Sunday of the Passion (Palm Sunday) Year B

When we preachers engage the Suffering Servant passages we enter territory that is both evocative and mysterious.

April 5, 2009

First Reading
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Commentary on Isaiah 50:4-9a

When we preachers engage the Suffering Servant passages we enter territory that is both evocative and mysterious.

The prophet we know as Second Isaiah was an eloquent poet and profound theologian, and the servant songs reveal his deepest insights. Despite their beauty and depth, they have puzzled interpreters for centuries. The enigma of the servant’s identity has produced a mountain of research by scholars. Still today, the issue is up for debate. If we try to go behind the text, or if we try to read the prophet’s mind, we end up chasing shadows.

Who exactly is this noble, brave servant? Is he an individual? If so, is he a real person, or an imaginary hero? Is he the nation of Israel itself? Is he a group within Israel? Does the identity change from song to song and even within songs? The prophet isn’t telling.

Fortunately for us preachers, we can work around the lack of detailed information. We might have an easier time preaching if we knew exactly what the prophet had in mind, but maybe not. If the servant’s identity is a mystery, then maybe we have a better chance of helping our people identify with what the servant did for us, and what the prophet calls us to do on behalf of the world. If the identity of the servant is not fixed, then we can step into the role of the servant in our own small ways.

We know that the prophet wrote at a time when the faith of the people of Judah was on life support. Everything had collapsed. Some wanted to give up on God altogether. Some had set up shop in exile and were content to stay there. The prophet undertook the task of reviving the faith of the people.

One of his strategies was to interpret the suffering the people had experienced. Did the suffering mean that God was powerless? Did the suffering mean that God had abandoned the people? The prophet offered up an alternative explanation. The suffering of the people was redemptive.

One means of proclaiming that alternative understanding was the creation of the character of the servant. In this passage the prophet speaks in first person, giving us direct insight into the attitude of the servant, whoever he may be.

The servant is a teacher, one who will help the community make sense of what has happened. God has given him the insight to “sustain the weary” (Isaiah 50:4). The teacher knows how the people feel. They are weary (Isaiah 40:29-31). They are weary of hard work. They are weary of abuse from the Babylonians (Psalm 137:3). They are weary of grief. The servant will teach them and sustain them. The servant will listen both to God and to the people. By listening to the people, the servant will understand their experience, their weariness. By listening to God, he will know how God is acting in the midst of the grief and weariness.

The attitude toward suffering is not what the people expect.  The way to endure suffering is to march right into it. The servant is not stubborn or rebellious. He listens for God’s instruction. His obedience becomes a willingness, even a readiness, to embrace suffering. He offers himself to his abusers.

One of the characteristics of this poem is its heavy use of terms for parts of the body. The poet has the tongue of a teacher; his ear is wakened; he gives his back and his cheeks; he does not hide his face, but sets it like flint. The prophet does not call for abstract, detached attitude adjustment. He plunges into the suffering with all of who he is, the mind that listens to God and the body that can feel real, physical pain.

The payoff for the prophet’s courage and obedience is a reaffirmation of God’s forgiveness and faithfulness. God will vindicate the prophet. The suffering community will experience God’s help. It will discover community as it “stand(s) up together” (Isaiah 50:8).

As we reflect on how to preach this passage in our contemporary situation, we recognize both the differences between our communities and that of the prophet’s, as well as the ways we might identify with the situation the prophet addressed. We have not experienced total devastation in North America. Faithful readers in some countries might identify with the people of Judah more closely than readers in North America.

Despite the differences in our circumstances, we face both economic stress and the precariousness of our faith. Congregations and individuals have experienced the effects of the economic downturn. The prophet calls the church to courage and integrity in the face of cutbacks, increased missional needs, shortfalls in giving. These things ought not lead us to despair. Our sinfulness, in the form of greed and shortsightedness, has exacerbated the economic situation. Yet, we can face the consequences with courage and fortitude.

On a deeper level, the church is always called to confront the evil and suffering of the world. We choose to enter dangerous and precarious situations to bring the redemptive message of God’s grace. One advantage of reading this passage on Passion Sunday is the call for us to face courageously the evil of the world. We do not shirk from confronting evil, but set our faces to oppose it. Setting our faces is a metaphor for courage, not passive acceptance of suffering.

By writing in the first person, the prophet calls us to identify with the servant. We see the world through the eyes of the servant. We are called to become a servant, not seeking suffering, but confronting evil.