Scripture in Depth
Reading I: Isaiah 50:5-9a
The third servant song of Second Isaiah is used also on Palm Sunday, where it ends with Isaiah 50:7, and is commented upon there in series A (see below*).
The additional words included here run from “he who vindicates me is near” through “who will declare me guilty?” These words tie in with the prediction of the passion in today’s gospel, where Jesus confidently affirms his certainty of vindication (“and after three days rise again”).
*From the Palm Sunday Reading:
This is the third servant song of Second Isaiah. The situation presupposed is that Israel in exile is rejecting the prophet’s message. The people are “weary” (of his constant predictions of deliverance despite the continuation of the exile?).
But the prophet is undeterred. God has given him the word and he must deliver it, even at the cost of personal suffering. And he is confident that God will eventually prove him right.
In exactly the same way, Jesus’ passion was the outcome of his obedient delivery of the message of the kingdom despite his people’s rejection, and his constant reliance that God would prove him right.
The passion and death of Christ are not isolated events but of a piece with his whole ministry.
The early Church was right in seeing that the servant songs came to rest in the passion and death of its Lord.
Responsorial Psalm: 116:1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 8-9
On the other occasions when this psalm is used in the Sunday Lectionary (Holy Thursday, the second Sunday of Lent in series B, Corpus Christi), the verses chosen emphasize the theme of Yhwh's vindication of his servant. He was encompassed by the snares of death and the pangs of sheol (stanza 2) and cried to Yahweh, and God heard him (stanzas 1, 3, 4). The psalm thus speaks of death and resurrection.
The prediction of the passion in the Gospel asserts that “the Son of man must suffer.” This “must” is equivalent to the early Christian formula “according to the scriptures.” It is not immediately obvious, however, which Old Testament scriptures speak of the death and resurrection of the Messiah, but the servant passages of Second Isaiah and the psalms about God's vindication of the righteous sufferer, of which this is one, provide a pattern of divine action that finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ.
Reading II: James 2:14-18
This section on faith and works is said to correspond to Rachel, who here takes the place of Dan in the exhortations based on the list of patriarchs in Genesis 49. Because of her barrenness (see Jas 2:17), Rachel gave her maidservant to Jacob, and Dan was the fruit of this association (see Gen 30).
The kind of faith that James has in view is not the personal acceptance of God’s saving act of which Paul generally speaks.
With that kind of faith there could be no question of its dissociation from good works. Paul can speak of this kind of faith as naturally and inevitably working through love and producing the first fruits of the Spirit.
James is thinking of a notional assent to orthodox formulas (see Jas 2:19). Such faith, if it is genuine, is bound to issue in good works, otherwise it is barren. Here James agrees with the best teaching of Judaism, with Jesus, and with Paul and 1 John.
Gospel: Mark 8:27-35
The Matthean version of the confession of Peter is used on the twenty-first Sunday of series A. Mark’s version is clearly more primitive. Nevertheless, it too is the result of a process of development.
To reconstruct the original historical event, we start with the fact that it is inconceivable that the post-Easter Church invented the Satan saying, given the fact that Peter was its most revered leader. Jesus must actually have called Peter “Satan.” By why did he do so?
As the text stands, he did so in response to the prediction of the passion: Peter could accept the idea of Jesus as Messiah, but not as a suffering Messiah.
But the prediction of the passion is clearly a post-Easter creation. It makes Jesus identify himself openly with the Son of man and shows a clear knowledge of the events of the passion and the resurrection, reminiscent of the passion narratives in the Gospels. We take it, then, to be a vaticinium ex eventu.
The command to silence is a typical piece of Marcan redaction, reflecting his theme of the messianic secret. Remove these two elements—the charge to secrecy and the prediction of the passion—and the Satan saying follows directly upon Peter’s “confession.”
Why, then, would Jesus reject it? He would do so if the term “Messiah” meant a political, nationalistic leader. Jesus consistently rejected that program as a diabolical attempt to divert him from his God-given mission.
Given this meaning of Messiah—and this is the meaning that was current in Jesus’ day, before it was appropriated for him after Easter—the Satan saying becomes intelligible.
In the light of the post-Easter faith, however, Peter’s confession became a positive confession, acceptable to Christ, and the Satan saying is therefore transferred to Peter’s rejection of the idea of the suffering Messiah by means of the passion prediction.
Finally, Mark introduces the motif of secrecy to ensure that the confession “You are the Christ [Messiah]” can only be applied to the crucified and risen One, not to Jesus in his earthly ministry, which would make him merely a divine miracle-worker. Such seems to be the history of the tradition.
A second scene follows—the saying about the cost of discipleship.
Some have thought that the saying about taking up one’s cross must reflect a post-Easter situation, but the Greek word stauros probably meant originally not the gibbet but the taw (T) or chi (X), the sign of ownership with which cattle were branded.
As such it means here God’s seal or sign. In this sense it means “surrender of self-assertion before God and surrender of the autonomous freedom which directs itself against God” (Erich DinkIer). It thus becomes intelligible as an authentic saying of the earthly Jesus.
After Good Friday, however, it acquires a new meaning: assuming one’s cross, that is, the life of suffering and martyrdom in union with the cross of Christ.
If it is the evangelist Mark who has combined the two traditions—the confession of Peter and the saying about bearing one’s cross—then the whole pericope as it now stands is directed against a wrong understanding of Christological confession and apostleship, one that interprets Jesus as a miracle-working divine man and conceives of apostleship likewise in terms of the divine miracle-worker.
In place of this, Mark puts the confession of Jesus as Christ crucified, and apostleship as following him in bearing the cross, manifesting the dying of Jesus in our mortal bodies, as Paul phrased it.
Reginald H. Fuller
**From Saint Louis University