ordinary time The Sánchez Archives

Year B

Patricia Datchuck Sánchez

Aspiring to Greatness

ISAIAH 53:10-11
HEBREWS 4:14-16
MARK 10:35-45

On one occasion during the American Revolutionary War, preparations were being made for an up-coming battle. A man dressed in civilian clothes passed a corporal who was screaming orders at his men. Seeing that they were obviously exhausted from their labor, the man asked the corporal, “Why don’t you help them?” “Sir,” the corporal bristled as his anger rose, “I am a corporal!”

With a quick apology, the stranger took off his coat, rolled up his sleeves and set to work with the soldiers. “Mr. Corporal, Sir,” he said when the task was completed, “whenever you need someone to help with a job, feel free to call on your commander-in-chief. I will be happy to be of service.” With that, George Washington put on his coat and left. Whether his motivation was gospel-driven or not, Washington understood that those who aspire to greatness or rank first among others must serve the needs of all.

Incidents like this one continue to surprise because the message of today’s liturgy has yet to find a realistic foothold in our society. Who among us looks for greatness in small places or within menial ministries? In discussing this issue, Roland J. Faley (Footprints on the Mountain, Paulist Press, New York: 1994) observed, Christ’s teaching on Christian authority is clear and forthright. It often seems that we are quite capable in developing elaborate theses on issues about which Christ has little to say, and yet we pass so glibly over other teachings which are direct and unequivocal. There is a timeless quality in Jesus’ lesson on ambition, authority and service; perhaps this is so because the problem is ever with us. Even our language betrays a heart unchanged and unresponsive to Jesus’ challenges.

We refer to people being “elevated” to high office; successful people are said to “move in higher echelons.” Ambitious people “work their way up the corporate ladder” and manage to live high above others in penthouse suites. Years ago, a television sit-com featured a family who “had made it,” so to speak; they were “movin’ on up to the eastside, to a deluxe apartment in the sky.” Women and/or minority executives, whose ambitions are stifled by prejudice are said to have collided with a glass ceiling. Throughout human history, from the time of the mythical tower of Babel, people have equated greatness with “climbing to the top” and “making a name for ourselves” (Genesis 11:4).

How then do we reconcile these ingrained attitudes with Jesus’ teachings? To whom do we look for an example? The George Washingtons and Mother Teresas among us are few and far between. Perhaps the challenge of today’s liturgy is that we take time to look once again at the one in whose name we have gathered here. . . that we quiet ourselves in order to hear his teaching repeated in our midst. . . and then, that we look inward and allow the Spirit of truth to help us to bridge the gap between the call of the gospel and the reality of our lives. Only when each of us consents to do this will all of us be able to grow toward that greatness which expresses itself in service.

Ten years before his death, Joseph Cardinal Bernardin wrote Christ Lives In Me, a pastoral reflection in which he underscored the necessity of such growth: “As a people redeemed by Jesus’ blood, we are called to a radically new way of life in which the criteria of success are totally different from the world’s criteria. Now that the Word has become flesh, we cannot be overly concerned with ourselves. . . our petty vanities and prejudices, our hostilities and fleeting attachments. . . our vision must not be limited. . . we are a people called to a new intimacy and friendship with God. We are a people who reflect, with new brightness and beauty, the image and likeness of God; a people, who in the totality of our humanity are expected to express the values which Jesus realized in his own life. We are a people to whom much has been given and from whom much will be expected.” Joseph Bernardin left behind the legacy of these words to offer wise counsel to all who aspire to greatness; more than words, however, he also gifted us with the legacy of his life, lived in accord with these words. He aspired to and achieved true gospel greatness in that he spent himself in the service of all of us.

ISAIAH 53:10-11

In what he has called “an exercise in pastoral prophecy,” Daniel Berrigan has once again graced the literary scene with his powerful and provocative insights. His recently published work, Isaiah Spirit of Courage, Gift of Tears (Fortress Press, Minneapolis: 1996), invites readers to allow Isaiah’s moral clear-sightedness to shed new light on the signs of our times and to render appropriate judgments when and where these are required.

Berrigan suggests that Isaiah lived in a time astonishingly similar to our own .. with war and rumors of war. In great prophetic tradition, Isaiah intervened in matters political, military, diplomatic and religious. Always true to the word of God, he served in many capacities, the first being as a court advisor; when he was not taken seriously, his spirit did not yield. Rather, as Berrigan says, “he began to play hound of heaven, raising very hell at the wheels of the imperial chariots. He died, tradition tells us, under those wheels.” Isaiah’s message, however, inasmuch as it is the living effective and penetrating word of God, lives on to speak, to hound and to raise “very hell”. Today, it speaks of servanthood and sacrifice.

