Isaiah 50:5-9a
Psalm 116:1-6, 8-9
James 2:14-18
Mark 8:27-35

All Scripture passages are from the New American Bible unless designated NJB (New Jerusalem Bible), IBHE (Interlinear Bible Hebrew-English), IBGE (Interlinear Bible Greek-English), or LXX (Greek Septuagint Old Testament translation).  CCC designates a citation from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The word LORD or GOD rendered in all capital letters is, in the Hebrew text, God's Divine Name YHWH (Yahweh).

God's divine plan for mankind is revealed in the two Testaments and that is why we reread and relive the events of salvation history contained in the Old and New Testaments in the Church's Liturgy.  The Catechism teaches that the Liturgy reveals the unfolding mystery of God's plan as we read the Old Testament in light of the New and the New Testament in light of the Old (CCC 1094-1095).

The Theme of this Sunday's Readings: Taking up the Cross of Christ
It is the Christian's mission to pattern his/her life after the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Today's readings focus on the theme of being willing to take up the cross of suffering and following in the footsteps of our Savior.

The First Reading is taken from the third song of the "Servant of Yahweh" in the Book of Isaiah.  Isaiah's four Servant Songs describe God's ideal Servant-Son.  From the earliest years of the Church, Christians applied the Servant hymns to Jesus.  Each of the four songs is fulfilled in His atoning self-sacrificial death that liberated mankind from bondage to sin and death.  The third song that we read today introduces the Gospel theme of the necessity of taking up the burden of suffering and following Jesus the Messiah who suffered and died for us.

In the Second Reading, St. James teaches that faith without demonstrating works of righteousness is an empty and unproductive faith, like a body without a soul.  Genuine Christian love is expressed in making the effort to help others, even if it requires personal sacrifice.  And in the Gospel Reading, St. Peter cannot reconcile the concept of suffering and Messiahship when Jesus reveals that He is destined to suffer and die and then to be raised from the dead on the third day in the first prediction of His Passion.  Jesus rebukes Peter and teaches His disciples, a crowd of Jews, and all generations of believers about the necessity of taking up our individual crosses and following in His footsteps.  In faith we should be willing to die to our egotistic selves in order to live in His image so we can be resurrected to live with Him forever.  When we suffer as we struggle to carry our crosses, we must remember to pray the words from today's Responsorial Psalm: "I fell into distress and sorrow, and I called upon the name of the LORD, 'O LORD, save my life.'"  The "life" that has the greatest value is not the temporal, earthly life but eternal life.

The First Reading Isaiah 50:5-9a ~ Trusting the Lord in the Midst of Suffering
5 The Lord GOD opens my ear that I may hear; and I have not rebelled, have not turned back. 6  I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting.  7 The Lord GOD is my help, therefore I am not disgraced; I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame.  8 He is near who upholds my right; if anyone wishes to oppose me, let us appear together.  Who disputes my right?  Let that man confront me.  9a See, the Lord GOD is my help; who will prove me wrong?

Our reading is from the third of Isaiah's four "Songs of the Servant of Yahweh."  Isaiah presents the Servant's testimony in the first person, allowing the Servant to speak for himself.  In our passage, the Servant emphasizes his strength and his suffering; and then he makes a challenge to those who oppose him.

First, the Servant describes his strength in the Lord God (verse 5).  He has the ear/hearing of a faithful servant who listens to the Lord.  He testifies to his obedience to his master and his mission.  It is the Lord who instructs him on what to say.  Second, the Servant describes his suffering (verses 6-7).  He willingly endures and does not resist suffering and humiliation for God's sake as he is beaten, mocked, and spit upon.  Yet, he is not disgraced and has remained steadfast ("set my face like flint") in order to fulfill his mission because he knows the Lord will sustain him and will ultimately vindicate him.  Third, in verses 8-9a, he gives a challenge to his enemies.  As he reflects on God's protection and promise of vindication, he has found himself able to stand firm and asks two questions: "Who disputes my right?  Let that man confront me ... Who will prove me wrong?"  In other words, who can dispute his right to speak the words of the Lord in his mission, or accuse him of not being faithful to his mission, or bring charges against him, or condemn him?  The answer is no one who matters because God is on his side. 

The Church has always seen the events described in this Servant's Song as fulfilled in Christ's Passion and Resurrection:  in His obedience to His mission to proclaim the Kingdom in words that come from God (Jn 14:10); in the suffering and humiliation He endured in His trial before the Sanhedrin and the Roman governor followed by His crucifixion; and in the final fulfillment in His vindication in His glorious Resurrection.  As for the Servant's challenge, those who dispute the Christ, they will appear together with Him before the throne of God on the Day of Judgment when they will be condemned; just as He will appear with those who believe in Him as their Advocate and they will not be condemned.  St. Paul referred to God's Servant, Jesus Christ's challenge in verses 8-9a as he described the firm standing of all who place their faith and trust in Jesus in Romans 8:31-39; especially in verses 33-34: Who will bring a charge against God's chosen ones?  It is God who acquits us.  Who will condemn?  It is Christ Jesus who died, rather, was raised, who also is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us (Rom 8:33-34).

