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                                                                               Texts of the Readings

October 22, 2006

Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

 Dr. Terrance Callan

Isa 53:10-11   X   Heb 4:14-16   X   Mk 10:35-45


          In ordinary human language and thought, leadership and greatness have a definite meaning.  When we think of Jesus as a leader, or of leadership among his followers, we naturally understand it in the same way.  This can make it difficult to understand Jesus’ very different way of leading and being great.

            As Jesus and his disciples were on their way to Jerusalem, James and John asked Jesus to let them sit, one at his right and the other at his left, when he came into his glory.  They wanted the most prominent positions among the followers of Jesus.  In reply Jesus told them that they had misunderstood what it meant to be great among his followers.  Among the Gentiles those who exercise authority lord it over others and make their importance felt.  But among the followers of Jesus those who wish to be great must serve the rest.

            One reason for James and John’s misunderstanding may be that they misunderstood the mission of Jesus.  They may have been expecting that Jesus would save people by an exercise of power in which he would conquer evildoers and establish a just society.  And they may have thought that the followers of Jesus would share his power in the new order.  But Jesus was going to accomplish his mission by undergoing crucifixion, offering himself as a sacrifice to save people from their sins.  As Jesus says, “The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  The followers of Jesus will share not his power, but his service, sacrificing themselves as Jesus did.  James and John will drink the same cup and receive the same baptism as Jesus did.

            James and John’s misunderstanding of Jesus’ mission and the way Jesus’ followers should act moves us to reflect on our own understanding of these matters.  If our understanding surpasses theirs, it is because God has revealed this to us, something we easily forget.

            The words of Jesus about giving his life as a ransom for many may refer to the reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah.  This is part of the fourth of the suffering servant songs in the book of Isaiah.  This passage speaks of the servant as giving “his life as an offering for sin.” And it says, “Through his suffering, my servant shall justify many, and their guilt he shall bear.”  We are invited to see the death of Jesus as the fulfillment of this passage.  Jesus’ death was a sacrifice for our sins, making us righteous by taking our sins away.

            The reading from the letter to the Hebrews speaks of Jesus as “a great high priest who has passed through the heavens,” i.e., in his death and resurrection.  Elsewhere (see Heb 9:10-14) the letter to the Hebrews presents Jesus as both sacrificial victim and priest.  In his death and resurrection Jesus functioned both as the priest who sacrificed the victim and as the victim who was sacrificed.

            The idea that Jesus’ death was a sacrifice is somewhat foreign to us and can raise questions about why God would require a sacrifice.  This was not true for first-century Christians.  In the ancient world sacrificing animals was an important part of Judaism and of virtually every other religion.  In the first century it was taken for granted that sacrifice was part of a proper relationship between human beings and God.  This meant that when the early Christians tried to understand how Jesus’ death could accomplish salvation, understanding it as a sacrifice was helpful.  This remains a helpful idea, but only if we recover the first-century view of sacrifice.


Terrance Callan


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