These readings emerge from our tradition and liturgy into a world that is filled with violence: war, torture, rape; with the devastations of the drug culture and consumerism; poverty, crime, sexism, racism; lies, accusations, insults; powerfully negative constructions of each other. Our need to hear the servant in Isaiah, the psalmist, and Jesus in Mark’s gospel is great. Their challenge to get through to us is vast!
It is difficult to know precisely what Isaiah’s servant-speaker is facing. He seems to have lived in sixth-century Babylon and so to have faced exile issues and likely strife and persecution from his own people too. If his circumstances are a bit opaque, his response to them is not: Maintaining complete and public reliance upon God, the servant refuses to engage the violence, to accept ignominy, to retaliate. Rather, he challenges his opponents to dialogue, to adjudication, to entrust their cause to God as well. Those sentiments are reinforced by the psalmist.
The circumstances of Jesus we know better. His opponents challenge him for the quality of his life and ministry, and when he maintains his course, he becomes a victim of violence. Anticipating this moment, Jesus maintains the outcome that must be. He, like Isaiah’s figure, will not enter the web of violence in any way, nor will he allow God’s deepest purposes to be thwarted. When Peter, wise in some of the world’s ways, argues that such a response is not right, Jesus—wise in the ways of God and God’s creatures—maintains that nonviolence is the way to walk, the way to be. And the letter of James, if asked to contribute on this topic as well as making its own proper point, reminds us that words without deeds don’t command much respect.
It is difficult to imagine testimony more needed than what our readings offer today. Jesus, having understood the importance of nonviolence, having taught it, lived and died it, is a powerful witness. And every voice in the readings reminds us we are not alone but have help.
Barbara Green, O.P.