At a time in its history when Judah looked in vain to its kings for guidance and example, Isaiah (actually Deutero-Isaiah, the sixth-century B.C.E. prophet) profiled a leader unlike any the people had ever known, viz., a servant who would suffer and die for their sakes. Chosen, not by dynastic succession or the will of the people, the servant was to be appointed by God and empowered with God’s own spirit to establish justice (Isaiah 42:1), to heal (42:7), to bring the light of truth to all peoples (49:6), to speak a rousing word (50:4) and to forge a new covenant between God and humankind (42:6) . . . and all this was to be accomplished without benefit of crown, scepter, armies or weapons.

As today’s excerpt from the fourth servant song indicates, the strength of the servant-leader would lie in his capacity to innocently endure affliction for the justification and salvation of the guilty. Astonishingly, the prophet tells his readers the torture and death of the servant is in accord with God’s will. Berrigan remarks, “in this situation, God who is by self-definition Light, is become darkness. What is to be said of a providence that withholds all providing--all caring, cherishing of one who is by every right more than the lilies of the field or birds of the air’?” Still reeling with incredulousness, we are informed that the Lord was pleased to crush him with infirmity. A term which, at first glance, appears to smack of sadism is actually what Carroll Stuhlmueller (“Deutero-Isaiah”, The Jerome Biblical Commentary, Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ 1964) described as “a strong, determined love.” Out of love, the servant would live and die so that the unjust may know God’s justification. He would be crushed, reproached, despised, disfigured and mortally wounded. He would die without ever opening his mouth to demand a hearing, to protest the injustice, or to curse his persecutors.

The outcome of the servant’s mission, i.e., vindication and fullness of days would eventually be realized but not during the lifetime of the prophet or his contemporaries. Only centuries later, when Isaiah’s profile of the servant ceased to be prophecy and began to live and breathe in the person and mission of Jesus would believers begin to understand the far-reaching implications of the servant’s death and the manner of his vindication.

Christians understand the servant songs not as dirges but as victorious and celebratory love songs. God’s love was made manifest in the world in the gift of the servant Jesus who, in turn, loved so much as to give his life as an offering for sin. Vindicated by God, Jesus lives forever; his experience will be shared by all those who will follow his lead, in the service, suffering and sacrifice which is discipleship.

HEBREWS 4:14-16

Whereas the first reading from Isaiah prophesied the necessary and sacrificial role of God’s servant, Jesus, in the plan of salvation, the author of Hebrews affirmed Jesus’ priestly activity. Among the keepers of the first covenant, priests: (1) functioned as mediators and interpreters of God’s will; (2) educated and advised the people in their observance of the law; and (3) offered sacrifice for themselves and the community of Israel (Deuteronomy 33:7-11).

After the exile, with the monarchy only a memory, priests emerged as the leaders and guides of the people; the office of high priest took on great political and religious importance. As leader and guardian of the liturgy, custodian of the sacred traditions of his people, president of the Sanhedrin and liaison between his people and Rome’s occupying forces (37 B.C.E. onward), the high priest was the most powerful and influential person in the Palestinian Jewish community. Nevertheless, the saving activity of Jesus superceded even this most unique and important position.

While comparing Jesus’ ministry to that of the high priest, the ancient Christian author also clarified Jesus’ superiority to his clerical counterpart and repeatedly underscored the fact that the exercise of Jesus’ priestly activity rendered the Israelite priesthood and sacrificial system defunct.

Like the high priest of the Jerusalem temple, Jesus was representative of the people but, unlike the high priest, Jesus did not approach the throne of grace (holy of holies: most sacred area of temple which only the high priest entered once a year) alone. Nor was it necessary, as it was for the high priest, for Jesus to offer a sacrifice for his own sin (Leviticus 4-5). While he took upon himself the totality of the human condition by virtue of the incarnation, Jesus, though tempted, did not succumb to evil. He did not sin, his sacrifice was a vicarious one for the sins of humankind.

William Barclay (“Hebrews”, The Daily Study Bible, The St. Andrew Press, Edinburgh: 1976) suggested that Jesus knew the allure of temptation “at its fiercest; he experienced the depths and tensions and assaults of temptation more than we could ever know,” because, unlike Jesus, we succumb to temptation quite readily. Moreover, Jesus’ experience of temptation was ongoing. By means of the Greek participle pepeirasmenon (v. 15 “tempted”), the author indicated that Jesus was not confronted by temptation on only one occasion but that it remained a constant challenge to be dealt with.

