James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”
When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
Hearing the Word
The word “vicarious” means doing or undergoing something on behalf of, or in place of, another person. Christians often speak of the vicarious sufferings of the innocent Christ, who accepted pain and death in place of sinners who really deserve it. Today’s liturgy focuses on this subject, showing how suffering and service can be accepted as vicarious acts for salvation of others.
The first reading contains the fourth song of the servant found in the book of Isaiah (52:13-53:12). The identity of the servant remains unclear. He could be either an individual or the entire nation of Israel. The fourth song is special because it describes the servant as “the suffering servant”. This text raises a difficult question of the role God plays in the suffering of righteous people. This song plainly states that the crushing pain and torment of the servant happened by the will of God. How could God allow the righteous one to undergo such torment? Many explanations have been offered to defend God against accusations of inaction, injustice and even cruelty. However, Isaiah does not discuss this problem philosophically or even theoretically. He focuses, not on the reasons for the servant’s suffering but on its results. Seeking an explanation for the innocent servant’s suffering, Isaiah looks beyond the pain, and arrives at two conclusions.
Firstly, Isaiah recognizes the servant’s suffering as “an offering for sin”. Sin offerings or sacrifices were offered in the Jerusalem Temple as atonement for the sins of the people. They involved ritual slaughter of animals, whose blood was then used in the rites of forgiveness. Such sacrifices were necessary to remove the sins that separated the people from God, and to keep the nation in God’s covenant. Isaiah interprets the trials of the servant as such a sacrifice.
Secondly, the servant’s sacrifice is vicarious, it will benefit others. By becoming a sin offering, the righteous servant restores others to righteousness. He does this by taking upon himself their iniquities. His suffering is vicarious and his pain meaningful. By taking upon himself the guilt and faults of others, and by subjecting himself to death, the servant will save the unrighteous and sinners from the grave consequences of their misdeeds. By becoming a sacrifice by God’s will, the sufferer becomes the redeemer. God does not inflict or allow pain without having salvation and redemption in view.
Throughout the passage, the author emphasizes that affliction and pain are not the servant’s final fate. His suffering will bring him blessing manifested in numerous offspring, long life and prosperity. The pain of the righteous is neither final nor aimless. God will not allow his righteous one to suffer indefinitely. Beyond suffering and darkness there is life and light. By vicariously enduring his trials, Isaiah’s suffering servant brings blessing upon himself,and redemption to others.
Whereas Isaiah speaks of sin offerings where sacrificed animals bore the sins of a sinner, the letter to the Hebrews focuses on the priest who offers the sin sacrifice, Jesus himself. However, Jesus is a priest with a difference. While Jewish priests offered animals as expiation for sin, Jesus is the priest who offered himself as a sacrifice (Heb 5:1-10). Today’s passage from Hebrews highlights Jesus’ identification with those for whom he offered his life. He is an eternal and glorious high priest, residing with God in the heavens. However, he offered his sacrifice as a human being who shared humanity with those for whom he vicariously suffered. Jesus even faced trials and temptations that tested his faithfulness to God, and his commitment to the mission of redemption, which required his death. The author of Hebrews exhorts Christians who have such a priest to be firm in their own commitment to faith. He also encourages the faithful to confidently approach Jesus with prayer for the grace and strength needed to remain faithful. Since he personally knew the burden of trials and temptations, he will surely sustain those who turn to him for support.
Just as Jesus finished speaking about his approaching suffering and death, which he described in painful detail in the preceding verses (Mark 10:32-34), James and John approached him with a shocking request - to grant them places of glory in his kingdom. There was clearly a competition going on among the disciples. Some of the other disciples became angry with the two brothers for making their request before the others could. Despite the attention and education that they had received from their teacher and master, they had learned nothing about the nature and meaning of Jesus’ mission. Their concerns lie in pursuit of privilege and power. As Jesus asks them if they would be able to “drink his cup” and “be baptized with his baptism”, they enthusiastically say “yes” not realizing that he speaks of his death. Later, their flight from Jesus in Gethsemane shows that they really did not know what they were talking about.
This apparent lack of understanding leads Jesus to attempt to make them understand what it truly means to “share in his cup”. In no uncertain terms he states that, since he willingly undertakes to suffer and die for the salvation of others, his disciples must do likewise. Unlike the despotic and autocratic Gentile leaders, ignorant of God’s ways, the Jesus-taught disciples must pursue greatness through self-sacrifice and service. Jesus sets himself as a model of such service, because he came into the world, not in the pursuit of greatness through power, but of self-sacrifice through service. Like Isaiah, Jesus also uses the sacrificial language of “ransom” to describe his mission. This word refers to a price paid for freeing a captive or a slave. Jesus paid such a price on the cross, in order to free people from bondage to sin and death, and to redeem them for life. Consistent with the language of Isaiah and Hebrews, Jesus declares himself the priest and the sacrifice, one who willingly serves the purpose of salvation and liberation of his people. The disciples are called to share such a mission, if they want to be truly great.
