Vicarious Sacrifice: 29th Sunday
Sermon by Emmanuel Suntheni OSB –
Sermon And Christian Act In The Word
Theme: Vicarious Sacrifice “In life, we need to undergo suffering to save others and oneself”
Point of Reflection: First, we must thank our Lord Jesus Christ whose willing offering of himself brought us salvation.
In our Christian understanding, Jesus himself is the ultimate suffering servant who, by his life and vicarious sacrifice, made our salvation possible.
We owe him unending gratitude for this. Today’s liturgy reminds us of a very important aspect of our Christian faith and life, which is, vicarious self-sacrifice. Today’s liturgy instructs us that the vicarious acts we perform make us like Jesus Christ himself and bring others closer to the salvation which Jesus Christ himself offers.
First Reading: Isaiah 53:10–11
Psalm: Psalm 33:4–5, 18–20, 22
Second Reading: Hebrews 4:14–16
Gospel: Mark 10:35–45
Sermon (Reflection): Before we unfold the gist of today’s Scriptural readings, first let us reflect on the word “vicarious” which means doing or undergoing something on behalf of, or in place of, another person. Christians often speak of the vicarious sufferings of the innocent Christ, who accepted pain and death in place of sinners who really deserve it.
Today’s liturgy of the word explores this theme, showing how suffering and service can be accepted as vicarious acts for the salvation of others. The Liturgy of today invites us all to accept the sufferings we encounter as the means to attain salvation but this suffering must be from Divine authority not from Human power which sometimes uses emotions and pain to others.
The first Scriptural reading contains the fourth song of the servant found in the book of Isaiah 52:13-53:12. First, Isaiah considers the servant’s suffering as “an offering for sin”. Sin offerings and sacrifices were offered in the Jerusalem Temple as atonement for the peoples’ transgressions of the Law. These sacrifices involved ritual slaughter of animals, whose blood was then used in the rites of forgiveness.
Such sacrifices were necessary to purge sins that polluted the people, separating them from their holy God. Isaiah interprets the trials of the servant as such a sacrifice.
Second, the prophet sees the servant’s sacrifice as vicarious in that it will purify the sinful nation. By becoming a sin offering, the righteous servant takes upon himself people’s iniquities and restores the people to righteousness. His suffering is vicarious and his pain meaningful. By taking upon himself the guilt and faults of others, and by subjecting himself to death, the servant will save the unrighteous and sinners from the grave consequences of their misdeeds.
By becoming a sacrifice by God’s will, the sufferer becomes the redeemer. God does not inflict or allow pain without having salvation and redemption in view. This is the calling for the Christians today to understand that the present suffering from God is a blessing for attaining Salvation.
Today’s passage from Hebrews which is the second Scriptural reading highlights Jesus’ identification with those for whom he offered his life. He is an eternal and glorious high priest, residing with God in the heavens. However, he offered his sacrifice as a human being who shared humanity with those for whom he vicariously suffered. Like ordinary people, Jesus also faced trials and temptations that tested his faithfulness to God, and his commitment to the mission of redemption, which required his death. The author of Hebrews exhorts Christians who have such a priest to be firm in their own commitment to faith. He also encourages the faithful to confidently approach Jesus with prayer for the grace and strength needed to remain faithful. Since he personally knew the burden of trials and temptations, he will surely sustain those who turn to him for support.
Quite interesting to note is the Gospel passage of today which presents a troubling incident that involved two of Jesus’ closest disciples. Just as he finished speaking about his approaching suffering and death described in painful details (Cf. Mark 10:32-34), James and John approached him with a stunning request: to grant them places of glory in his kingdom. There was clearly competition and bickering going on among the disciples regarding status and importance.
Perhaps, this might be the same in our Christians Churches and religious communities even in our different dioceses and parishes that we looking for status and importance.
