Today's Gospel: the suffering servant

In Chapters 40 to 55 of Isaiah, there are four passages known as the Servant Songs. One of them, quoted as today’s first reading, is about the “suffering servant.” One wonders what it was like to read about this suffering servant in Isaiah, where we hear, “It was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain,” apart from an encounter with the life and death of Jesus. How were these verses understood, in which we are told, “The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities,” before the disciples read them in light of Jesus’ passion and resurrection?

Some modern scholars have proposed that the servant in Isaiah might represent the nation of Israel or the prophets; others identify the servant with an individual, like the prophet Isaiah himself, the Persian king Cyrus or the future Messiah. As for the earliest disciples of Jesus, they were certain that the servant was the prophesied Messiah, who had lived, died and been raised among them. Jesus was the one who was crushed, who bore our iniquities and who “out of his anguish” saw “the light” in his resurrection.

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Jesus’ suffering and death were not, as the disciples had initially feared, the destruction of their hopes, but the fulfillment of divine hope. This allowed for heightened reflection to take place on the life of the Messiah, who had walked among them as they read the Law and the Prophets. This reflection upon Jesus, in light of the Hebrew Scriptures, is the foundation of the New Testament.

The Letter to the Hebrews, for instance, reflected upon Jesus as both human and divine, as the perfect victim and the perfect high priest, “who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” Because of Jesus’ humanity and his suffering on our behalf, we have a Messiah who is able to “sympathize with our weaknesses.” It is this sympathy, born of his incarnation and passion, that allowed Jesus to guide the earliest followers, the kernel of the church, into an understanding of the shared mission the apostles were to carry to the world.

Understanding was not always easy. When Jesus told his apostles that he must suffer and die, James and John find it the proper time to say, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Jesus does not respond by asking them if they had even heard what he said but asks them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” The brothers Zebedee want “to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Their answer establishes at least this much: They know Jesus is the Messiah, and they know he will establish God’s kingdom. The problem is one of misunderstanding, not just because Jesus has announced his coming death for the third time but because they desire glory without the suffering. They will not hear what Jesus has to say: The kingdom will come, but the Messiah must first suffer and die.

Jesus says to be a leader in the church is not to be a “lord” or “tyrant.” Jesus’ goal is not to replace Gentile lords and tyrants with new, improved Jewish lords and tyrants, but in the kingdom, or “reign” of God, rulers must be servants; and “whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” This is not empty language for the troops from a general who surveys the suffering on the battlefield from the safety of a mountaintop but from one who will suffer for them.

Jesus says that “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” In this verse Jesus interprets his death as a sacrificial death. The language of “ransom” evokes salvation through purchase, freeing “many” from slavery or capture. “For many” is the language of Is 53:12, in which the servant “poured out himself to death…yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.” Jesus offers himself out of sympathy for our weakness, for the sake of humanity, which cannot save itself. I am this servant, Jesus says; are you willing to follow me and to serve me through service to all?

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