Passion/Palm Sunday: Reflections on Isaiah 50:4-9

Lectionary Reflections: Year A
Passion/Palm Sunday
April 17, 2011
Isaiah 50:4-9a

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.

The poet now moves to a courtroom and demands with vigor, "Who shall contend with me," more literally, "who will go to court with me?" Come on, says the servant, if you dare! "Let us stand up together," you and I, mano a mano! "Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me" (Is. 50:8b). The servant is confident and sure that he/she can overcome any adversaries, because "It is YHWH God who helps me (see vs. 7); who will declare me guilty?" With YHWH on the servant's side, there is finally nothing to fear.

Little wonder that the early Christians seized on these words and applied them to the one who had just been arrested, tried, and murdered by his enemies. They now faced a fate similar to the one whom they knew to be their Lord. How were they to face the trials that they felt sure were to come? Isaiah 50:4-9 was one of their answers. Their master had given them the word that God had given him, and he had done that in the teeth of fierce and intractable opposition. He had been struck and insulted and spit upon, but he had not turned back, because he knew that his God was helping him, vindicating him, contending on his behalf. He had set his face like flint. Yes, he had died, but they believed against all reality that his final vindication had occurred, and that he was now alive, his teaching still lived, his servanthood made true by the God who had redeemed him from death.

His followers could now tread his path, precisely because the same God who had called him, had called them. They now were those whose tongue had been taught to listen and speak the truth about this man, this servant who was now their Lord. And we, his modern followers, now join their company, trained to speak a truth the world still needs to hear, a word to sustain the weary of our own time.