Want greatness? Serve the suffering
In the first reading and the Gospel, we hear about the importance of service, which builds on themes from last Sunday’s readings. Today we are prompted to reflect on ways that we can serve one another. We are also challenged to address suffering in our midst.
‘If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.’ (Mk 9:35)
What can you do to alleviate suffering in your local community, country and the world?
What do you expect of your leaders?
Do you look for ways to serve others?
The first reading is from one of the servant songs in the book of Isaiah. It describes God choosing someone to suffer for the sake of others. The servant’s suffering shares similarities with purification offerings, which were typically animal sacrifices made at the sanctuary for purification or forgiveness of sin. Although the servant suffers, he finds relief in knowing that his suffering helps others. Because of the language of suffering and the image of people being redeemed, this text and the other servant songs have been interpreted in light of Jesus’ suffering and death.
Beyond that explicitly Christological reading, the servant song offers a complicated reflection on suffering. For Isaiah, the suffering servant may have been a specific person, the prophet himself or the community of Jewish exiles living in Babylon. The prophecy offers hope that those who suffer “shall see his descendants in a long life…[and] shall see the light in fullness of days.” It calls on sufferers to be future-oriented and recognize potential relief and positive impacts down the road. Yet we should not take this to mean that people should simply suffer in hopes of eventual favorable outcomes. Scripture also calls on us to relieve suffering, not only cope with it.
The Gospel for today highlights this point with its emphasis on service. The Lectionary offers a long or short option, with the longer text giving more background and context for Jesus’ interaction with the disciples. James and John ask Jesus how they can be seated on his right and left, suggesting they want an elevated status and authority. Jesus insists, “Whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.” Jesus then expresses that he serves and gives his life for many, echoing the language found in the first reading.
Again, we hear the necessity of service to others. Both readings are clear that selfless service can require suffering, and Jesus goes further by calling on the disciples to serve, affirming that true leadership requires service.