Opening The Old Testament
Passion/Palm Sunday: Reflections on Isaiah 50:4-9
Lectionary Reflections: Year A
April 17, 2011
It might well be asked why any sane Christian preacher would ever turn to this text of Isaiah on Palm/Passion Sunday, when all four of the Gospels offer scintillating accounts of Jesus' famous donkey ride into Jerusalem? Well, the fact is that some Christian churches, albeit not many I suspect, do not celebrate Palm Sunday but rather commemorate Passion Sunday. If so, Isaiah 50:4-9, the so-called third Servant Song of that prophet, may serve as a helpful sermonic text.
A brief word about the four servant songs of Isaiah would be helpful. Vast quantities of ink, and incalculable numbers of bytes, have been typed and generated in the attempt to unravel the many mysteries of these texts. The primary question—"just who is Isaiah's servant?"—has been given several answers: some unknown prophet, Isaiah himself, Israel, among others. However, for early Christians, there was only one answer: Jesus of Nazareth was clearly for them the one long predicted by the exilic prophet. Most especially the fourth song of chapters 52-53 where the servant "carries our sorrows," "bears our griefs," and "by his chastisements makes us whole," was for early Christian believers the very image of the one they had experienced in his life and particularly in his horrendous death on a cross.
That fourth song of Isaiah 52-53 would seem to be the most appropriate text on Passion Sunday, but Isaiah 50 has great value as well. There the servant is given a clear and powerful description. The preacher should focus on the actions of the servant in order to help the hearers deepen their portrait of the one they have come to call Christ.
"YHWH God has given me the tongue of a teacher," reads the NRSV, though the footnote translation is more accurate, "the tongue of those who are taught" (Is. 50:4a). The prophet implies by that language that the servant is not necessarily a leader, does not always need to be out front, but is necessarily one who can speak well when right speech is needed. Indeed, YHWH's gift of speech is given "that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word" (Is. 50:4b). The primary role of the servant is to pay special attention to the "weary," those who are in desperate need of a word of encouragement and support, those perhaps on the margins of society who are neglected and are in danger of being forgotten. This role of listener and right speaker is given by YHWH to the servant "morning by morning" (or "morning after morning," i.e., again and again; cf. Is. 50:4c).
From this role the servant refused to waver, was "not rebellious, did not turn backwards" (Is. 50:5). The servant was so committed to the task that he "gave his back to those who struck me" and his "cheeks to those who pulled out the beard." Neither did he "hide (his) face from insult and spitting" (Is. 50:6). Each of these acts—striking, beard pulling, insults, and spitting—are harsh activities in a shame-based culture. Few deeds could speak quite so negatively as these, each of which was designed to humiliate and denigrate a person, thus forcing him or her to "turn back," to reject the course they had first decided to follow. This servant will not be deterred from his task of careful listener and deep encourager, no matter what.
And this is so, because "YHWH God helps me" (Is. 50:7a). Because of the presence of YHWH, the servant feels no "disgrace" and has "set (his/her) face like flint." The latter image suggests the unbreakable conviction of the servant to do what has been called for, and the remainder of the passage enumerates the absolute conviction of this servant to act on the call of YHWH in all things. "I know I shall not be put to shame; (the one) who vindicates me is near" (Is. 50:7c-8a). "The one who vindicates" is perhaps more literally "the one who makes me righteous." In other words, the servant can perform the work of YHWH, however difficult and dangerous it may be, because YHWH stands with the servant, making clear that the servant is on the side of YHWH, is in fact a righteous one.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.