Biblical Readings for each day's Mass,
(for the Liturgical Year 2021)

Sunday, September 12 2021
Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

(1) Isaiah 50:5-9

The suffering servant did not rebel or turn aside

The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward. I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting. The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me. It is the Lord God who helps me; who will declare me guilty?

Responsorial: from Psalm 116

R./: I will walk in the presence of the Lord, in the land of the living

I love the Lord for he has heard
 the cry of my appeal;
 for he turned his ear to me
 in the day when I called him. (R./)

They surrounded me, the snares of death,
 with the anguish of the tomb;
 they caught me, sorrow and distress.
 I called on the Lord's name.
 O Lord my God, deliver me! (R./)

How gracious is the Lord, and just;
 our God has compassion.
The Lord protects the simple hearts;
 I was helpless so he saved me. (R./)

He has kept my soul from death,
 my eyes from tears
 and my feet from stumbling.
 I will walk in the presence of the Lord
 in the land of the living. (R./)

(2) James 2:14-18

Faith without good works is dead. Morals in the Christian life

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill," and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. But someone will say, "You have faith and I have works." Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.

Gospel: Mark 8:27-35

Though Peter believes in Jesus, he resists the idea of sacrifice

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that I am?" And they answered him, John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets." He asked them, "But who do you say that I am?" Peter answered him, "You are the Messiah." And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly.

And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things." He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it."

Jesus Embraces his Mission

Today's gospel reading is the central turning point of the Gospel of Mark. Thus far in the story Jesus has appeared as a healer and exorcist, a wonder-worker, displaying an "authority" (exousía) that throws the Pharisees, upholders of a conventional orthodoxy, into disarray. The meaning of his activities is far from clear and produces a host of conflicting interpretations. Now Jesus turns to his disciples, and to us, the readers of the Gospel, with the question: "Who do you say that I am?"

In Mark, the humanity of Jesus is so strongly emphasized that it would not be unreasonable to read this as a genuine question on Jesus's part, not just a catechist's prompt. Jesus perhaps wants to learn how people see him and define him. Perhaps he also wants to clarify his own identity, and is asking the disciples' help in defining his role. When John the Baptist asked, "are you he who is to come or should we look for another" (Mt 11:3; Lk 7:19), Jesus did not answer directly, but pointed to the signs of healing he had worked. These can be interpreted as messianic signs, but Jesus himself in his humanity may have been surprised by them and may have come to discern his own messianic vocation, and all that it entailed, only by degrees.

There is a fine moment in Martin Scorsese's controversial film The Last Temptation of Christ, in which Jesus points to one of the Servant songs in Isaiah foretelling that the Messiah must be a man of sorrows, as if he himself had painfully learned about the necessity of the Cross. One can imagine Jesus making his own the words of these passages, as in today's first Reading: "The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward. I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting."

Peter's perception that the authority of Jesus can only be that of the expected Messiah earns him a blessing in Matthew's version of this story, and also a title: "You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church" (Mt 16:18). Matthew and Luke project a vision of the splendour of the Church that we do not find in Mark. In Mark's story the dramatic revelation of Jesus's identity is quickly surpassed by the command of secrecy, followed by the first of the three passion predictions, and the rebuke to Peter for "setting his mind not on divine things but on human things." In his resistance to the message of self-denial and the Cross Peter speaks on behalf of all of us. Jesus is not the kind of Messiah that any of us would have chosen. But God chose a weak and suffering man to be the saviour of weak and suffering humanity.

The place where this dialogue takes place is one of the many towns throughout the Roman world with the name Caesarea, referring to the Emperor. Emperors, to judge from Robert Graves' classic work, I, Claudius, were often bloated, ruthless egoists, indulging every obscene passion—that seems true at least of Tiberius, Caligula, and Nero. The sovereignty of ego might flatter our tastes at first, but it ends in horror. A Messiah is also a King, successor of David. But Christ as King, and the Kingdom of God, belong to a different reality from the earthly power and authority supremely embodied in the Roman emperor.

For the rest of the Gospel, Jesus is oriented to Jerusalem and his journey is marked by two further passion predictions. His Messiahhood remains hidden. Only at 14:62, in response to the direct question of the high priest—"Are you the Messiah?"—, does Jesus at last declare his identity openly: "I am, and you shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power and coming with the clouds of heaven."

This theme of the "Messianic secret" has fascinated theological and literary students of Mark's Gospel. Perhaps it suggests that the title of "Messiah" does not fully suit the singular event of Jesus, and that indeed any title will not quite fit. Jesus is more question than answer, a divine question opened up at the heart of human history. Paraphrasing St Paul, we might say, "The questions of God are more saving than the answers of men." No matter how securely we define the nature of Christ, in biblical study and in doctrinal formulations, he will always remain one who questions us. Who do we say that he is? He is the crucified and risen one, who will come in glory. But where do we find him today? In fact Christ is crucified all around us, and the power of his resurrection is at work everywhere as well. We miss seeing this when we cling to our selfish security, "for whoever would save his life will lose it."