Because of Jesus’ victory over temptation, his unique priesthood and perfect sacrifice, the sins of humankind are expiated; therefore, the walls of alienation and separation are forever removed. With Jesus, forgiven and redeemed sinners have free access to God and can confidently approach, in the company of their loving brother to receive God’s mercy and favor (v. 16). With Jesus’ unequivocal victory over sin and death, the throne of the almighty, which seemed forbidding and inaccessible, has become a throne of grace which inspires confidence and strength.

MARK 10:35-45

If today’s gospel were to have a title, perhaps it could be “Be careful what you wish for!” James and John wished for greatness; their desire is evident in their request to be given the most honorable positions when Jesus finally came into his glory. No doubt, the other disciples’ indignation with the brothers was due, in part, to the fact that James and John had “beaten them to the punch”, as it were, by being the first to request a share in Jesus’ greatness. Reflected in the brothers’ request was the common expectation that the messianic reign would be both political and temporal. A chief motivating factor for that expectation was a vision of Israel, restored to the greatness it had enjoyed under David and Solomon, with the twelve tribes once more in positions of power and prestige. As representatives of the twelve tribes of the new Israel, the disciples hoped to bask in the reflected glory of Jesus.

Their lack of comprehension concerning the reign of God and the demands of their calling provided an opportunity for a lesson in discipleship. With two metaphors borrowed from the Hebrew scriptures, Jesus taught the brothers, the other disciples and all would-be disciples what a share in his reign would entail. “Can you drink the cup I shall drink?” (v. 38), Jesus asked. The cup was a symbol of the life experience allotted to each person by God. In some instances, the cup signified joy and blessings (Psalm 23:5; 116:13; Jeremiah 51:17). In other situations, the cup was one of woe (Psalm 75:9; Isaiah 51:17; Lamentations 4:21). “Can you be baptized in the same bath of pain as I?” (v. 39), Jesus asked again. With this metaphor, Jesus referenced other texts from the Hebrew scriptures (Psalm 42:7; 69:2; Isaiah 43:2) and alerted his disciples to the fact that their relationship with him would submerge them in calamity and suffering. With certainty, Jesus could promise his followers a share in his cup and bath, i.e. in his cross, but only the Father would determine the reward of those who remain steadfast in their faith (v. 40).

Having adjusted their vision of the coming reign of God, Jesus then went on to further instruct his disciples concerning their aspirations to greatness. The general standard of greatness for Jesus’ contemporaries was power and the extent of that power was determined by how many people were in one’s service or under one’s command. The Marcan community of the mid to late sixties C.E. in which the first gospel originated was enmeshed in a Roman atmosphere which had its own definition of greatness. Galba, for example, who succeeded Nero in 68 C.E., summed up his world’s idea of greatness when he declared that, now that he was emperor, he could do whatever he wished and do it to whomever he wished! Over and against this backdrop, Jesus held forth a different standard of greatness, viz., that of service. The test of greatness in the reign of God is not how many people are in my service but how may I be of service to the many.

As an illustration of the quality of service to which he called his disciples, Jesus offered the example of himself. Because of his willingness to be completely given in the service of others, even to the extent of giving his life, the early church understood that Jesus, the Son of Man, was indeed the suffering servant promised by Isaiah (first reading). Lytron or ransom (v. 45) was the specified price paid to redeem a pledge or recover an object that had been pawned. It was also the amount of money (or goods, etc.) required to free a slave. Through his saving service, Jesus redeemed those who had been pledged or pawned unto a life of sin; he freed from death all who had been enslaved by its power.

In this capacity, we are gathered in Jesus’ name today, a congregation of redeemed pledges and people whose freedoms were once pawned away. An assembly of former slaves liberated from sin and death, we are called to share in a glory and to aspire to a greatness which expresses itself in service. Opportunities for service do not require immunizations, passports or airfare to the foreign missions. Occasions for serving others are part and parcel of each believer’s daily experience. . . nurses serve their patients, teachers their students, parents serve the needs of their children and spouses tend to one another. One woman’s insight into the possibilities for service is embroidered on a little plaque that hangs above her kitchen sink: “Apostolic service is rendered here, three times a day!”

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Illustration prepared by Julie Lonneman.

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