SACRIFICE AND SERVICE Necessary Troubles for Humanity’s Survival and Salvation

A Reflection for the 29th Sunday Yr B, 17.10.21 by Fr Galadima Bitrus, OSA

On this 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time of the Liturgical Year Cycle B, the Scripture Readings in our liturgy today inspire us to reflect on the theme of “Sacrifice and Service”. Sacrifice is essentially denying oneself something for the good of the other: it can be your time, your talent, your resources, your name or reputation and even your life, depending on how much you have grown in the virtue of sacrifice. Service, on the other hand, is essentially helping or assisting another, again it can be with your time, talent, resources, or even life, depending on how much you have grown in the virtue of service.

In the 1st Reading (Isa 53:10-11), we encounter a figure described as “a just or righteous servant” (ṣaddîq ‘abdî) who epitomizes the spirit of sacrifice. Though he becomes crushed (dākā’), the Lord delights in him and alleviates or weakens (ḥālâ) his crushing (53:10a). If his life constitutes or be considered an offense (’āšām), he will see his seed (zera‘) prolong for many days (53:10b) and the Lord’s delight will prosper in his hand (beyadô yiṣlaḥ) (53:10c). The just or righteous servant (ṣaddîq ‘abdî) is also one who does not shy away from getting into trouble if need be. Trouble or suffering (‘ămal) does not bring him dissatisfaction. In v.11a we read: “From the suffering or trouble of his life, he will see; he will be satisfied.” As the late American congressman and racial justice activist, John Lewis, used to say, “Never ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble”.

The just or righteous servant (ṣaddîq ‘abdî) is also one who is ready to bear the burden of others, ready to plant trees whose shade he may never enjoy. In v.11b we read: “In his knowledge or experience (beda‘tô), the just or righteous servant will bring justice (yaṣdîq) to many and their punishment he will bear (‘ăvônōtām yisbōl).

Martin Luther King Jr., in his famous last speech, “I have been to the Mountaintop”, expressed the difficulty that stood ahead of him and his racial justice co-activists, including the real possibility of his death. In this light he remarked, “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life; longevity has its place. But I am not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land”.

These words mirror the disposition of the just or righteous servant (ṣaddîq ‘abdî) which Isaiah portrays, as one who is ready to take up the burden or punishment that is not necessarily his; one who is ready to offer himself as a sacrifice of reparation, just to see that his descendants live long and through him make prosper the will of God for his descendants.

Therefore, sacrifice and service are two intertwined virtues on which depend the survival and salvation of humanity. In their absence, we are left with the twin evils of “uncontrollable self
centredness” and a “dominate others” mentality, which have often rendered our world a battlefield of survival of the most brutal, instead of a home to build together.

Thus, humans, whom Scripture reverently describes as “made a little less than the angels” (see Ps 8:6; Heb 2:7) can be turned into beings far worse than wild animals, turned against one another and devising the most barbaric of ways to outdo and destroy one another. The readings today show us that we do not have to be so. We have the capacity to be defined by sacrifice and selfless service.

In the 2nd Reading (Heb 4:14-16), Jesus is presented as a great high priest (Gk, “archieréa mégan”). The high priest (Gk, “archieréus”; Hb, “hakkohen haggadol”) was the highestranking priest. Amidst other functions, the high priest alone could enter the Holy of Holies to make atonement on the day set aside for that (Yom Kippur), usually for his own sins and the sins of the people (see Heb 5:1-3; cf. Lev 4; 6; 9; 16).

Jesus’ suffering and death are understood in terms of vicarious atonement sacrifice, that is, it is a sacrifice that atones the sins of others, since Jesus himself is said to be without sin (Heb 4:15). Jesus is not described as just a high priest but a “great” one (mégan”). Like the righteous servant of Isaiah, He sacrifices not merely something which he possesses (talent, resources, time, reputation) but his life, which is the supreme expression of sacrifice.

The sacrificial spirit of Jesus must inspire us to live with the confidence that comes with knowing that my debt has been paid off and the punishment for my sins borne by someone else. Such awareness must propel me to not let the chain of the vicarious bearing of trouble break with me. I must be able also to bear some good trouble on behalf of others. As the author of the letter to the Hebrews writes, “Let us, therefore, approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help [others] in time of need” (Heb 4:16).

In the Gospel Reading (Mk 10:35-45), Jesus underscores service as the hallmark of being his disciple. After the rich man’s failure to appreciate the need to sacrifice something which he possessed (wealth) so as to serve the poor, as a necessary aspect of the journey towards the kingdom of God (cf. Mk 10:21-22), Jesus explained in parables and clear language the difficulty of entering heaven without this requirement (cf. 10:21-27), as well as how certain it is to receive his reward, both here and in the world to come, for anyone who has learned to follow the way of sacrifice (10:28-31).

He then announced his own necessity to follow that road in the coming days, where he will not only bear trouble on behalf of humanity but will offer his life, as a necessary prelude to his glorifying resurrection (10:32-34). Some of his disciples were, however, still stuck in the search for more and more glory and would not enter into the logic of sacrifice and service. Thus, while he announced his imminent suffering, they were preoccupied with their going up the social ladder: “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (10:37). And as one will expect, such selfish appetite for glory and high position could only create rancour
in the community of the apostles (10:41) for which Jesus had to sit them down again for another lecture series on what he expects of his disciples.

Jesus makes it clear that he is aware of the ambition to have power over others, to rule and to dominate others. He describes that, however, as something that happens among the Gentiles but which must not be the case among his disciples. Rather, the disciples’ greatness is to be measured by his zeal in service (helping others); he must be literally “a slave of all” (Gk, “pántōn doȗlos”) (10:43-44). In other words, as the greatest or the first (which leaders consider themselves to be), one must have the disposition to do the will of all, not all the will of one; and one doesn’t get to be served by all but to serve all (10:45). Therefore, one doesn’t get to have all to sacrifice for him/her; s/he sacrifices for all!

This is the model Jesus prescribes, not only for leaders but for all of us in our daily living. We must learn to stop asking, “What ought others to do for me?” We must rather learn to ask, “What ought I to do for others”? Or as Jesus teaches elsewhere, “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Mt 7:12).

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