Book I are laments, by Psalm 33 is an exuberant act of praise for God’s deliverance and victory.  The same word, hesed, is alternately translated “mercy” or “kindness” in the Psalm.  It really means “faithful, covenantal love,” or “the love appropriate between covenant partners, that is, a love marked by fidelity.”

The experience of suffering and death can only ever be a temporary thing for those in covenant relationship with God, and we need to remind ourselves of it.  God is the very essence of covenant faithfulness, and in the end he will act to save us and raise us up from the dead.  Christians should never become so bogged down in the hardships of the present that they forget this ultimate happy ending.  It is the ultimate source of joy in the midst of sorrows.

Our 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.

This Second Reading fits providentially well with the First.  We have already seen priestly concepts in the First Reading, and these are made explicit in the Second.  The Book of Hebrews speaks of Jesus as the High Priest who himself suffered and offered his own blood.  Similar to us, he has been “tested”—this could also be translated “tried.”  This refers to the suffering he underwent on our behalf.  Christianity is the only world religion that teaches that God underwent suffering for the sake of his creatures.  Thus, only in Christianity is there a God who truly understands the human condition, experientially.  This is a very powerful concept.  God knows what we undergo because he has experienced it.  For that reason we can be confident that he sympathizes with us, and therefore that he forgives and hears our prayers.

Our Gospel is 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."

James and John recognize that Jesus is the Messiah, Son of David, but they expect his kingdom to be more similar to earthly kingdoms of wealth and power.  The “cup” and the “baptism” of Jesus, they imagine, will be like the royal cups drunk by kings, and the royal baths—like Herod’s elaborate Roman baths at each of the twelve palaces he maintained in the land of Israel.  But the “cup” that Jesus will drink will be the cup of the Passion, which he prays will pass from him (Matt 26:39), and the “baptism” with which he is baptized will be a baptism of his own blood (John 19:34; cf. Rom 6:3). 

The other ten are indignant that James and John are putting themselves forward for leadership, but Jesus calls them all together to rebuke them for their demonic concept of what it means to be a leader.  Leaders of this world, Jesus says, exercise leadership for their own benefit.  This is the way Satan understands leadership—for the benefit of the one in authority.  But Jesus inverts this image—leadership is for the benefit of the one who is lead.  Therefore, the leader is actually a servant, and the greatest leader is the greatest servant.  The Essenes had already grasped this truth, and they held no slaves, but rather served each other in whatever menial tasks had to be done.  They tried hard to maintain a true sense of brotherhood in their communities, even though some outranked others.

Jesus is going to set the example of servant leadership, by dying the death of a slave (crucifixion was reserved for slaves and other low-class persons) even though he was King of the Universe.  For this reason, any Christian who holds a position of authority in society or in the Church needs to see his or her authority only in terms of how it may be used to benefit the common good.  This doesn’t mean leaders don’t truly have authority, because unless the leader can make decisions and be obeyed, he can’t coordinate the efforts of the group in such a way as to maximize the benefit to each member.  But the leader is never to employ his authority to benefit himself—this is a kind of abuse whose presence among the clergy we have all been made painfully aware of over the last several weeks. 

This requires the virtues of prudence and humility for the leader, and ultimately I don’t think it is possible to be a servant-leader without having a strong trust in God and in his ultimate hesed. A servant-leader often must suffer by putting his own interests last, and this suffering would be unbearable were it not for hope in the life to come, and confidence in a good God who has good things planned for those who love him.

At this Mass, let’s pray for joy in the midst of our sufferings as we contemplate the happiness of heaven, and ask God for the strength to place ourselves last and those we serve, first.

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