This Sunday is the twenty-ninth Sunday in ordinary time. The readings describe the meaning of suffering and leadership. The suffering servant is the one who offers sacrificial service for others as Jesus did. The readings also explain the servant leadership of Jesus, pinpointing faithfulness, service and sacrifice as the criteria of greatness in the Kingdom of God. Jesus is a servant leader, not motivated by His own personal desire for power or status, but to serve His Father and others. Jesus was prepared to serve everyone, even the one who would ultimately betray Him. To illustrate this, Jesus, the Son of God, washed the feet of His disciples before the Last Supper. In doing this, He enhanced, rather than diminished, His position as their Teacher and Master.
The first reading is a Messianic prophecy taken from the Fourth Servant Song in the second part of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, which is also called the Deutero-Isaiah. The reading describes how the promised Messiah would save mankind by sacrificing Himself as the atonement for our sins. Jesus has performed this sacrificial service of love for us as the Suffering Servant by giving up His life on the cross as an offering for sin, interceding for us and taking our punishment on himself. “Through his suffering, my servant shall justify many.” The term “justify” means to be declared innocent. We have been justified by the suffering and death of our Lord. Therefore, we are invited to see the death of Jesus as the fulfillment of this passage because Jesus offers His life as a willing sacrifice for our sins, making us righteous by taking our sins away.
While the first reading from Isaiah prophesies the necessary and sacrificial role of God’s servant, Jesus, in the plan of salvation, the author of Hebrews affirms Jesus’ priestly activities. Because the Jewish converts to Christ did not have the priests they were used to, the author of Hebrews argues that Jesus is the true High Priest, superior to, and far better than the Jewish priests because He, the Son of God, shares our fragile, suffering humanity. Thus, we can “confidently approach [His] throne of grace to receive mercy,” because Jesus understands us. Later, in Hebrews 9:10, Paul presents Jesus as both a sacrificial victim and priest. In his Death and Resurrection, Jesus functions both as the Priest who sacrifices the victim and, as the Victim, Jesus sacrifices Himself.
The Gospel reading explains how Jesus accomplished His mission of saving mankind from the slavery of sin by becoming the “Suffering Servant.” Here, Jesus challenges His followers to become great by serving others with sacrificial agape love: “Whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant.” Jesus commands us to liberate others as He has freed all of us, by giving ourselves to them in loving and humble service. The request of James and John to be seated next to Jesus in Heaven reveals their lack of understanding of Jesus’ mission and the meaning of true leadership. They were looking for positions of power and prestige. They mistakenly believed that leadership comes from authority. Very often, people in authority act as if others exist to serve them. Jesus changed this concept. He sees authority as an opportunity to serve rather to be served and to promote one’s glory. Jesus connects authority with selfless service and considers authority exercised without sacrificial love as merely self-service. Jesus warns the disciples of this kind of leadership.
To become an authentic disciple of Jesus means to humble ourselves, to be a servant to others, to seek intentionally the happiness and fulfillment of those we love regardless of the cost to ourselves. The best place to begin the process of “self-giving” service is in our own homes and in our workplaces.
Thus, Jesus connects service with suffering. Suffering and service go hand in hand. First, service always involves suffering because one can’t help another without some personal sacrifice. Second, God always invites those who suffer to put their suffering at the service of others by uniting it with the salvific suffering of Jesus, Who suffered for others. Third, we must learn to be sensitive to the suffering of those around us. One way to cultivate this sensitivity is to focus on the needs of others rather than on our own needs. Finally, we are reminded to put other’s needs before our needs, in accordance with the example set for us by Jesus.
Today we celebrate World Mission Sunday. On this day, we send special prayers and financial contributions for the work of the Church around the world. The money collected on Mission Sunday is sent to the Society for the Propagation of the Faith to help mission dioceses around the world, to support pastoral and evangelizing programs, catechists and catechetical work, the building of churches and chapels, the work of religious communities in health care and education and other needs. This annual celebration gives us an opportunity to reflect upon our mission in preaching the gospel and also reminds us of our responsibility towards the missionary work of the Church around the world.