Thus, the other disciples became angry with the two brothers for making their request and it may be today in our Churches and communities. Despite the attention and education that the Apostles had received from their teacher and master, they had learned nothing about the nature and meaning of Jesus’ mission and their own task. Instead, they were concerned about privilege and power. As Jesus asks them if they would be able to “drink his cup” and “be baptised with his baptism”, they enthusiastically say “yes” not realising that he speaks of sacrifice and death.
Later, their flight from Jesus in Gethsemane shows that they really did not know what they were talking about, and were not willing to “drink the cup.” As Christians, do we understand the cost of being a Christian? Suffering!
The apparent lack of understanding by the Apostles led Jesus to attempt to make them understand what “sharing in his cup” means. In no uncertain terms Jesus explained that, since he willingly undertakes to suffer and die for the salvation of others, his disciples must do likewise. As Christians, can we die and sacrifice for others?
Unlike the despotic and autocratic Gentile leaders ignorant of God’s ways, the Jesus-taught disciples must pursue greatness through self-sacrifice and service. Jesus sets himself as a model of such service because he came into the world not in the pursuit of greatness through power but to become a “ransom for many”. This word refers to an act of liberation of a captive or a slave. Jesus became the means of such liberation going to the cross, to free people from bondage to sin and death, and to redeem them for life.
Consistent with the language of Isaiah and Hebrews, Jesus sets himself simultaneously as the priest and the sacrifice, one who willingly serves the purpose of salvation and liberation of his people. Authentic discipleship entails imitating Jesus in the manner of his mission, which also leads to true greatness in the Christian sense.
God’s true servants are those among Christians who, like Jesus and Isaiah’s servant, have the ability to serve vicariously so that others may be forgiven, reconciled, and live. The prayer that may sustain them in this service is well expressed by the Psalmist in the words, “our soul waits for the Lord; he is our help and shield.”
Christian Act in Word of God “Vicarious Self-Sacrifice”
It is interesting to notice that the suffering servant in the reading from Isaiah relies on God. However, this raises a difficult question, “how is it that God’s faithful and good people go through a lot of difficulties in life?” Why is it that we/I pray, go to Church, respect other people, and seek their good, and yet things do not always work out well for me/us?
Seeking for an answer, notice that Isaiah draws attention to the result of the sufferings of God’s servant. Thus, instead of asking myself, “why do I experience suffering?” I should be asking about what good can come out of it. We do not have the power to avoid suffering, but we have the power to make our suffering meaningful. Thus, we can offer our suffering as a form of prayer for other.
By entrusting our pain to God and offering it for others, we make our suffering vicarious. We can also make our suffering meaningful by taking up meaningful causes and fighting for what is right. Like many of the great figures of history, we have the power to fight for what is right and just.
We must also be keenly aware that suffering and pain do not have the final word. The final word belongs to the God of life and light. This is what the letter to the Hebrews reminds us, setting Jesus as the example of sacrifice leading to glory and eternal life. Our life also leads in the same direction, when, and if, we choose to make our own life a vicarious sacrifice.
No matter what we have to endure, our destiny lies with the one who offered himself for us. Again, by choosing to live a life like his, we are assured of sharing his glory.
As Jesus’ disciples in today’s society, there should be no competition for privilege and power among us. Our only ambition and competition as Christians should be about who can serve Jesus, and the others, more devotedly and sincerely. This is what the disciples in the gospel could not understand. Jesus urged his disciples, and urges us today, to be ever ready for vicarious service. Such service, despite pain and setbacks, brings the victory of life and love.
That is why the African proverb says; “an anthill that is destined to become a giant anthill will ultimately become one, no matter how many times it is destroyed by elephants.”
The sufferings of Christ brought us salvation, and his cross of suffering and shame became the tree of life. We are invited to share in his mission, and be vicarious servants wherever, and in whatever we do.
Action: I will bear and accept my daily sufferings for the Kingdom of God.
Prayer: Almighty God, we thank you for the gift of your Son Jesus Christ, whose pain and suffering brought us salvation. Help me, your servant to accept divine suffering and to learn to offer my life for those who are less privileged so that in my little acts of service I might bring joy in their lives. We ask this through Christ our Lord who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever, Amen.