The least are greatest

How often do we secretly find ourselves standing with James and John, hoping for the public recognition of being with Jesus in glory? Having read the Scriptures and learned something of manners, few of us would be as unsophisticated and obvious as they were. (Matthew 20:20-23 makes their mother the petitioner, thus salvaging something of the brothers' reputation.)

Recognizing that the temptation to seek status would never leave the church, the evangelists preserved memories like this one to get our attention and remind us that living our vocation is not meant to be easy. It is meant to be transformative.

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Twenty-ninth Sunday in
Ordinary Time
Isaiah 53:10-11
Psalm 33
Hebrews 4:14-16
Mark 10:35-45

If we put the scene into modern terms, we can imagine that James and John were seeking celebrity while Jesus was calling for solidarity. They wanted to look like superheroes, while he understood the cost of redemption. The three readings we hear today work together to help us grapple with our participation in the paschal mystery.

The first reading begins with what seems to be a horrendous statement about God in relation to an innocent victim: "The Lord was pleased to crush him in infirmity." No doubt, we've all heard proclamations implying that God had to be placated because of our guilt for human sin. On the face of it, this sounds like the meaning of the passage.

But there's a nagging, nudging doubt. We're uncomfortable about how the image of a God who demands victims goes together with the God described in parables like the Prodigal Son or Jesus' preaching about a Father so tenderhearted that every sparrow has a name and even the hairs on our head are important enough to be counted. Somehow, there must be a different way to understand what this reading is about.

Contemplating an example from our own times might help us to understand Isaiah's suffering servant. This past June, when nine people were murdered at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., the most extraordinary dimension of the horrific event was the testimony given by the church members who had lost a pastor and people in their families.

The very first thing that the living victims of the tragedy did in public was to tell the shooter that they forgave him and were praying that God would have mercy on him. By the time they gathered again in their church, the members of the congregation showed a worldwide TV audience that one person's evil intention to start a race riot had produced the exact opposite: People of diverse races and religious traditions had come together in solidarity and were praying for forgiveness and salvation.

We seldom have the privilege to witness such a demonstration of redemption in action. The people who prayed for that killer offered the entire nation a living example of the grace of God transforming hate and violence into solidarity.

The Rev. Norvell Goff, the pastor who preached on the first Sunday after the sacrilegious murders, proclaimed that the people of that church showed the world how a group of praying people can create an alternative reality by coming together to comfort one another and to pledge that they will work for justice. This is the tradition of their historic church. This is the Christian tradition portrayed in today's readings.

The wounded, healing congregation of Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston offers an invaluable key to interpreting the message of this week's Scriptures. They, like the servant of Isaiah, were truly a people "crushed in infirmity," an infirmity not of their own making. Following the example of Isaiah's servant and Christ himself, they turned their suffering into an offering for sin so that the will of God could be accomplished through them.

In our Gospel story, James and John appear naively optimistic in their assurance that they can drink the cup with Jesus and be baptized with his baptism. Jesus tells them that they have no idea what they are asking. He knew he would face suffering.

As the author of Hebrews tells us, Jesus knew that throughout his life, he would be tested in every way. That clear-sightedness would have been little comfort to him, but it added to his solidarity with us.

The message of today's readings and the witness of our brothers and sisters in South Carolina can encourage us in our Christian journey. We who hope to walk in solidarity with Jesus need to understand that we go there at the cost of our very lives. In sharing his cup, we are promising to consecrate ourselves to service, to become living witnesses of life given for others.

Scripture promises us that we can approach this task with confidence because God's transforming mercy and grace are available to us. Our brothers and sisters from Charleston have shown us how to live the paschal mystery today.

[Mary McGlone is a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet. She is a freelance writer and executive director of FUVIRESE USA.]

This story appeared in the Oct 9-22, 2015 print issue under the headline: The least are greatest .

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