A Theology of Suffering

Woman sitting on floor in pain
Photo by Joice Kelly on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

On texts for Sept. 12, 2021 | Ordinary 24 | RCL Year B

It is common to hear preachers claim that the notion of a suffering messiah is unique in Jesus’ time and that such ideas were foreign to Judaism. In this line of thinking, Mark’s claim that “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering” (Mark 8:31) represents an entirely new phenomenon that was unique to Christianity. Lurking behind this critique is the more fundamental assumption that Judaism is a “theology of glory” and that Christianity is a “theology of the cross.”

To be sure, it is true that the Jewish messianic theologies operative in Jesus’ day were primarily focused on the establishment of God’s glorious reign on earth and centered in Jerusalem. This is entirely predictable since the Old Testament is full of texts claiming as much, especially in books like Isaiah.

But what is missing from this assessment is the fact that, in the Old Testament, when God called a person to divine service, their lives were often marked by suffering, loss, and pain. Think of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Moses, Samuel, and Jeremiah, to name just a few. Truth-telling and faithful living are rarely popular vocations, and they often land even the most eloquent and persuasive among us in hot water or worse.

The “theology of the cross” is not a Christian idea; it is a Hebrew idea, manifest in the lives of faithful Israelites in the Old Testament.

The point is not that suffering is glorious or commendable. The point is that God’s world is an inhospitable place for God’s word. When that word comes to define a person’s life trouble inevitably ensues. Think of Jesus’ own narrative in Mark. “Immediately” (a Markan turn of phrase if there ever was one) after Jesus’ was baptized, he was hurled out into the wilderness where he was tempted 40 days in the wilderness (Mark 1:11-13). Jesus’ identity as the “Son” set him in direct opposition to Satanic powers.

This tragic reality was also true for many others. Jesus is one in a long line of obedient servants whose prophetic lives provoked the ire of the world. The unnamed teacher of Isaiah 50:4-9 is among them:

The Lord God has given me
the tongue of those who are taught,
that I may know how to sustain with a word
him who is weary.
Morning by morning he awakens;
he awakens my ear
to hear as those who are taught (Isaiah 50:4, ESV).

We don’t know to whom the text refers. Does the prophet refer to himself? Is the text inviting the reader to imagine herself in the role of a prophet? Perhaps all of Israel is being summoned to a corporate calling? Whatever the case may be, the unnamed “I” is called into a life of obedience, learning and humility. Their humility and willingness to learn is a divine gift: “The Lord God has given me.”

Obedience to God sets the unnamed teacher at odds with the world:

I gave my back to those who strike,
and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard;
I hid not my face
from disgrace and spitting (Isaiah 50:6, ESV).

In the context of Isaiah 50, opening oneself to the word of God also means opening oneself to opposition. Given Isaiah 50’s emphasis on both obedience and suffering, it is no surprise that Christians throughout history have seen the ministry of their messiah in this profound text.

The account in Mark lends support to this argument. Almost immediately after revealing his true messianic identity to his disciples (Mark 8:29-30), Jesus begins to indicate that the Son of Man must undergo tremendous suffering, ultimately dying and rising:

“And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31, ESV).

Obedience provokes opposition. Giving voice to the power of Satan Peter brashly rebukes Jesus for his predictions about his own suffering. There is a theology of glory at work in these texts, and it is primarily in the person of Peter who cannot tolerate the notion of a suffering messiah. But as Isaiah 50 indicates, Peter not only fails to understand Jesus’ identity, but he also fails to understand the history of Israel. For obedient servants of YHWH, suffering is the norm and not the exception.

Jesus takes this opportunity to tell his disciples that the bad news doesn’t end with his death. The world will be as inhospitable to them as it was to Jesus. Those who follow the master will be bound to his fate:

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (Mark 8:34-38, ESV).

To follow Jesus is to carry a cross. But within the world of Mark it is precisely in loss that life is found: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:35). The unnamed teacher in Isaiah 50 similarly finds life and deliverance in the midst of suffering:

But the Lord God helps me;
therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like a flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame.

He who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
Let us stand up together.
Who is my adversary?
Let him come near to me.

Behold, the Lord GOD helps me;
who will declare me guilty?
Behold, all of them will wear out like a garment;
the moth will eat them up (Isaiah 50:7-9, ESV).

The presence of God’s help and deliverance allow us to face opposition with courage—with faces of “flint.” None of this is to make light of suffering or to say that it can be dismissed with mere bromides. But it is to say, in the words of that well-known gospel song, “we shall overcome.”