Once more, the assigned scriptures show us Jesus as the Suffering Servant of the Lord. The first reading — Isaiah 53:10-11 — introduces the theme. This is an excerpt from near the end of the fourth (and last) of the Songs of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah. The complete song – Is 52:13-53:12 — tells of one who, although innocent, is tortured and killed but whose acceptance of these things takes away the sins of others and leads ultimately to glory. It is read in its entirety on Good Friday. Apparently there were different understandings among the Jews as to who this servant is: possibly the people of Israel suffering in their exile and dispersion, or the Messiah (with the actual sufferings falling on the pagans.
Regardless of how Isaiah and his hearers may have understood the passage, Christians from the beginning have understood it as being fulfilled in Jesus: he endured sufferings comparable to those described in the song and died, and this suffering and death brings salvation. (Accordingly, several verses of the song were included in the libretto of Handel’s “Messiah” — 53:3, 5-6, 8.) Jesus’ undeserved sufferings and death, willingly accepted, bring him glory and us undeserved forgiveness of our sins.
Verses from Psalm 33 — Ps 33:4-5, 18-19, 20, 22 — turn our hearts to reflect on our trust in the Lord, who is good to us.
The last line of the second reading — Hebrews 4:14-16 — brings back the thought of the responsorial psalm urging us to “confidently approach the throne of grace to find mercy and … timely help.” This letter seems to have been written to a community of Jewish Christians in Rome who seemed to have been considering giving up their faith in Jesus and returning to rabbinic Judaism. Christianlty brought the danger of persecution, while Judaism was accepted as legitimate by the Roman government. So the author urges his hearers to continue to put their faith in Jesus as their high priest. One point in this reading is that unlike earthly priests, Jesus has entered heaven where he is with God. In the context of today’s readings, this is comparable to the Servant in Isaiah, who sees his descendants in a long life and sees the light in fullness of days. Then we are reminded that our high priest, Jesus has been tested. This corresponds to the “affliction” and “suffering” of the Servant in Isaiah. So, as in the psalm, we can “confidently approach the throne of grace.”
In the gospel — Mark 10:35-45 — we see the themes of Jesus suffering and self-giving developed. In the verses immediately preceding today’s reading, Jesus gives the third prediction of his passion, in terms consistent with what Isaiah says of the Suffering Servant of the Lord. Charitably, we might partially, excuse James and John for asking for the seats next to Jesus in his glory by saying that they are focusing on the predicted resurrection, not the passion and death. In his response Jesus begins by reminding them that to share his glory, they must share his suffering. But he goes beyond that to explain why they even misunderstand following Jesus is all about. It’s not a matter of ruling others; it’s a matter of serving them. Of course, Jesus’ supreme service is that of “giv[ing] his life as a ransom for many,” or, as Isaiah puts it, “through his suffering … justify[ing] many.”
The service to which we are called in humility includes things such as those mentioned in Matthew 25 — feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, caring for the sick, and so forth — what are called the “corporal works of mercy,” and generally being helpful to those in need. It also should be the attitude with which we approach our duties at work, in the family, and in the community. We are there to serve the needs of others, not to boss them around, even if we are the boss, even if we are in charge. But in a way our service also includes the service of giving our lives “as a ransom for many.” How is this possible? Jesus is the one and only savior. But in our baptism we are incorporated into Christ’s body, the Church. So whatever god we do is part of the work of Jesus. St. Paul says, in Colossians 1:24, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church.” If Paul can do this, so can we. Our sufferings, light or heavy, can have redemptive value, if we accept them as Jesus did.
In summary, Jesus saves us from our sins through his undeserved suffering and death for our sake. Therefore we have confidence in God’s love for us. Redeemed by Jesus, we can approach God for mercy and for help. Beyond that, we, like Jesus, are to have an attitude of service, not domination. Since we are members of his body, our own sufferings can have redemptive value, not apart from his, but united with his.