Today’s first reading is familiar to us. It serves also as the first reading on Passion—or as it’s popularly called, Palm—Sunday in Holy Week. Right after we hold up palms to celebrate Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, the liturgy dramatically changes mood—from joyful jubilation to the solemn grief of the Passion story. On Palm Sunday, this reading marks that transition from victory celebration to tragic grieving.
But why in the middle of September are we reading a passage from Isaiah that belongs in Holy Week?
The reading is excerpted from the “Suffering Servant Songs,” a set of Old Testament poems from Isaiah about the redemptive power of suffering. The New Testament writers frequently quoted from these Old Testament passages to describe Jesus’ suffering and death. Indeed, they may have adjusted some of their descriptions in Jesus’ passion story to fit the Old Testament passages, just to make sure we get the connection.
Why are we talking now about Jesus’ passion and the Old Testament background? Because in today’s gospel, Mark begins the toughest part of his story: how the disciples had to muster the courage to accompany Jesus on his journey to the cross. Sadly, in Mark’s gospel they never succeed in this struggle to embrace the cross. Mark is very negative in his portrait of the disciples. So Mark’s storyline is rather shocking and hard to take because Mark seems to imply that we are a lot like the disciples—reluctant to follow Jesus.
In the second reading, we continue with the letter of James. Some commentators think this New Testament letter was written to counteract some of the influence of St. Paul—or, more precisely, some of the ways people were misconstruing Paul’s thought. In the shorthand version, the argument is all about the competition between “faith” and “works.”
Paul sided with faith. Faith in Jesus is more important than the observance of the law, which he termed “works.”
But James sides with works. Works are the actions that put faith into practice, and that’s an essential part of true faith.
Maybe it’s best for us to skip the verbal niceties by admitting that faith and works should go together. True faith motivates our actions to follow Jesus. It’s good for us to hear both Paul and James.
—Walter Modrys SJ
This Sunday’s readings can be found on the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ website.