In 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. The Book of Job is the Old Testament’s answer to the moralistic reading. On the principles of the moralistic solution, Job should not have suffered unless he had failed to trust God, and Job’s friends, who all subscribed to the moralistic solution – and, of course, who were not themselves suffering – reminded Job of that. In a manner similar to Job, the Servant trusts God, and yet is not spared from suffering. Rather, it is precisely the suffering of the Servant that brings salvation to the nation of sinful Israel. The nations sins, but the Servant suffers.
How did New Testament writers read these passages? When we turn to the gospels, we find that both of these passages are applied to Jesus, but in different ways by different persons. The Psalm is indeed applied to Jesus, but by Satan, who tempts Jesus to throw himself down from the temple to prove that he is the Son of God, and then quotes our Psalm: “He will command his angels concerning you, On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.” To which Jesus simply replies, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” (Matt. 4:5-7, quoting Ps. 91:11-12).
Of course, it is well known that both the New Testament writers and Jesus himself understood the Suffering Servant passages in Isaiah to refer to Jesus. In the parts of Mark’s gospel that we have been reading in the lectionary for the past few weeks, this theme of Jesus’ suffering has been a dominant theme. Three times in Mark’s gospel, Jesus predicts his suffering and death, and in the paragraph just prior to the reading this morning, Jesus says: “We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death . . .” (Mark 8:31-12, 9:31-32; 10:32-34). The gospel of Mark clearly tells the story of Jesus in a way that identifies Jesus with the Suffering Servant of Isaiah.
So it might seem that the New Testament writers embrace the second notion of suffering found in Isaiah, and they reject the moralistic solution of the Psalm. Jesus is identified with the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, and the only person in the gospels to quote from this morning’s Psalm is Satan, who uses it to try to tempt Jesus to sin.
I would suggest, however, that it is not quite so straightforward as that. The writers of the New Testament understand Jesus to be the fulfillment of the Old Testament, and because of this they read Old Testament texts in light of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. As they read the Old Testament in the light of Jesus, they employ what I call the principle of christological subversion. As Jesus himself pointed out, the good news of the gospel does not fit into our already pre-conceived categories; the gospel is like new wine that must be put in new wine skins. Jesus challenges all of our already formulated notions of what should be the case. He thus both fulfills and challenges straightforward readings of Old Testament texts. This morning’s readings from Hebrews and Mark’s gospel illustrate this point.
Let us turn first to the epistle to the Hebrews. The author of Hebrews was writing to a church that was suffering persecution, and who were tempted to abandon their Christian faith. Throughout the epistle, the writer reminds his audience that Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s Old Testament promises. He portrays Jesus as the fulfillment of the Old Testament sacrificial system. Like the lambs who were sacrificed in the Old Testament temple, Jesus is the sacrifice for our sins. When we think of Jesus as the sacrifice, we cannot help but think of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah who, “like a sheep, was led to the slaughter.”
But Hebrews also portrays Jesus as the Great High Priest; Jesus is not only the lamb who was sacrificed; he rose from the dead, and he is now the Great High Priest who is in his Father’s presence in heaven, where he continues to intercede with God on our behalf. Thus today’s text reads: “Since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession.” (Heb. 4:14). In the writer’s language about Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, and Jesus’ intercession on our behalf before his Father in heaven, Hebrews echoes language in this morning’s Psalm and other places in the Old Testament which speak of God’s protection of and vindication of those who suffer, passages that affirm that God hears the prayer of those who trust in him and delivers them from sufferings. As this morning’s Psalm reads: “He shall call upon me, and I will answer him; I am with him in trouble; I will rescue him and bring him to honor. With long life will I satisfy him and show him my salvation.” (Ps. 92:15-16).
In Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, God did indeed rescue him from suffering, and satisfy him with long life. In Jesus’ continuing intercession for us, God the Father does indeed hear Jesus’ prayer. In addition, the writer to the Hebrews invites his readers to make Christ their own refuge in the same way that the writer of the Psalm invited his readers to make the Lord their refuge and habitation. Because Jesus as the incarnate Son of God become human has suffered as we suffer, he knows what we have gone through from the inside: “For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Heb. 4:15-16).
So the New Testament does not simply reject the moralistic solution as it is found in this morning’s Psalm, but rather transforms it in the light of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The New Testament does not promise us that we will never suffer, but it does point to the solution of our suffering in Jesus Christ. Jesus has already suffered on our behalf, and he has now been delivered and vindicated, and Christians can appeal to him and trust him to be present to us in our own sufferings, and to understand our temptations. And because he has conquered death, we do not need to fear death.
