Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Is 53:10-11; Heb 4:14-16; Mk 10:35-45
I must confess, the opening verse of this Sunday's readings was a source of great discomfort for
me. At the end of September a dear friend and mentor died, too young, after a two year battle
with pancreatic cancer. In light of Robert's courageous struggle to live faithfully, I found Isaiah's
words extremely disconcerting: "The Lord was pleased to crush him in infirmity" (53:10). What
kind of God takes pleasure in enervating a loyal disciple? The perennial question of Job resounds
across generations of readers/hearers before the text---why do bad things happen to good people?
What makes this fair?
The connection between Isaiah's Suffering Servant and Job was also noted by Peruvian liberation
theologian Gustavo Gutierrez. In his classic On Job: God-talk and the Suffering of the Innocent,
he observes that the ties between sin and suffering are thematically severed in these texts by
Second Isaiah. Instead these Servant Songs suggest that suffering is not punishment, tragic
yes, but possibly crucial in serving divine purpose (119, n.19). This theological turn does not
diminish the reality, the pain or the inequity of suffering. Instead it affirms divine presence
amidst struggle and the hope that perhaps somehow God can transform it in a manner that brings
about some good. But even then, in the presence of suffering brought about by affronts to justice
and the flourishing of creation, we must take care lest we convince ourselves that such misery is
necessary and tolerable. Our faith in God's goodness does not absolve us of the responsibilities
that are ours to participate in the reign of God's justice.
While our readings for this Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time are ripe with possibilities
for reflection, I cannot help but interpret them through the hermeneutical lens of Robert's life
as a teacher. Isaiah's allusion to the servant's descendants refers not to his biological or adopted
offspring, but to those who follow the example and teaching of the one who is suffering. The
epistle to the Hebrews calls attention to a significant attribute, one that made Jesus the Son
of God a teacher who gets it, who comprehends the vulnerabilities of human living in all its
suffering, who can "sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in
every way"(4:15). In Mark's gospel, the pedagogy of Jesus entails teaching not only by words
but by example, an example that tragically includes profound suffering. He offers schooling in
the politics of power, but that lesson is a difficult one. True authority rests with those who accept
the responsibility of service, a daily expectation of living one's life with the flourishing of others
as a priority, an expectation of participating in the reign of God's justice. However here too we
must take care, lest we confuse the gracious generosity of such service with pathological self-
denigration or the perpetuation of abusive power structures. A life of service in God's name
honors the dignity of all created in the divine image, including oneself.
The homilist at Robert's funeral, his oldest friend, reminded all of the power of a teaching life.
He spoke of the many comments from past and present students on the Facebook page from the
all-girls Catholic High School where Robert taught his kids new lessons in how to live especially
during these past two years with advanced stage cancer. Among those comments were ones from
those who themselves turned to teaching because of the example of their teacher. As word of
Robert's passing went out, similar sentiments were expressed across cyberspace from others he
had taught or had mentored into teaching from the three high schools he had served across his
forty years of ordained ministry. Like with the descendants of Second Isaiah's Servant, the will
of God continues to be accomplished in the lives of those touched by a teacher who had been
tested, yet continued to teach even through his suffering, a lesson learned from the consummate
teacher, Jesus the Word of God.
Carmen Nanko-Fernandez, Associate Professor of Pastoral Ministry
Gustavo Gutiérrez On Job: God-talk and the Suffering of the Innocent (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1987).
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