Our Gospel today comes from Mark chapter 10, right after Jesus’ third prediction of his Passion. The evangelist includes the Passion prophecies in three consecutive chapters – 8, 9 and 10. On all three occasions, Jesus’ disciples fail to understand what he is telling them. Instead, they display typical human reactions to suffering, entirely missing Jesus’ revelation that we are to be saved through his Death and Resurrection. In Mark 8, Peter rebukes the Lord for saying horrible things about being rejected and killed (v. 32). In Mark 9, the disciples argue about which of them is the greatest, totally oblivious of the true path to greatness that their Master has just revealed (v. 34). In Mark 10, James and John are preoccupied with lobbying for key positions of authority (v. 37).
When faced with the prospect of suffering, we typically react in three such ways, seeking to replace what we reject with comfort, honor, and power. We want the easy way out, not suffering; we want to boast of our accomplishments, not accept humiliation; we want to be served, not to serve.
Our readings today remind us that the Lord’s way is quite unlike our ways. They tell us that instead of pursuing comfort, honor, and power, in all of which we are focused on ourselves, the Lord calls us to tread the path of service, where our focus is on others. As Pope Francis tells us in this week’s Spiritual Reflection: “the way of service is the most effective antidote against the disease of seeking first place.”
When we are committed to selfless service, we are willing to give up our comfort and take on even challenging tasks for the good of those we are serving. There is no greater example of this spirit than Jesus Christ himself, whom today’s second reading holds up before us as a “great high priest.” The essential work of a priest is to offer sacrifice. Christ, who reigned in glory before the dawn of creation, sitting comfortably with the Father in Heaven, chose to offer the sacrifice of his very self for our sake. He emptied himself of glory and took on our human nature, with all our weaknesses and limitations. He allowed himself to be like us, “tested in every way, yet without sin.” In offering the supreme sacrifice of his life, Christ opened a new way for us, so that, instead of fleeing suffering, we may “confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help.”
We certainly need mercy and grace! When we put ourselves at the service of others, we soon realize how severely limited our capabilities are. Despite our best efforts, our service is simply not enough for what is needed. The right response to this deficiency is not that we must do more, win more honor, and make ourselves greater, but that we must humbly make more space for God’s providence. Today’s Psalm helps us realize that our service is that of stewardship. In our mission as servants, our hearts are to be focused on our Lord and Master, not on our own vainglorious self-reliance. All the resources and abilities that are part of our service come from God. Instead of putting ourselves on a pedestal, let us humbly acknowledge our need for him: “Lord, let your mercy be on us, as we place our trust in you.”
Putting ourselves in the service of others also places us in situations where we give up control. Instead of accumulating power, we soon feel that we are being crushed by the needs and demands of the people we serve. This can be a frightening experience – but it is part of the path of the Suffering Servant, about whom Isaiah writes in today’s first reading. In symbolic, prophetic language, the Servant is described as being abused by the Lord himself: “The LORD was pleased to crush him in infirmity.” This expression jolts us. It shatters our illusion of being the one in control. God is in control; and he is best served when we are most dependent on him. The masters of the spiritual life teach us that the purer form of sacrifice is passive mortification. This is the path of freely embracing situations that come upon us uninvited and uniting them to the redemptive sacrifice of the Cross, just as the Lord himself willingly accepted the afflictions that were thrust upon him. In the role of the Servant, Jesus gave his life “as an offering for sin.”
Jesus Christ guides us to fight against our tendencies to reject all suffering. Against our attachment to comfort, Jesus challenges us to “drink the cup” of suffering and undergo the “baptism” of the Cross together with him. Against our pursuit of honor, Jesus admonishes us not to be like the rulers who “make their authority felt.” Instead, he points to us to service as the measure of greatness in his Kingdom. Against our desire for power, Jesus leads us in the humble path of slavery: “the first among you will be the slave of all.” A slave belongs to someone else; his service is not for himself but for his master.
In his Passion, Jesus Christ will fulfill all these lessons himself – which is the very reason why he prepared the disciples by repeating three times the paradoxical nature of his saving mission. Today’s Gospel concludes with a concise summary of this mission: “the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” This is the path he has opened for us his disciples. He calls us to resist our natural tendencies to find the easy way out, to toot our own horn, and to amass power. The alternative is the path of service, the “medicine for status seekers,” which is now the path for every Christian, for every son and daughter of God.
How do comfort, honor and power in my life enable me to escape the prospect of suffering? In what ways do I give in to my natural tendencies to find an easy way out or to toot my own horn? Why do I find it so difficult to give up my comfort for the sake of serving others?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 17, no. 8. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.