Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

What is the meaning of suffering?

September 13, 2009

First Reading
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Commentary on Isaiah 50:4-9a

What is the meaning of suffering?

This is one of the most profound questions that confront the human condition. In today’s passage from Isaiah, we hear the musings of a prophet who is seeking to make sense of the painful realities of exile. Isaiah 50:4–9a is also found in the lectionary on Palm Sunday at the conclusion of Lent.

As an introduction to Holy Week, this text provides the Christian year with a particular understanding of Jesus’ journey to resurrection through the cross. In the middle of ordinary time, the passage reminds the faithful of the cost of discipleship. There will be times in the Christian life when living into God’s calling comes at a price. Today’s lection helps us to frame such issues through the particular historical experience of Deutero-Isaiah’s servant, who is confronted with the lingering effects of exilic life in Babylon.

Isaiah 50:4–9 is one of the four Servant Songs found within Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40–55). The other passages are 42:1–4, 49:1–6, and 52:13–53:12. The protagonist in these well-known poetic texts is a nameless servant, whom scholars have identified as either a particular individual or collective Israel. Deutero-Isaiah writes within the context of the Babylonian exile, after 587 B.C.E. The author addresses this historical reality through oracles of hope that draw on the rich themes of creation and redemption within Israel’s theological traditions.

The idea of righteous suffering is prevalent in Isaiah 50:4–9 and in the Servant Songs in general. This week’s text, however, emphasizes particular nuances to the more general theme, namely the cost of being faithful to the LORD’s calling and God’s vindication of the servant’s obedience. Isaiah 50:4–9 is written in the first person. Thus, the prophet equates himself with the servant or is speaking about the experience of suffering through the lens of the servant’s first-hand experience.

Today’s passage has two sections, verses 4–5 and verses 7–9, both of which hinge on the servant’s suffering at the hands of his enemies in verse 6. The first unit focuses on the servant’s calling through images of speaking/hearing. The center of this passage, literarily and thematically, is verse 6, which depicts graphically the abuse that the servant’s enemies inflict upon him. The passage concludes with verses 7–9 by using legal language to describe the LORD’s advocacy. The structure of the passage focuses the reader’s attention on 50:6. Thus, the meaning of suffering is the central problem that the prophet confronts. The servant’s divine calling, on the one hand, and the LORD’s vindication, on the other, frames this weighty theological dilemma.

Verses 4–5 emphasize the servant’s calling through the theme of faithfulness. The communication of God’s intention to the people is fundamental to the core of a prophet’s calling. In verse 4, the tongue of this loyal “teacher” is used to support the weary. In verse 4b–5, the ear of the servant is opened to both those whom he teaches and to the LORD. Hearkening to the voices of both characterizes the prophet’s obedience; and hence, he declares confidently, “I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward” (verse 5b).

Both verses 4 and 5 begin with the LORD God as the subject of verbs that enable the servant’s vocation. In verse 4, the LORD has “given” (nātan) the prophet his tongue in order to speak words that sustain the people. In verse 5, the LORD God has “opened” (pātach) the ear of the servant. Thus, the LORD both enables and is the source of this prophetic calling, making possible both the servant’s speech and hearing.

Verse 6 is the crux of Isaiah 50:4–9. It describes the servant’s suffering at the hands of his enemies. This theme is directly related to the servant’s calling and message described in verses 4–5. Within the context of exile, a prophet’s advocacy on behalf of the marginalized can lead to resistance from the powerful and even from those who suffer. The servant gives his back to those who strike him. The same Hebrew verb, nātan (“give”), which the poet uses to describe the LORD’s gift of speech in verse 4, is used here in verse 6 to describe the prophet’s disposition toward those who oppose the message.

It is important to point out that the servant does not receive this suffering passively; but he actively chooses to accept the conflict that arises through his proclamation. This last point emphasizes that suffering, in and of itself, is not vicarious. It is a byproduct of speaking truth to power. Moreover, the servant always remains an agent in relationship to his enemies’ abuse. The danger in this verse is obvious. Preachers and theologians have often adopted the theme of righteous suffering uncritically to the harm of many. In the context of unavoidable suffering, human dignity is lost when survivors are denied their agency to resist violent oppression or when victimization is held up as a universal standard for sainthood.

In group oriented societies, suffering is a source of shame for individuals and communities. In the final unit (verses 7–9a), the LORD God vindicates the honor of the servant in language that evokes a legal hearing, especially through the use of the Hebrew verb, ‘āzar (“help”) in both verses 7 and 9. Thus, the LORD, who is the source of the servant’s calling in verses 4–5, is also the agent of the prophet’s vindication in this second unit. Because of God’s help, the servant will “not be put to shame” (verse 7) and his enemies will not be able to “contend” (verse 8) against him or declare him guilty (verse 9).

In the LORD’s court of opinion, the servant is righteous. Though suffering is the thematic and structural center of Isaiah 50, the LORD’s calling (verses 4–5) and vindication (verses 7–9) of the servant frames the passage on either side. It is the LORD’s initiative that defines both the vocation and destiny of the faithful. God’s help is the source of their confidence and hope in the midst of suffering.