Our Gospel for this week teaches, “Whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.” The Lectionary gives us two very helpful readings to help us understand this Gospel.
First is one of the “suffering servant” prophecies from Isaiah. It begins with a strange statement:
“The Lord was pleased to crush him in infirmity.”
A word on the interpretation of prophecy. A line like this refers both to a historical figure – Isaiah himself, in part – and to the ultimate fulfillment of the prophecy, Jesus. In other words, the Holy Spirit inspires Isaiah to speak about Jesus in terms of his own experience.
An important aspect of this is that this experience is not entirely unique to Jesus. Isaiah’s sufferings are not redemptive in exactly the same way Jesus’s are. But there is some connection between their experiences. Jesus has entered into our experience.
Which is all just to return to the question: “whom is he talking about?” Well, he’s talking about himself, and about Jesus – and also about us.
“The Lord was pleased to crush him in infirmity.” That is mighty strange. Somehow God takes pleasure in our suffering. Why?
Isaiah continues, “If he gives his life as an offering for sin, he shall see his descendants in a long life, and the will of the Lord shall be accomplished through him.”
“He gives his life.” First of all, the Lord is pleased to give us suffering only when we ourselves embrace it. The Lord’s pleasure is not in the suffering, but in the self-giving.
And yet self-giving is perfected in suffering. Why? “An offering for sin.” These are rich words. Let us only say, it has to do with sin. It has to do with conversion. Turning sin to righteousness is going to involve suffering. Our own conversion is painful. And our love for those who remain sinners is painful.
The Lord is “pleased to crush us” when we embrace the suffering of turning from sin to righteousness.
So “the will of the Lord shall be accomplished through him.” The suffering servant embraces suffering as the deepest sign of embraced God’s will. It’s about the will of the Lord, not about suffering – and yet suffering is where we see most clearly whether we embrace God’s will.
And so “he shall see his descendants”: because ultimately this is not about death, it is about life. It is not about the Lord crushing us, it’s about welcoming the Lord into our lives, and receiving life from him, and from him alone.
The second reading, from our tour through Hebrews, focuses even more directly on Jesus.
“We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin.”
His suffering is described as a test, a test he passes without sin. Again, it is not about the suffering, but about holding fast no matter what – and yet it is in suffering that we discover whether we hold fast.
Jesus has come as our high priest. Whatever else that may mean – we haven’t space to consider it here – it involves entering in our weaknesses, so that we can “approach the throne of grace to receive mercy.”
In short, Jesus is there. Like the fourth son of man in Daniel’s fiery furnace, he walks beside us through the suffering. He makes it a place of springs, a place of grace, a place of divine union. He comes precisely to give us the grace to pass this test.
We must be purified of the dross of sin. We must be converted. It’s going to hurt, and it’s in suffering that we will discover what most needs to be purified. But Jesus has come to console us, to give us strength, to give us union as we suffer for our sins and those of others.
In our Gospel, James and John seek the glory of Christ. He calls them to drink his cup and be baptized with his baptism: to embrace his Cross.
Then he says, “to sit at my right or at my left is not mine to give but is for those for whom it is prepared.” At first glance, we’re tempted to separate this from the cup and the baptism, as if Jesus gives those, and someone else decides about glory. To the contrary, the cup and the baptism are the preparation.
There is no entrance into glory except through fire, because there is no entrance except through conversion.
And though suffering helps us understand this teaching, Jesus’s words point even deeper: we must be “the slave of all,” purified of our self-worship and transformed into love.
How is suffering calling you to conversion today?