The Goal of Good Friday: Reflections on Isaiah 52:13-53:12

Lectionary Reflections
Isaiah 52:13-53:12
March 29, 2013

I am frankly embarrassed to say how many grotesque Good Friday services I have participated in and, on occasion, led. There was the one where each congregant was invited to the front of the sanctuary, handed a nail and a hammer, and told to drive that nail into an old wooden cross that lay in easy reach—thereby, I assume, experiencing the guilt of one who had a hand in Jesus' murder.

And then there was the one where each member of the congregation was given a long nail as they entered the church which they were to hold and contemplate during the reading of the liturgy, having been asked to reflect on the various ways that they, individually, had helped to nail their Lord to the cross. Such reflection was accompanied by that Good Friday hymn, "Ah, Holy Jesus," which ends, I am sure you remember, "I crucified thee."

For those of you who sat through Mel Gibson's film, The Passion of the Christ, much was made of the fact that in the scene when Jesus was shown in very graphic fashion being nailed to the cross, the hand that performed the action of nailing was Gibson's own. I trust you see a pattern here.

Many of the Good Friday services and depictions I know have focused on our guilt, my guilt and yours specifically, for Jesus' grisly crucifixion and death. If the servant suffered, then, by God, we had better suffer, too, because God knows we deserve some suffering and a boatload of guilt, complicit as we are in the death of the son. Am I alone in thinking that there is something theologically amiss in all this? Jesus suffers and dies on a cross, the quintessential method of Roman torture and murder, and in response I too must suffer and assume for myself some degree at least of responsibility for his agony.

And I must assume this guilt because God demands it of me. If I do not take on this guilt, then Jesus dies alone, and I wash my hands of the whole thing. His death, in this way of seeing things, requires me to atone for my responsibility by suffering and wailing and self-hatred. In that way, so it goes, God can then forgive me for my murder of God's child, a child God has sent to die apparently in the first place, and order is then restored in a universe rent asunder by my killing of Jesus.

I do not presume to speak for you, but all of that sounds nothing less than insane to me, or if not insane in itself, then a way to make us insane when we think too hard about it! This kind of atonement, where God trades Jesus for my sin, and then I profess that I have helped to murder Jesus in order to have my sin forgiven by his death, makes my theological head spin. Is there no other way to fathom this event of Good Friday than that?

Perhaps Isaiah 52-53 can help. I readily admit that this fourth servant song of the exilic prophet of the mid-6th century B.C.E. has been determinative in developing precisely the warped theology I have described above. After all, here the servant of Isaiah was "marred in his appearance" (Is. 52:14), was "despised and rejected by others" (Is. 53:3), "was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities" (Is. 53:5), and "bore the sin of many" (Is. 53:12).

The early Christian community took a look at those words and found in them a purpose for the terrible events of what they later called Holy Week. The monstrous torture and death of their Lord had to have some meaning beyond the horror and the pain, and the meaning they found was that in his death their and our sins were somehow covered over. As they witnessed Jesus' agony on the cross, they were in fact witnessing God's ultimate forgiveness of them. As Jesus died, so their sin died with him, and God's rejection of him led directly to God's desire never to reject them again.

Isaiah focuses like a laser beam on the fact of the death of the servant as a death that was for others. Isaiah says nothing about my or our suffering in relationship to this death. Quite the contrary! Because of this innocent death for others exclusively, we have now a fresh way to view our own lives and that life in relationship to God. Too often we Christians forget that the suffering servant has also done his work; it is not now up to us to suffer with him. We leave that work to him. And so Isaiah thought.

Note how he begins his poem: "Look! My servant shall be successful," using the word that denotes favor with God and humanity. "He shall be exalted, lifted up, shall be very high" (Is. 52:13). The actions of the servant, the deeds of his suffering, shall lead to success; his suffering shall be crucial to the way I now can see my own life in a new way. Because he suffers, I need not suffer.

Note, too, how the poem ends: "Out of his trouble, his life will see (clearly?); he shall be filled to the full with his knowledge. The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous by carrying their evils" (Is. 53:11). As a result of the death of the servant, God will "give him a portion with the great; he shall divide the spoil with the strong" (Is. 53:12). The role of the servant is to make many righteous, because he is righteous in his suffering and death.

12/2/2022 9:10:32 PM
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  • John Holbert
    About John Holbert
    John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.