October 21, 2018
TWENTY-NINTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
Conclusion of the Servant Songs
Ps 33:4-5, 18-20, 22
He loves justice and right
Our high priest has been tested
James and John’s ambition
The Songs of the Suffering Servant, as they have come to be known, are four passages in that part of the book of Isaiah that was written during the Babylonian exile. The anonymous prophet responsible for this part is Second Isaiah, an anonymous disciple centuries later of the original Isaiah, author of the first part of the book. Whether or not they were songs is doubtful, but they are powerful lyric expressions of a theme and a figure that invites such a title.
The identity of the servant is the subject of a lively debate, ranging from individuals to particular groups treated as a single person. Most persuasive to me is the identification of the servant as Israel in exile, maintaining its fidelity to God under adverse circumstances. Here is one called to bring the God of peace to the wider world and who is abused for his pains.
The four passages are Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; and 52:13–53:12. Today’s first reading is taken from the concluding verses of the last of these. This final poem, over a chapter in length, pictures a dialogue between God and the kings of the world, representing the nations. God praises the servant, and the kings express surprise, saying that they thought he was cursed, given his sad conditions. But God’s endorsement of the servant prompts them to reconsider, and they conclude that they who abused him were the ones at fault and that they were the sinners, not him.
And then the poem takes an interesting turn. They decide that the servant was suffering for their sake, as a surrogate. When we think of sacrifice, our default position is ritual. But a person can sacrifice himself or herself in other ways as well. I think of the Navy Seal who helped save the boys in the Thailand cave, giving up his oxygen so they could survive.
The New Testament sees Isaiah’s servant as anticipating Jesus of Nazareth, in his mission and cross. With that in mind, it is interesting to see how Mark has used the Servant Songs to structure his Gospel narrative. Mark’s story begins with the baptism of Jesus. At that time, a voice from heaven quotes two biblical passages. One is Psalm 2:7, citing the traditional promise of the Messiah — “You are my son.” But this verse is matched with another, Isaiah 42:1, which is the first verse from the first Servant Song — “In whom I am well-pleased.” The point is that Jesus is the Messiah, but that the role will experience a radical alteration. No longer a king of dominating power, the Messiah will be the suffering servant of Yahweh, bringing God’s salvation through peaceful means.
Halfway through the Gospel, Jesus is about to leave Galilee for Jerusalem. In response to a question, Peter identifies Jesus as the Messiah (Mark 8:29). True, but incomplete. There is the other side of the matter — Jesus as servant. In the following two chapters, Jesus supplies the missing information by teaching about servant discipleship, something the apostles are not too happy to hear (Mark 8:31-33; 9:33-35; 10:31).
And now we come to the final stage of that journey. James and John are the ones who fail to understand. Jesus upbraids them and brings out the full meaning of his mission by citing the last of the Servant Songs. That is today’s first reading; and it is the Gospel selection as well.
For reflection: Reading through the Servant Songs, what comes to mind for you?
Special notice: On Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2018, at 6:30-8 p.m., I will be discussing my book “Jesus and His Enemies: Narrative Conflict in the Four Gospels” at Shalom Spirituality Center, 1001 Davis St., Dubuque, Iowa. It looks at the four Gospels as nonviolent stories. Admission free.
Father Beck is professor emeritus of religious studies at Loras College, Dubuque.