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October 19, 2015

Servants of the Servant: Second Readings about Suffering

Filed under: Sermons — William Witt @ 2:07 am

Isaiah 53:4-12
Psalm 91:9-16
Hebrews 4:12-16
Mark 10:35-45

agnus deiIn this sermon, I am going to pursue two different, but related themes from this morning’s lectionary readings – first is the theme of suffering, which I think is common to all the readings. The second theme is “how do we read the Bible?,” or, more specifically, “how is it that the New Testament writers read the Old Testament, and how might that affect how we read the Bible today?”

The problem of suffering is one of life’s perennial problems – perhaps the basic problem with which we are always trying to cope. It has perplexed philosophers, and is explored in all religious traditions. When we turn to the Old Testament readings, we notice that both are dealing with this common theme of suffering, but they give very different answers to the question, answers that at first seem contradictory.

One solution to the problem of suffering is what I call the moralistic solution. The moralistic solution says that there is a direct correlation between suffering and evil and human behavior, and the simplest and most straightforward example of the moralistic solution is what I call the “good things happen to good people” scenario. The Psalmist writes: “Because you have made God your refuge and the Most High your habitation, There shall no evil happen to you, neither shall any plague come near your dwelling.” (Ps. 91:9). On a straightforward reading, the passage seems to be saying that if we have faith in God, nothing bad can ever happen to us. Or, at the least, if something bad happens, we can trust that God will deliver and protect us from misfortune: As the Psalmist says, “Because he is bound to me in love, therefore I will deliver him . . . I am with him in trouble, I will rescue him and bring him to honor . . . with long life will I satisfy him.” (Ps. 91:14,15,16).

In the Isaiah reading, we find the central text of a group of what are called the “Suffering Servant” passages. In the second half of the book of Isaiah that begins with chapter 40, there are a group of passages that describe someone whom the prophet calls the “Servant.” The Servant first appears in chapter 42: “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights.” (Is. 42:1). In chapter 44, the servant is identified with Israel: “But now, O Jacob, my servant, Israel whom I have chosen.” (Is. 44:1). Beginning with chapter 49, however, the servant seems to be distinct from Israel, and God speaks of bringing salvation to Israel through his servant. The servant’s obedience is contrasted with Israel’s disobedience. In chapter 50 and this morning’s reading, chapter 53, the prophet describes how the servant’s suffering brings salvation to the people of Israel. In this morning’s reading, we hear the well known description of the servant: “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows, yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed . . . he was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth .” (Is. 53:4-5,7).

Again, on a straightforward reading, the two Old Testament passages seem diametrically opposed to one another. The Psalm says that if we make the Lord our refuge, no evil will happen to us. The Psalmist is clear that if we call upon God, we can expect long life. On the other hand, Isaiah not only says that the Servant suffered, but actually goes so far as to say: “It was the will of the Lord to bruise him; he has put him to grief, when he makes himself an offering for sin . . .” (Is. 53:10). Far from having long life, the servant is put to an ignominious death: “And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death . . .” (Is. 53:9).

The Isaiah passage points to a problem with the moralistic solution. Insofar as the moralistic solution encourages us to trust in God and God’s providence, that is all fine and well. At the same time, the moralistic solution is problematic for the obvious reason that its central premise – that good things happen to good people – does not always hold true. (more…)

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