24th Sunday in Ordinary Time
In this Sunday’s first reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah, the speaker is the famous suffering servant who has always been identified with Jesus.
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.
Isaiah’s account of the suffering servant serves as an introduction to today’s gospel. It has always been believed that the evangelist Mark was a protégé of St. Peter who plays a prominent role in today’s account. Mark was not present and it is possible that his account is based on Peter’s remembrance. Walking along to the villages of the area of Caesarea Philippi, our Lord engages in conversation and asks his disciples for some feedback. “Who do people say that I am?”, he asks. They mention some names they have heard but then Jesus asks what they think?
It is Peter who replies, “You are the Christ.” They must have been shocked when Jesus then explains that his mission is to suffer and be killed, and then rise after three days. Peter can’t believe it and rebukes Jesus. Rebuke was a very strong word in those days. It’s like a Marine sergeant dressing down a new recruit. But Jesus rebukes Peter. “Get behind me Satan,” meaning, get out of my way.
Today people like to think of Jesus as a wise and good man who performed many good works. Even non-Christians regard him as one of the greatest men in history. However, he made it clear that that is not what he is. He is the Christ who has come to give his life for the world. Not only that, Jesus insisted that our mission was like his.
“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself,
Take up his cross, and follow me.”
What does it mean to take up one’s cross? A few ago, I attended a funeral service in a local Baptist church. The small church was packed for the deceased woman had made many friends in her 58 years. There were traditional hymns and beautiful scripture readings and then the pastor gave a very fine sermon. He noted the woman’s extraordinary life of service to others, and even wondered if her own life had been shortened by her lack of concern for her own well-being.
The pastor then reminded the congregation that despite all of the woman’s good works, it was not those works that had merited her salvation. It is Jesus who saves and it was the woman’s belief in Jesus that saved her. I thought to myself that I am in a Catholic church for the pastor was preaching traditional Catholic doctrine although religious propaganda wars have tended to exaggerate the differences between Catholics and Protestants on the importance of faith and good works.
But who is a believer? At one point in the gospels Jesus said that not everyone who says, Lord, Lord, will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. At another point, he told the story of the man who asked his two sons to work in the family vineyard. One said “yes” but never showed up. The other initially said “no”, but then changed his mind and did the work. Which one was the believer? Isn’t it obvious that it was the one who did the work.
That is the message of today’s second reading from the letter of St. James. No one knew Jesus better than the Apostle James. Scholars identify him with the James who was present at the Lord’s Transfiguration, who became the first Bishop of Jerusalem, and then died a martyr’s death. Here is the wisdom of James.
What good is it, my brothers and sisters,
If someone says he has faith but does not have works?
Can that faith save him?...
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.
The woman commemorated in the Baptist church dedicated her life to the service of others. She demonstrated her faith through her works. How is it possible for billions of people in China to be saved if they have never even heard the name of Jesus? Isn’t it possible today that many people who think they have rejected Jesus are even doing his work and bearing his cross in their daily lives? So, there really is no separation between faith and good works. They are not opposed. Taking up your cross and bearing it is the work of faith. ###
Reading 1. Isaiah 50: 4c-9a
Reading II. James 2: 14-18
Gospel. Mark 8: 27-35 (Get behind me, Satan)