Many years ago, a colleague said he found Mass boring. I suggested he needed to think about the message and started writing an analysis of each Sunday’s readings. If I could do that while holding down a job, I should be able to do something similar in retirement. So here, somewhat belatedly this week, is a post about the readings assigned to this day in the Catholic lectionary. I hope to be more timely in future. The heading designates the Sunday: the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, B Cycle (the second of three years). Toward the end, I veer off into the “faith vs. works” question.
Jesus is the Messiah, but, as such, he must suffer and die. As his disciples, as his followers, we must give up our lives too, if not in martyrdom then in active charity.
The first reading — Isaiah 50:5-9a — is the third of four Songs of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah. We might wonder exactly whom Isaiah had in mind. There doesn’t seem to be any history that he personally had to endure the sufferings of which he speaks. At any rate Christians have always understood this prophecy as pointing to the sufferings and glorification of Jesus. Various elements of the servant’s sufferings are found in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ passion; and although Isaiah seems to speak of a defense that saves the life of the servant (in terms reminiscent of Paul’s assertion that no power can condemn us when God acquits us — Romans 8:31-39), with Jesus, the vindication came with his resurrection.
This passage is also read on Palm Sunday, at the beginning of Holy Week.
Verses of Psalm 116 put expressions of confidence in God— even in the face of death — in the mouths, and hopefully the hearts, of the congregation, as they were for the servant. With the Psalm, we make his mindset our own.
In the gospel — Mark 8:27-35 — we first hear Jesus pose the question which is of such central importance: who is he? Peter answers that he is the Christ, the Messiah. But then we see the messianic secret. Jesus tells the disciples not to tell people that he is the Messiah because of how different his Messiahship will be from people’s expectations — even from the disciples’. He will suffer, like the servant in Isaiah, and he will die. But then he will rise. This must have been very difficult to comprehend — not only will he suffer and die, contrary to their expectations and sense of what is right and God’s will — but then he says he will rise from the dead — whereas they didn’t expect any resurrection before the end of time.
The conclusion challenges us all. Somehow we have to follow Jesus to his crucifixion. We too must accept crucifixion and death, and in that way, our lives will be saved, as his was. Clearly, we cannot hold onto our lives so as to avoid death. Clearly, also, we don’t all have to undergo a literal death on a cross. But we cannot consider our lives, our persons to be simply our own. We belong to God, our lives belong to God. That is the attitude we have to cultivate as we go through life with whatever we may have or not have. It is the attitude that will give reality to the love of God and neighbor which is the greatest commandment.
When we come to the second reading — James 2:14-18 — the point is reinforced. Our faith, our attachment to God, isn’t real unless it leads us to act lovingly.
St. Paul tells those who think that keeping the Law, like some kind of checklist, saves us, that Jesus is the savior, and we rely on him in faith, not on our works. (Romans 3:28, 5:1; Galatians 3:15-21) James says that if we have genuine faith we will live as Jesus taught us, performing good works. The apparent contradiction between Paul and James is because they mean different things by “works” as well as because they are talking about them in different ways. Paul is talking about “works of the law,” that is the specific prescriptions of Judaism: most notably circumcision, but also keeping kosher, observing the Jewish feasts, etc. He makes it clear that he is not talking about avoiding sin and acting rightly when he talks about the works of the law that do not justify us by themselves. (Romans 6-8) The works James is talking about are the works of love, which Paul also calls us to as “fruits of the Spirit.” James is not saying that the good works by themselves are sufficient to save us. He says they are an inevitable corollary of true faith.
While I’m at it, I’d add that James doesn’t give us a quota of works to perform. There is no reason to think, as many seem to, that “If the good you do outweighs the bad,” you go to heaven. After all, there are conversions late in life. More importantly, that idea in effect makes us earn our own salvation, rather than basing it on faith in Jesus, whose saving action outweighs all our sins.