It is the humble servant who is the true disciple

  • October 9, 2015

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) Oct. 18 (Isaiah 53:10-11; Psalm 33; Hebrews 4:14-16; Mark 10:35-45)

Suffering is bad; it is to be feared and avoided at all costs. This is the heartfelt attitude of most people. Even though this is understandable, it is incomplete. To be sure, needless suffering should be alleviated or avoided. Masochistic self-indulgence has no place in a healthy spirituality. But there is a sort of suffering that has value, and that is suffering borne freely and willingly for the sake of others.

In the mid-sixth century B.C., Isaiah or one of his followers wrote for his fellow exiles in Babylon. He used the mysterious and nameless figure of the Suffering Servant to portray the sort of selfless love that would redeem Israel. It is clear that he shoulders the burdens of the people and takes upon himself the consequences of their ignorance and sin. His willingness to endure rejection, ridicule and persecution would ultimately be the source of his enlightenment and fulfilment. Satisfaction would come from his awareness of the good that he was accomplishing for others. The righteous one, as he was called, became the source of righteousness for many others.

Perhaps it is fitting that the Suffering Servant remained anonymous, for this allows us to attach the names of countless selfless individuals. We should never underestimate the power and influence of a God-filled and righteous life. There is an attraction and a “catching force” that influences others in a positive way. Easing the burdens of others and being willing to swim against the currents of culture and society is a great sacrifice and gift that we can offer God and others.

The author of Hebrews used the temple/sacrificial theology of the time to explain the significance of Jesus for humanity. Jesus was portrayed not only as the final and ultimate sacrifice, but as the eternal high priest. Jesus not only opens the way to God for us, but walks alongside to offer encouragement, strength and hope. In His human sojourn, Jesus “paid His dues” — He struggled, suffered, wept tears, but did not sin. He understands our weaknesses and what we face each day, and empathizes with us as one who has been there. The author invites believers to approach God with boldness and confidence for the mercy and grace we need. After all, with the high priest on our side, what could we possibly fear? Calling this to mind when we feel alone and overwhelmed should be very helpful.

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, did not get the message. They had not paid their dues, and yet they were maneuvering for positions of power and prestige in God’s kingdom. They had clearly not been listening with their minds and hearts as Jesus taught and healed. Jesus had to explain to them patiently that any glory associated with Him involved suffering and martyrdom. There were no shortcuts or fast-tracks. When he asked them if they were able to drink from this cup, they glibly and all too quickly assured Him that it would not be a problem.

It is very human to underestimate the cost of our chosen path and to experience distress and disillusionment when the road becomes rough or perilous. Jesus confirmed that they would indeed drink from the same cup of suffering and martyrdom. But even He could not guarantee status and glory — that was for God alone to decide. Our faith and discipleship must be free of self-aggrandizement or vainglory. All of this did not set well with the other apostles — they resented this power play by the sons of Zebedee. On other occasions, however, many of them would display a similar lack of understanding of the way of Jesus. Jesus followed up on this with a warning: do not adopt the relational models of culture and society that are based on inequality, hierarchy and dominance. Humble service is the identifying mark of a true disciple of Jesus and that must be kept pure. A domineering and selfish attitude or the enjoyment of power over others does not reflect the reality of Jesus at all despite what one may claim.

Jesus left us a declaration that should always be in our hearts: He came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life for the sake of others. He expects no less from us.