Responsorial Psalm 116:1-6, 8-9 ~ Salvation is in the Lord
Response: "I will walk before the Lord, in the land of the living." Or: "Alleluia."
1 I love the LORD because he has heard my voice in supplication, 2 because he has inclined his ear to me the day I called. 
3 The cords of death encompassed me; the snares of the netherworld [Sheol] seized upon me; I fell into distress and sorrow, 4 and I called upon the name of the LORD, "O LORD, save my life!"
5 Gracious is the LORD and just; yes, our God is merciful.  6 The LORD keeps the little ones; I was brought low, and he saved me.
8 For he has freed my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling.  9 I shall walk before the LORD in the land of the living.

Today's psalm is a hymn of thanksgiving in which the psalmist responds in gratitude to God's divine intervention in rescuing the psalmist from mortal danger (verses 3-4).  In verse 5 he acknowledges God's mercy for the "little ones", literally "the simple", meaning the humble and lowly, including himself in that category since he was unable to defend himself against his enemy.  In verses 8-9, he proclaims both his gratitude and his commitment to remain faithful to the Lord, and also his confidence that he one day he will be with the Lord God in the "land of the living" that is the Lord's heavenly kingdom.

The Second Reading James 2:14-18 ~ Faith and Works
14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?  Can that faith save him?  15 If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, 16 and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well," but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it?  17 So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.  18 Indeed someone might say, "You have faith and I have works."  Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works.

In his letter James has progressed from the obligation to imitate Jesus' non-partiality in our daily interactions with others, valuing each man and woman as a child of God no matter what his or her social standing, to the obligation to keep all of the Law of salvation and to exercising mercy toward others in the same way that God has been merciful in His forgiveness of our trespasses.  These examples of love in action as expressed in Jesus' command to "love your neighbor" now prepares the reader of James' letter for his definition of faith as "love in action."

The ascent to the entire doctrine of faith requires action.  To dismiss the needs of the poor by saying it is not our responsibility to feed and clothe those who are in need shows contempt for the poor.  To simply say "I wish you well" is useless without actions to make what is wished take place.  The sentiment is as valueless as faith without the action of good deeds—James calls this "dead faith" as opposed to living, active faith which is a sign of the quality of our love.

18 Indeed someone might say, "You have faith and I have works."  Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works.
Who is the "someone"?—he is an imaginary interlocker with whom James is having this debate, and to whom James gives the challenge: Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works.  James' point is that faith is our first response to God's grace.  It is the first step on the road to salvation.  The Church defines this faith as "initial justification" in our initial response to God's grace.  But the next step is to act upon that faith and the first work should be conversion—the repentance and confession that leads to Baptism, or to a turning back to God for those who are already Baptized.  This is a work of faith

But the works of faith do not stop with the sacrament of Baptism.  If you say you only have faith and nothing else, James asks what proof is there that you have any faith at all.  James says that it is by his deeds that his faith is realized.  We are justified by faith as our response to God's grace; and we are sanctified by works of mercy and love which enrich our lives as we continue to grow in grace and faith.  Sanctifying grace is a habitual gift that perfects the soul to enable it to live in fellowship with God and to act out living faith in God's call to love our neighbor as Christ loves us.  It is a process that does not end until we reach our final destination—the throne room of God on the day of our individual judgment.

The Gospel of Mark 8:27-35 ~ A Partner in Christ's Cross of Glory
27 Jesus and his disciples set out for the villages of Caesarea Philippi.  Along the way he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that I am?"  28 They said in reply, "John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others one of the prophets."  29 And he asked them, "But who do you say that I am?"  Peter said to him in reply, "You are the Messiah."  30 Then he warned them not to tell anyone about him.  31 He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days.  32 He spoke this openly.  Then Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.  33 At this he turned around and, looking at the disciples, rebuked Peter and said, "Get behind me, Satan.  You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do."

The event in verses 27-29 is the turning point in Mark's account of Jesus' public ministry as Peter gives his profession of faith that Jesus is the Davidic Messiah promised by the prophets in verse 29.  Jesus has taken His disciples to Caesarea Philippi, a collection of four villages that Herod Philip (another of Herod the Great's sons) rebuilt into a large Hellenistic city, naming it after the Roman emperor and adding his own name.  Evidently Jesus' gathering with His disciples took place on the outskirts of the city.  In the age of the United Monarchy under kings Saul, David and Solomon, and later in the time of the nation of the Northern Kingdom, this region was the within the tribal lands of Dan and was the northernmost territory of the Promised Land.  Jesus has come to reclaim what belonged to Israel but was lost just as He has reclaimed the Galilee.

