Sunday Reflection 

17th October 2021, proper 24

Isaiah 53:4-12

Psalm 91:9-16

Hebrews 5:1-10

Mark 10:35-45


At the heart of today’s readings are two themes: suffering and service. 

‘He bore our infirmities, our diseases and was wounded because of our transgressions’, to paraphrase Isaiah. This passage from Isaiah, reveals the prophet’s understanding of how society can behave, how it deals with the little people when the rich and wicked hold sway. 

Today we can look around the world and see a myriad of little people, of plants and creatures that  bear the infirmities, diseases and wounds caused by our transgressions. Our failure to care for the planet, our failure to curb carbon emissions, our over-consumption of finite resources, our inability to share the earth’s bounty, our failure to protect habitats and ecosystems, our greed and hardness of heart that leads to conflict. Suffering is invariably caused by human failings, human greed, human ignorance and disinterest – now, back then in the days of the Jewish Exile, back in first century Palestine and in all the years since.

Yet Isaiah’s insight also reveals God’s commitment to the world, the suffering and injustice that God is willing to endure to bring about healing and redemption. No matter how much suffering human sinfulness causes, God does not give up on us but bears with us. This is a prophecy that is relived in the life of Jesus – and thereafter in the lives of his followers: for Jesus, the living word, is there alongside each person in their pain and suffering. He is with us in our darkest places and it is he who can bring us hope and consolation. 

“The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous” says the passage from Isaiah. And the passage from today’s gospel concludes “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many”. To serve is the vocation of the Son of Man. The word in Greek is ‘diakaneo’ and it is a word used frequently in the gospels. When Jesus heals Peter’s mother in law, she gets up and  ‘diakaneo’ or serves them, or as I have always imagined, cooks them a meal for I am sure that at the end of a sabbath spent healing and teaching, they were both hungry.

It is what the angels do for Jesus when the devil has finished tempting him in the wilderness, which again I am sure involved food and drink as well perhaps attending to his tired feet.

In the parable of the sheep and goats, in Matthew’s gospel, it is what the goats failed to do, when they do not see Jesus in the one who was hungry and thirsty, who was the stranger, who was naked, sick or in prison.

It is what the women disciples did for Jesus when they provided financial support. It is what Martha complained about when left to do it by herself while Mary just sat and listened. 

To serve – to diakaneo – is putting oneself at the disposal of another, to minister to their needs.  This suggests that to serve is also about being aware and sensitive to what people might be in need of – something Jesus was good at. He was able to intuit what someone needed and sometimes knowing what they needed, even though they themselves didn’t know: forgiving the sins of the paralysed man, knowing that Zacchaeus needed to be wanted, or persuading Martha that there were times when preparing a meal wasn’t the most important thing. 

What serving is not, is lording it over others, nor is it pulling rank, nor basking in glory. That is the way of tyrants – and sadly, it is nowadays often the way of politicians (not all) or of rich business leaders (again not all). Just for a moment imagine what the world would be like if all politicians and all business leaders saw their role as one of service, serving not just their nearest and dearest, but serving all. And what if we all equally saw our role as one of service too, serving both are fellow human beings and our fellow creatures, from earth worms to orang-utans. Would this not begin to look like heaven in earth? A world where each is served by and serves the needs of, others.

Jesus is realistic with his followers. He sees the mismatch between those who wish to lord it over others and those who wish to serve the common good. He knows the likelihood of pain and suffering to which the latter will be subject. For most of us who would wish to see service as the basis of life, such suffering will be the stress and anguished felt when we look at what is happening around the world: people stranded in the wrong side of the Afghan border, people caught in the cross fire in Lebanon, people stabbed to death for being of the wrong colour or creed, the continued investment in fossil fuels instead of renewables, people facing hunger for lack of money in a world of billionaires. Cor others the pain and suffering will be physical and sometimes fatal. 

When we are baptised, we are baptised into the death of Jesus; in baptism we are buried with him; and in baptism we are raised to newness of life (Romans 6:3,4). In baptism we take on the calling both to serve and to suffer, but we do so knowing that in all we do we share with Jesus, and that we are ceaselessly loved by God. In the words of today’s psalm, slightly adjusted, 

“They are bound to me in love,

therefore will I deliver them; 

I will protect them, because they know my Name.

They shall call upon me, and I will answer them; 

I am with them in trouble;

I will rescue them and bring them to honour.”

Author: Judith Russenberger

Environmentalist and theologian, with husband and three grown up children plus one cat, living in London SW14. I enjoy running and drinking coffee - ideally with a friend or a book.

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