FROM A READING FOR SEPT. 13, 24TH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR
'Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me. It is the Lord God who helps me; who will declare me guilty?...' -- Isaiah 50:8-9


Sunday's Gospel (Mark 8:27-35) is one proof that our Gospels were never intended to be biographies of Jesus. The collections of His sayings, miracles and actions are ordered in ways to help His second- and third-generation followers along the path of dying and rising with Him.

Our passage, along with two other parallel passages, was ingeniously constructed so they could be easily memorized. Each of the three (8:31-35, 9:30-37, 10:32-45) begins with Jesus predicting His passion, death and resurrection, immediately followed by one or the other of His disciples saying or doing something which demonstrates a total misunderstanding of what it means to die with Him. The passage always ends with Jesus clarifying what such a death entails.

Peter receives the honor of presenting the first misunderstanding and receiving the first rebuke: "Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do." His faith in Jesus as the Messiah doesn't carry over to Jesus as the suffering Messiah, especially if he's expected to share in Jesus' suffering.

In all three dying/rising narratives, Jesus' clarification points out exactly how He wants His followers to die with Him. He begins the process in this passage by insisting, "Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me."

Carry your tau
Carrying one's cross wouldn't have meant anything until after Jesus' death on a cross. The going opinion of Scripture scholars is that He encouraged His followers to carry their "tau," not their cross. The tau, a T, the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet, carried a specific religious meaning during Jesus' day and age. Pious Israelites were often encouraged to follow Yahweh's will, from A to Z. In Hebrew, that would be from alpha to tau, eventually shortened to just following whatever Yahweh wanted to the tau.

It's easy to understand how "tau" was replaced by "cross" at the time of Mark's Gospel. Because of its T shape, it was a common nickname for a crucifix; and, after Jesus' death and resurrection, His crucifixion became the epitome of His dedication to Yahweh's will. Yet, if we go back to its original meaning, to "carry one's tau" signified one's willingness to do whatever God wanted, no matter the cost.

That's why Sunday's Deutero-Isaiah reading (Isaiah 50:5-9a) is a perfect fit for the Gospel.

Comprising a large part of the prophet's Third Song of the Suffering Servant, it begins with the reflection, "Morning after morning, Yahweh God opens my ear that I may hear; and I have not rebelled, have not turned back."

What does He want?
The late Scripture scholar Rev. Carroll Stuhlmueller, CP, always insisted that this is the best definition of a disciple of God in the entire Bible: Each morning, true followers hit the floor listening, trying to discern what God is expecting of them today that they hadn't noticed yesterday -- even when that entails suffering, as it did for Deutero-Isaiah and for Jesus.

The author of James' letter (James 2:14-18) agrees. He, for instance, hears the risen Jesus telling us that we're to give more than pious platitudes to those in need: "If faith does not have works, it is dead." Only by constantly listening for God's will can we discern what works He expects of us, even if they entail suffering.

Marcan experts presume the evangelist, as a good pastor, was constructed these three dying/ rising passages because he noticed some in his community believing they could rise with Jesus without dying with Jesus. Thank goodness that doesn't seem to be a problem for modern Christians -- but then again, why are these three specific readings proclaimed this Sunday throughout the Christian world?