Peter's declaration is not as profound in Mark's Gospel as it is in Matthew's Gospel where Peter proclaims: "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God," and for this confession of faith receives the "keys" of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth (Mt 16:16-19).  Peter's profession of faith is the climax of Mark's "Bread Narrative" and the beginning of the unveiling of the "mystery" of Jesus' true identity.

Mark 8:31-33 ~ The First Prediction of the Passion and Peter's Rebuke
31 He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days.  32 He spoke this openly.  Then Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.  33 At this he turned around and, looking at the disciples, rebuked Peter and said, "Get behind me, Satan.  You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do."
Now that the disciples understand from Peter's declaration that He is the Messiah, Jesus reveals His coming suffering, rejection, death and resurrection.  One can only imagine the shock they must have felt at His words.  They cannot comprehend that with His divine power that He would let such a thing happen to Him.  This is the first of three predictions that Jesus gives concerning His Passion (also see Mk 9:30-32 and 10:32-34).  In sharing this secret with the disciples, Jesus is correcting the common misperception that the Messiah is coming in triumph and glory to vanquish Israel's enemies and to re-establish the Davidic kingdom on earth just as it had been in the past in the glory days of kings David and Solomon.  Jesus' revelation of His suffering and death in fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecies of the Suffering Servant (Is 52:13-53:12) marks a new phase in Jesus' ministry, as Mark introduces the revelation of Jesus' Passion with the phrase "He began to teach them ..." (verse 31).

The reference to the "three days" in verse 31 may be meant to recall Hosea's prophecy: In their affliction, they shall look for me: "Come, let us return to the LORD, for it is he who has rent, but he will heal us; he has struck us, but he will bind our wounds.  He will revive us after two days; on the third day he will raise us up, to live in his presence" (Hos 6:1-2)In the prediction of His suffering and death, Jesus identifies Himself not as a victorious David but as the Suffering Servant of the prophecies in the Servant Songs of the prophet Isaiah (Is 53-54).

Peter resists what Jesus has told the disciples about His suffering and death, and Jesus rebukes him harshly in front of the others.  Peter understands that Jesus is the divine Messiah.  He is God Himself come to gather His scattered people and fulfill the prophecy of Ezekiel chapter 34 that "God Himself" will come to rescue and restore His people.  Peter knows the Temple hierarchy has no power over the Christ, and so he cannot comprehend why Jesus would allow Himself to be killed by those in authority over the Church of the Sinai Covenant when He could simply consume them in holy fire like the rebellious priestly sons of Aaron (Lev 10:1-2).  Jesus rebukes Peter publically as an object lesson to the others because Peter has voiced opposition to God's plan when he should be humbly accepting God's plan and assisting Jesus in His mission.

33 At this he turned around and, looking at the disciples, rebuked Peter and said, "Get behind me, Satan.  You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do."
Jesus gives Peter the same rebuke that He gave Satan in Matthew 4:10.  The Hebrew word satan means adversary.  Whenever one stands as an adversary to God's plan for man's salvation, that person is indeed acting as Satan in human form. 

Mark 8:34-9:1 ~ The Conditions of Discipleship
34 He summoned the crowd with his disciples and said to them, "Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.  35 For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the Gospel will save it. 
This is the first mention of the cross in Mark's Gospel.  Jesus uses the image of a cross, a Roman instrument of death in the execution of criminals, as a shocking metaphor for the uncompromising obedience of discipleship.  Jesus uses three verbs in three commands in His instruction on the conditions of true discipleship in Mark 8:34.  He tells them to deny, to take, and to follow.  He tells them that true discipleship is based on:

  1. The willingness "to deny" selfish desires by daily dying to oneself in order to live for Christ.
  2. Being willingly "to take" and endure those struggles/crosses that are necessary in order ...
  3. "to follow" Jesus' teachings faithfully and obediently in service to Christ and His Kingdom. 

Jesus' condition for true discipleship means completely identifying with His message by disowning one's self interest to the point of being willing to die for Jesus.  The irony is Jesus' promise that whoever loses his life for His sake will live, meaning that his/her life will be eternal in God's heavenly Kingdom.  According to Jesus' statement, one who defines "life" as merely a self-centered earthly existence and lives in denial of Christ ends his life in destruction, but when a life is lived in loyalty and obedience to Christ, despite earthly death, that person arrives at the true fullness of life!  Do you have the courage, no matter what the earthly cost in personal suffering, to take up the Cross of Christ and follow Him?  It is the work of faith that leads to glory.

Catechism References:
Isaiah 50:5-9a (CCC 713)
James 2:14-18 (CCC 162); 2:15-16 (CCC 2447)
Mark 8:27 (CCC 472); 8:31-33 (CCC 557); 8:31 (CCC 474, 572, 649); 8:34 (CCC 459, 1615); 8:35 (CCC 2544)

Michal E. Hunt Copyright © 2015