All three readings of this Sunday focus on the theme of vicarious service. By subjecting himself to suffering and death, Isaiah’s suffering servant became a vicarious sacrifice that brought righteousness to his fellow Israelites. Hebrews paints the portrait of the divine and human Jesus. As the divine priest he offered himself to reconcile believers to God. As a human being he knew the pain of trials and temptations, and overcame these for the sake of those who could not. He continues to sustain those believers who turn to him for strength and support. Jesus attempts to teach his disciples that true greatness can only be achieved through service. He willingly faces death making himself a ransom – someone who by laying down his own life brings life to others. This vicarious offering of his death brings life to those whom sin had alienated from God, and made spiritually dead. God’s true servants are those among Christians who, like Jesus and Isaiah’s servant, are able to serve vicariously so that others may be forgiven, reconciled, and live. The prayer that may sustain them in this service is well expressed by the psalmist in the words, “our soul waits for the Lord; he is our help and shield.”
Listening to the Word of God
Today’s liturgy reminds us of a very significant aspect of our Christian faith and life, vicarious self-sacrifice. Today’s liturgy instructs us that the vicarious acts we perform make us like Jesus himself and bring others closer to the salvation which Jesus himself offers.
First, we must thank our Lord Jesus whose suffering and pain brought us salvation. The first reading describes the suffering servant. In our Christian understanding, Jesus himself was the suffering servant. By his life and vicarious sacrifice, he made our salvation possible. We owe him unending gratitude for this.
It is interesting to notice that the suffering servant in the reading from Isaiah relies on God. However, this raises a difficult question, “how is it that God’s faithful and good people go through a lot of difficulties in life?” Why is it that I pray, go to Church, respect other people and seek their good, and yet things do not always work out well for me? Seeking for an answer, notice that Isaiah draws attention to the result of the sufferings of God’s servant. Thus, instead of asking myself, “why do I experience suffering?”, I should be asking about what good can come out of it. We have the power to make our suffering meaningful. Thus, we can offer our suffering as a form of prayer for other. By entrusting our pain to God and offering it for others, we make our suffering vicarious. We can also make our suffering meaningful by taking up meaningful causes and fighting for what is right. This is what had happened to some of the founding fathers of some of our African states, whose suffering and pain brought about independence. Like them, we have the power to fight for justice.
We must also be keenly aware that suffering and pain do not have the final word. The final word belongs to the God of life and light. This is what the letter to the Hebrews reminds us. Jesus went through his passion to bring salvation to us. He even shared our humanity and faced temptations. But he remained faithful to God, and he committed himself whole heartedly to his mission of redemption for us, through his death. In the end, Jesus ascended to the Father, and continues his mission as the saviour, by offering constant support to believers. His mission ended in glory and eternal life. Our life also leads in the same direction, when, and if, we choose to make our own life a vicarious sacrifice. No matter what we have to endure, our destiny lies with the one who offered himself for us. Again, by choosing to live a life like his, we are assured of sharing his glory.
As Jesus’ disciples in today’s society, there should be no competition for privilege and power among us. Our only ambition and competition as Christians should be about who can serve Jesus, and the others, more devotedly and sincerely. This is what the disciples in the gospel could not understand. Jesus urged his disciples, and urges us today, to be ever ready for vicarious service. Such service, despite pain and setbacks, brings the victory of life and love. That is why the African proverb says; “an anthill that is destined to become a giant ant-hill will ultimately become one, no matter how many times it is destroyed by elephants.” The sufferings of Christ brought us salvation, and his cross of suffering and shame became the tree of life. We are invited to share in his mission, and be vicarious servants wherever, and in whatever we do.
“An anthill that is destined to become a giant ant-hill will ultimately become one, no matter how many times it is destroyed by elephants.”
What were my recent actions which I could consider as vicarious service?
Do I use the opportunities for service that life offers me? What are they?
Response to God
During this week I will make a daily prayer of thanksgiving for what Jesus had done for me in his vicarious sacrifice on the cross.
Response to your World
I will stand up for my friends or colleagues who are bullied or ridiculed by others in school or at work. I will show them my support and defend them as much as possible.
At our prayer meeting, we will write down the names of our friends, family relatives and colleagues who are in need of our support. We shall put their names in a small bowl or basket and place it on the table. We will then pray for each one of them together.
Almighty God, we thank you for the gift of your Son Jesus, whose pain and suffering brought us salvation. Help me, your servant, to learn to offer my life for those who are less privileged so that in my little acts of service I might bring joy in their lives. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Scripture quotations from New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition, © 1989, 1993. Used with permission.