In approaching the mystery of suffering, the Christian Bible puts forward Jesus as an example of fidelity, a compassionate companion and a model of hope. In many respects Jesus follows the pattern set by the Servant of the Lord in Isaiah 40–55. The Bible also challenges us, where possible, to alleviate the sufferings of others.
Today’s Old Testament reading from one of the four Servant songs describes the physical sufferings of God’s Servant in gruesome detail. His back was scourged, his beard pulled out and his face spat upon. Before his trials he was not rebellious. During and after them, he remained faithful to God and his mission, fully confident that in God he had a champion and a vindicator. The Servant remained faithful to God not so much out of personal courage or physical strength but because God had been faithful to him. He accepted his sufferings because he believed that God was with him and for him.
The Servant song from Isa 50 is paired with Mark 8:27-35, in which Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah is followed by Jesus’ first prediction of his passion, death and resurrection, and his challenge to take up the cross and follow him. Thus the Servant passage provides background for the revelation of Jesus as the suffering Messiah.
The reading from Mark 8 begins a series of seven Sunday Gospel readings from Mark’s account of the journey of Jesus and his disciples from northern Galilee to Jerusalem. Along the way Jesus gives instructions about his identity (Christology) and what it means to follow him (discipleship).
Peter correctly identifies Jesus as the “the Christ,” or the Messiah. Where Peter was incorrect, it seems, concerns the kind of Messiah that Jesus was. Along with some of his Jewish contemporaries, Peter apparently imagined that Jesus was to be a powerful Son of David who would be a military hero, wise ruler and just judge for Israel all in one. (See the Psalms of Solomon 17 for an example of such expectations.) What Peter (and we) had to learn was that Jesus came to be a suffering Messiah, one who cannot be properly understood apart from the mystery of the cross.
It is important to note that Jesus does not reject Peter’s identification of him as the Messiah. What he does reject is the kind of ideas and expectations associated with the title in some circles. The real Messiah (Jesus) will have to suffer and die before his resurrection. Like the Servant, Jesus accepts suffering as part of his mission and out of fidelity toward the one whom he called Father.
Jesus goes on to warn prospective followers that discipleship may involve their suffering too. He challenges them to deny themselves, take up the cross and follow him. The suffering Messiah invites his disciples to share in his suffering. But he also promises that in their sufferings they can and will find life and true freedom. Jesus foresaw that suffering would come his way, and he accepted and embraced it as God’s will for him and as benefiting others. His example provides a challenge for us all to accept the mystery of the cross when our turn comes to follow the Suffering Servant and Suffering Messiah.
Today’s reading from James 2 reminds us that suffering is not only something to be accepted but also something to be alleviated. Suffering is not good in itself. And James, the master of practical spirituality, reminds us that our faith must express itself in our deeds and insists that (where possible) we have an obligation to alleviate suffering. Some interpreters have seen in this text a critique of Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith or (more likely) of an extreme version of it that failed to grasp Paul’s ethical ideal of “faith working through love” (Gal 5:6).
James asks us to imagine a situation in which a poor person appears who does not have enough to wear or to eat. He insists that it is not enough to display a pleasant manner and to convey good wishes. He suggests that words like “Go in peace, keep warm and eat well” are really only a brush-off. Rather, James contends, we as Christians are obliged to meet the material needs of poor persons and to alleviate their sufferings. Otherwise, our faith is all talk and no action. As James notes, “Faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” The practical Christianity promoted by James insists that we respond concretely to the needs and sufferings of our fellow humans.
Whether the challenge before us is to accept suffering or to alleviate suffering, we have wise and helpful teachings in today’s biblical texts. More importantly, we have the example of Jesus the faithful, compassionate and hopeful Servant of God and suffering Messiah.