Reading I: Isa 49:3,5-6
Reading II: 1 Cor 1:1-3
Gospel: John 1:29-34
‘Follow the leader’ has many meanings for us. As a simple child’s game, it is a case of ‘can you do what I can do?’ Since leaders are seldom willing to relinquish their presumed leadership, this can eventually become a game of ‘you’re not as good as I am.’ At other times, ‘follow the leader’ is more serious than childish competition. We follow the leader in a parade, or there will be chaos; we follow the leader out of a burning building, or we might lose our lives. Furthermore, we follow political leaders by supporting their policies, and we follow religious leaders by upholding their decisions. In many ways ‘follow the leader’ is really serious business.
We are now in a period of Ordinary Time that is really a kind of interlude between seasons. Christmas is behind us and in a few weeks we will be entering the season of Lent. This is a time in the liturgical year when, rather than focus on events that took place in the life of Jesus, we pay closer attention to what it means to be his disciples. On some Sundays, we will look carefully at the challenges that this discipleship presents us. On other weeks we will turn our gaze on Jesus, our leader.
The various titles ascribed to Jesus in today’s readings tell us much about how he was perceived. John the Baptist called him the ‘Lamb of God’ and the ‘Son of God.’ Paul referred to him as ‘Christ’ and ‘Lord.’ Isaiah spoke of the ‘servant of the Lord,’ a designation the early Christians attributed to Jesus. Each title reveals something about Jesus, our leader, and it encourages us to follow him.
‘Lamb of God’ is a cultic title. It calls to mind the animal sacrifices ancient Israel performed in an attempt to reestablish covenant ties that the people frequently severed by their unfaithfulness. Perhaps the most significant and best-known ritual was the Passover offering, in which a lamb was sacrificed in remembrance of God’s deliverance of the people from Egyptian bondage. This meaning stands behind John’s attribution of the title to Jesus. As the ‘Lamb of God,’ Jesus makes reparation for the sins of all. If we follow him, we too will be led back to God. ‘Son of god’ was an ancient title of the king. Initially it identified the king as somehow divine. Though Israel continued to use the title, it stripped it of any divine meaning. Israelite kings were simply human beings. However, when Christians attributed this title to Jesus, they intended to recapture its original meaning. They believed that Jesus enjoyed a unique and intimate union with God that was characterized as ‘divine son with divine father.’ This is the meaning intended here. If we follow Jesus, we too become children of God.
‘Christ’ is the Greek term for messiah or ‘anointed one,’ the long awaited one who would inaugurate the reign of God and bring about its fulfillment. When Paul attributed this title to Jesus, he was testifying to his faith in Jesus as the messiah. We too are called to follow Christ into the reign of God. The designation ‘Lord’ has two distinct yet related meanings. It is the Greek substitute for YHWH, the personal name of ancient Israel’s God. It is also the title used by the Romans for the reigning emperor. Therefore, when Christians attributed it to Jesus, they were making a very bold political statement. They were proclaiming that, rather than Caesar, “Jesus is Lord!” Therefore, to follow the Lord is to follow God rather than some human pretender.
As we saw in the readings for the feast of the Baptism of Jesus, when we attribute the prophet Isaiah’s title ‘servant of the Lord’ to Jesus, we gain insight into the character of his ministry. In Isaiah, the servant was called to execute justice with gentleness and sensitivity to the vulnerable. His ministry was not merely to “the tribes of Jacob,” the survivors of Israel,” but to all the nations, “to the ends of the earth.” Jesus’ ministry was also universal. Even John the Baptist proclaimed that Jesus “takes away the sins of the world.’
We have been called to follow our leader, and through our baptism we have accepted this call. But what does this mean? What does it entail? First, if we follow our leader, we are reconciled with God; we enjoy the benefits of being children of God; and we embrace the reign of God. Furthermore, if we follow our leader, we will work to establish justice, and we will do this with gentleness and sensitivity to the vulnerable. These vulnerable ones could be our children or our defenseless elderly members. They might be the fearful immigrants among us, or those who have been shattered in any way by war. Are we willing to truly follow our leader?
Carroll Stuhlmueller, CP, Distinguished Professor Emerita of Old Testament Studies