No cross, no crown

Today, Jesus tells us "no cross, no crown." There can be no Easter without a Good Friday . Everything that happened to Jesus had been foretold by the prophets long before. He came for a purpose, and, as his life unfolded, it became clearer to him what that purpose was. It may seem strange to put it that way, but, for my own spiritual growth, I like to think that Jesus discovered more and more about his mission as time went on. Don't forget, he did take on our humanity, and I would be slightly uncomfortable with someone who knew exactly every detail of life well in advance! I'm not sure I could relate to that as being realistic, or being anything near what I myself experience.

Many of our sins of omission in life are the result of our fear to face up to something, unsure what it will cost us. We want to get to Easter, and bypass Good Friday, but this cannot be done. No cross no crown. It is the short-term pain for the long-term gain. There is a cost in Pentecost, and living my Christian vocation involves facing up to the fact that I have to die to myself many times in the service of others. This prospect can cause me to hold back, to delay, to try to avoid. I put off facing up to something I should do, in the hope that it may go away by itself. This includes patterns of behaviour, addictions, compulsions, and injustice to others. I know rightly what I should do, but it seems to be too difficult, so I keep postponing doing anything about it, and then, perhaps, life is over, and I never got around to it. This is something on which to reflect today.

There were three young trees growing together in the forest. They were young, healthy, and ambitious. They compared their dreams. One wanted to be part of the structure of a castle or a palace, so it would be a spectator in the lives of the high and mighty of society. The second wanted to end up as the mast in one of the tall ships, sailing around the world with a great- sense of adventure. The third hoped to end up as part of some public monument, where the public would stop, admire, and take photographs.

Years passed by, and all three were cut down. The first was chopped up, and parts of it were put together to form a manger for a stable in Bethlehem. The second was cut down, and the trunk was scooped out to form a boat, which was launched on the Sea of Galilee. The third was cut into sections, two of which were put together, to form a cross on Calvary. Each had a unique and special part to play in the one great story of redemption.

Getting to really know each other

I think we would all agree that it is never easy to get to know someone really well. A husband and wife who have lived together for many years probably know each other really well. They have come to know each other's qualities and limitations and have learnt to accept one another. Likewise, two people who have been friends for years will have come to know one another really well. They will have come to some measure of mutual acceptance and appreciation. The number of people we could claim to know really well in life is probably quite small. Even those we know well can continue to surprise us. We can discover a side to them that we never noticed before. We can suddenly be reminded of the extraordinary mystery of the other person, struck by the otherness of the person whom we have come to know and love. We realize more clearly that the other person is different to me and will always remain a mystery to me, even though I know them as well as I know anyone.

If we were to ask someone who really knew us, 'Who do you say that I am?' and then asked that person to write a couple of paragraphs answering that question, we would certainly recognize ourselves in what they would write. Yet, it is likely that we would also recognize that there are sides to us that are not present in the description. There is always so much more to us than someone's account of us, even the account of someone who knows us deeply. In the gospel Jesus asks his disciples two questions. The first was, 'Who do people say that I am?' The answers the disciples gave were fine in so far as they went, 'John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets.' Jesus was a prophetic figure who proclaimed God's word. Yet, to say that Jesus was a great prophet, which is what Moslems say of Jesus, does not go far enough. Jesus then asked his disciples the more probing question, 'Who do you say that I am?' Peter's answer went beyond the answers that other people had given, 'You are the Christ, the Messiah.' Peter was saying to Jesus, 'you are the Jewish Messiah, the one we have been waiting for, the one whose coming the prophets foretold.' Yet, in spite of the very good answer that Peter gave to Jesus' question, he really did not know Jesus at all. The term 'Messiah' meant different things to different people. Probably Peter thought of a Messiah in the tradition of king David who had established a kingdom, having defeated all Israel's enemies. Jesus would do the same, driving the Roman occupying power from the land. This was not the kind of Messiah Jesus understood himself to be. At this point in this ministry he understood that far from leading a movement to drive out the Romans, he would end up on a Roman cross, crucified like a common criminal. Faithfulness to his mission would cost him his life. When Jesus began to articulate this reality Peter rebuked Jesus. This was not Peter's idea of a Messiah. Peter could not accept the otherness of Jesus, the mystery of Jesus' identity. Peter was comfortable telling Jesus who he was, but when Jesus began to reveal who he really was and what that entailed Peter became distinctly uncomfortable.

We probably all find it easier telling people who they are than listening to people tell us who they really are. In particular, we can struggle to hear the story of someone's brokenness, especially if our picture of them has been one that doesn't allow for that. Peter wasn't able to hear Jesus talking about himself as a broken, failed, rejected Messiah. It was really only after the resurrection that Peter and the disciples were able to come to terms with such brokenness, such failure. It can be a struggle for us to accept failure and brokenness in others and also to accept our own brokenness. Jesus could accept his own failure, his own brokenness, because he trusted in God as one who would make him whole. Because he could accept his own failure, his own brokenness, he was at home with the failure and brokenness of others. The broken, the failures of this world, flocked to him, and in his presence they came alive. We will more easily accept our own brokenness and failures if we know in our heart of hearts that we too can approach the Lord as one who can make us whole. The Eucharist has been described as bread broken for a broken people. The Lord who was broken on the cross for us is present in the Eucharist as our Life-Giver. We approach the Lord in the Eucharist in our own brokenness asking to be made whole, and asking also for the grace to be able to sit with others in their brokenness.