Opening The Old Testament
What Sort of Passion Is This? Reflections on the Liturgy of the Passion: Isaiah 50:4-9a
Song three, the text for Passion Sunday, makes a very sharp turn, as it begins to ask the question: just how is the servant to make this justice to the nations possible? It is here that I think Isaiah offers to the world something crucially important, but his amazing insight has too often been swallowed up in the blood and torture thing I mentioned above. I believe that the prophet looked at the world of the exiles and saw there not even a smidgen of a hope that Israel, or even a remnant of Israel, either of which must be the servant he had in mind, had any chance to bring justice to the nations in the usual ways of power. Power to demand change, power to insist on change, is exactly what Babylonian exiles had nothing of. There must be a better way to bring YHWH's justice to the earth. And then it came to him: only through full sacrifice and giving could God's justice be seen at last and forever.
Hence, Is 50:6: "I gave my back to those who struck me, my cheeks to those who tore out my beard. I did not hide my face from insult and spitting." Each of these human assaults usually demands revenge, getting even. You hit me and I will hit you back. Tear out my beard in order to humiliate me and wound me demands that I strike back. Spit at me, as if I were some loathsome camel, and I will never forget the public slight. But Isaiah says that is how the servant of YHWH will be, and the result of his refusal to retaliate will bring justice to the earth.
Isaiah must have thought very deeply about the long history of his people, the reality that they were always pawns among the power brokers of the Near East, forever caught between the shifting powers of the Mesopotamian valley and the constant authority of the nation on the Nile. There is no way that any Israel, new or old, could ever through power bring any sort of lasting justice to the earth. Hence, the famous Is 52-53 focuses on suffering, on being despised and rejected, on being afflicted and wounded, because that has been the portrait of the history of Israel in fact. Little wonder that we have ourselves focused our worship on the same things: suffering, humiliation, pain, affliction, wounds. But I wish to argue that that focus badly distorts what Isaiah has to teach us.
What we need to celebrate and emphasize at Holy Week is not a recreation of the wounds of the servant, but an emphasis on what all that means for the way we live in this world. We must for good and all give up our pretentions to power, our constant desire to control others. That way, the way of the world in which we live, never brings justice and can never bring it. Only the non-retaliatory servant can be our model. Too often we have claimed, "Jesus paid it all." No, he did not. He modeled for us the way of the servant, but he urged us then to become servants, rather than masters, if we are to find justice for the nations and hence the rule of God in life. Holy Week is finally not about the blood of Jesus and the magic of his resurrected corpse. It is about a new way of thinking about our lives if we are willing to follow the way of the servant of YHWH, the one we Christians name Jesus.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.