Year A, B, C: Passion Sunday
Isaiah has dominated our Old Testament readings so far this year (Advent, Christmas and Epiphany). In Holy Week, which we are entering, we turn to Isaiah again to help us prepare to remember the great events of Good Friday and Easter Sunday. We turn in Holy Week particularly to a set of readings in Isaiah known as the ‘servant songs’. In the story of an anonymous servant in Isaiah we see a foreshadowing of the suffering and redemption we proclaim in Jesus’ suffering and death. For background on the four servant passages (Isa 42:1-9; 49:1-7; 50:4-9a, today’s reading; and 52:23-53:12 to be read on Good Friday) see the comments for the Sunday celebrating the Baptism of Jesus and Epiphany 2. On those days the first two of the servant songs were read.
Today we pick up the third servant song. In the first song we read of the servant’s mission to bring justice with compassion to the nations. In the second song we heard the voice of the servant himself telling of his sense of call from birth, his frustration in his task and the extension of his call not only to ‘restore the survivors of Israel’ but to become ‘a light to the nations’ (Isa 49:6). Now we meet the servant as he progresses in his mission. He has maintained his faithfulness (Isa 50:5). He has even met with persecution by those who will not tolerate his message – he has been struck and had his beard pulled out (v. 6). The latter is a form of insult and shaming. This persecution is not dissimilar to what Jeremiah experienced (cf. e.g. Jer 18:18-23). We should note, however, that this text does not yet indicate the full level of suffering which will be described in the fourth song in Isa 52:13-53:12.
Despite this hostility, the servant is inwardly strong and sure of his destiny in his relationship to God (vv. 6b-7a). His face does not reveal any doubt as he struggles on (v. 7b). The reason for such confidence and endurance is hid in the first line of v. 8: ‘he who vindicates me is near’. It is both God’s presence (nearness) and God’s confidence and trust (vindication) which sustain the servant. To make this point clear the imagery changes in v. 8 to a courtroom scene. Allusions to legal proceedings and documents earlier in the chapter (cf. v. 1) may indicate why this song was placed in this context. We note that Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55), within which the servant songs are placed, opens with such a setting (e.g. Isa 41:1, 21) where God calls the nations to account. The setting of Isaiah 50 is more domestic – the ‘servant’ challenges the unbelievers of Israel to put their case against him. With great oratory he proclaims to the reader-jury both his innocence and that it is none other than the Lord, the judge of nations and all creation, who stands to support him (v. 9a). That is where the text for today finishes. The passage goes on, however, to liken the demise of those who oppose the servant as that of a garment that is moth eaten. Their destruction comes from within, eats away at the structure of the garment, and (in days before protective sprays etc.) was only noticeable when the damage had been done. The opposition will fall to pieces.
The endurance and confidence of the servant through all this is only possible because of what is mentioned at the start of this song (v. 4). It is the servant’s own discipline that aids in this. The NRSV says he has been given the ‘tongue of a teacher’ but in fact the Hebrew reads ‘the tongue of those who are taught’. The NRSV’s change of the text seems to be motivated by the fact that the servant has the task of sustaining the weary. But the Hebrew is a little more subtle in its meaning. Yes, he will sustain the weary but the servant does not do it simply out of his own strength or skill as a teacher. Rather, the sustenance he will offer, especially as revealed in the fourth song (see Good Friday) is through his own experience, especially that of suffering. The Lord constantly wakens the servant (v. 4b) and opens his ear that he can hear what he is taught by the Lord (v. 5). In other words this servant’s teaching comes mostly through his being able and willing to hear what the divine word is and to pass it on by means of his own example and persistence through suffering.
This servant stands in a long line of faithful teachers who have taught by means of their own experience and struggles. The prophet Isaiah, who lived in the 8th century BCE and after whom the book of Isaiah is named, was one. In his calling he was told that he will speak to a people who will listen but not hear, look but not see (Isa 6:9b-10). The prophet is the only one who does hear and see what the Lord is saying and doing (Isa 6:1-9a). His witness will not be heard or seen for a long time (cf. 8:16-22). Jesus, who comes many centuries after the servant of Isaiah 50, is also one whose life is both his teaching for his disciples and a means of sustaining them. That is seen in the long Gospel reading of the passion set for today (Matt 26:14-27:66). Of course, even though the Gospel writers used the servant of Isaiah as one through whom they could understand what God was doing in Jesus, Jesus sustains his people in ways that the servant was never able to do. Jesus’ life, his body broken and blood poured out, becomes their sustenance. And for that they give thanks.
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