Sunday Scriptures - Twenty-Fourth Sunday Of Ordinary Time
TWENTY-FOURTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, YEAR B
Isaiah 50:5-9a; Psalm 116:1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 8-9; James 2:14-18; MARK 8:27-35
The first reading is from the Book of Isaiah the prophet, from the part called Second Isaiah, chapters 40-55. The oracles of this unnamed prophet are known as the Book of Consolation because they begin in 40:1 with these words, “Be comforted! Be comforted, my people, says your God.” Why are the people in need of consolation? The people of the defunct Kingdom of Judah have been in exile in Babylon (today Iraq) since the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonian army in 587 B.C. Babylon was defeated by the Persian army under King Cyrus the Great in 539 B.C. The following year Cyrus issued an Edict of Return for the captive peoples in exile in his realm, which now included the former Kingdom of Babylon. His purpose was to gain the favor of the gods of these various nations. This included the Lord God of Israel.
The message of Second Isaiah was not only consolation, but hope. The former Judeans and their descendants were free to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple of the Lord. Embedded within the oracles of this prophet there are four poems or songs. These are called Servant Songs or Songs of the Servant of the Lord. They describe in poetic form not only the trials of Israel as a people, but they also sing of the life, the ministry, the death and exaltation of an unnamed prophet. His sufferings and death are inflicted on him by his own people. Many regard these poems as “predictions” of the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Keeping in mind that our four gospels were written by 2nd and 3rd generation Christians 40 to 65 years after the exodus of Jesus, it would be safer to say that the authors of our gospels combined the Servant Songs with written and oral traditions about Jesus to compose the four Passion Narratives. The first reading of this Mass is the third of the Servant Songs. As it is read aloud, we are reminded of Jesus’ first passion prediction in today’s gospel.
The Responsorial Psalm (116) expands on the theme of suffering in the first reading. In the first reading, “I gave my back to those who struck me, my cheeks to those who pulled my beard. My face I did not shield from battering and spitting.” Psalm 116, “The cords of death encompassed me. I fell into distress and sorrow.” The speakers in Isaiah and in Ps. 116 are confident that the Lord will come to their rescue. The first reading, “The Lord God is my help. Therefore I am not disgraced.” Psalm 116, “I love the Lord because he heard my voice in supplication. He has freed my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling.” The people’s response voices total confidence in the Lord’s rescue, “I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living.”
The second reading is from the Letter of James. This reading is important for Catholics and our teaching that good works are meritorious, along with faith, toward eternal life with God. James expresses this teaching concisely, in language that anyone can understand. “If a brother or sister has nothing to wear, and has no food…, and one of you says, ‘Go in peace. Keep warm and eat well,’ and you don’t give them what they need, what good is it?” That is his example. Now his doctrine. “So faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” Martin Luther, died 1546, did not love the Letter of James. He called it “Der Strohepistel,” that is, “the Epistle of Straw.” It contradicted his teaching, salvation by faith alone. He found this teaching in Romans 3:28, but in his translation from Paul’s Greek into German, he added a word which Paul did not write. Paul wrote, “We hold that a man is justified by faith, apart from works.” Luther translated, “durch die Glaube allein,, that is, “through faith alone.”
This Sunday’s gospel is sometimes called “a watershed” in Mark’s gospel. After all the bungling of the disciples up to this point, Simon Peter publicly professes that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah of the Jews. Mark is doing theological geography for this episode. Jesus & Co. travel northward out of the Holy Land into the area of the great city of Caesarea Philippi. This city contained a temple dedicated to Caesar Augustus as a god. In this heathen land Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” The disciples recall “the word on the street” about Jesus. Some thought he was John the Baptizer risen from the dead. John was put to death by order of Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee. Others thought perhaps the prophet Elijah had returned. Elijah was whisked off to heaven in a chariot of fire, 2 Kings 2:11. He would have to return to die. Jesus presses for more answers, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter, speaking for the Christ-ian Community, says, “You are the Messiah (Christ)!” What is Mark’s catechesis? This takes place beyond the Holy Land. Therefore Jesus is sent not only to Jews, but to all nations.
This episode seems like an exaltation of Simon Peter, but only briefly. It is followed by Jesus’ first prediction of his suffering, death and resurrection. Peter’s profession of Jesus as Messiah undoubtedly had royal overtones. In Peter’s mind Jesus was on the way to Jerusalem, not to be killed, but to take over city and temple from the Romans, perhaps restore the ancient Kingdom of David of 1,000 B.C. To him, Jesus’ prediction of his suffering was nonsense. He rebukes Jesus. Bad move! Jesus looked at his disciples, afraid they were led astray by Peter. He rebukes Peter in devastating language, “Get behind me, Satan! You are ignorant of the Father’s plan.” Peter has moved from exaltation to devastation. He forgot his place, not in front of Jesus, but behind him. Mark follows this episode with a catechesis under the form of Jesus addressing “the crowd with his disciples,” “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the sake of the gospel will save it.” A Christian life is lived for others, a kind of joyful death.