In the gospel reading this morning, we find another example of the problem of suffering; this time there is a re-interpreted reading of what it means to be the Suffering Servant. At the beginning of the passage, the apostles James and John provide an example of people who were confident in the moralistic solution – at least as it applied to themselves. In a way that shows their obliviousness to the three predictions of Jesus’ own suffering and death that appear in Mark’s gospel just before this passage, the two brothers are confident advocates of the “good things happen to good people” hypothesis. They approach Jesus and ask of him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in glory.” (Mark 10:37). Needless to say, the other apostles are less than happy about this. The text says that they were “indignant.” (v. 41). And, of course, that’s another weakness of the moralistic solution. If Jesus has only one left and one right hand, only two of his followers can get the best seats. Jesus responds by appealing to his own self-identity as the Suffering Servant: “the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45). But Jesus’ identity as the Suffering Servant has implications, not only for himself, but also for his followers. Jesus’ followers are expected to live as disciples of one who has chosen the path of serving and suffering, not the path of recognition and honor and authority over others that were held up as signs of success in the ancient world, and still are today: “You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant. And whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.” (Mark 10:42-43). As Jesus was a servant, so we also are called to be servants of one another. If you think about it, the call to be servants to others is a fairly unusual response to the problem of suffering. It is not the first response that might come to our minds.
These epistle and gospel readings of Old Testament texts are directly relevant to our own contemporary situation, because, despite almost 2,000 years passage of time, nothing much has changed. The moralistic solution is the standard answer that perhaps most people still give to the problem of suffering. This is evident even in cases of radical disagreement, as for instance, in disagreements about the relationship between suffering and personal responsibility. One side preaches personal responsibility and hard work. People get what they deserve: “Work hard, put your nose to the grind stone and your shoulder to the wheel, and you’ll reap the reward.” The other side disagrees with this, but only part-way: “It’s not true that if you work harder and invest more time that you’ll inevitably reap the benefits – because the deck is stacked. Some people have more because they start with more, and the rest don’t get a fair shake. However, if we give some additional help to those at the bottom, and insist that those at the top share more of what they have, then we’ll have a more level playing field.” At bottom, however, both sides agree. Your lot in life is directly proportional to good or bad human behavior. If you do good, you’re going to prosper. If you’re not prospering, it’s either because you’re not doing good, or because someone else is not doing good, and so you don’t have a fair chance. There is perhaps a third view – sometimes called post-modernism – that seems to think that the whole thing is hopeless. Life is absurd; there is no correlation whatsoever between behavior and reward, suffering and punishment, and so you might as well just buy yourself a new iPhone. There is one primary way in which all three versions of the modern moralistic solution differs from the traditional one, and that is that they do not need God to reward and punish. Good and bad behavior are just supposed to be rewarded and punished by the universe itself. What all three sides also hold in common is that they commonly agree that suffering is always a bad thing, and is to be avoided at all costs.
The gospel’s solution to the problem of suffering is radically at odds with all of the modern versions of the moralistic solution because it says that the solution to suffering lies not in a moralistic principle of one-to-one reward and punishment, but in a person. The theme song of a television show of a decade ago called Joan of Arcadia had the line “What if God were one of us, just a slob like one of us?” The gospel says that God is indeed one of us. In the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, God the Son of God became a human being, and was crucified for us: as the Suffering Servant, he bore our griefs and carried our sorrows; he was stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. As the author of the letter to the Hebrews wrote, we can approach his throne of grace with confidence because he is able to sympathize with our weaknesses.
At the same time, the gospel also provides a genuine ethical alternative to the self-obsession of the modern secular version of the moralistic solution. If there does seem to be one characteristic of the current version of the moralistic solution, it seems to be that it is self-absorbed and ungracious. If you are not convinced of that, listen to some talk radio, or spend some time reading the comments sections of internet blogs or social media. The gospel’s alternative to all this lies in servanthood. As Jesus was a servant who gave his life as our ransom, so we are called to be servants of one another. Because Jesus loved us to the point of giving his life for us, because he was wounded for our transgressions, because he forgive us when we were sinners, we can exercise the same kind of grace to others that he shared with us. We do not need to push ourselves forward in order that we might become what our culture calls “winners.” Like Jesus Christ the Suffering Servant, we can be content to be what our culture thinks of as losers, but what Jesus called “servants.”
In a radically misunderstood and misrepresented statement, Pope Francis recently said, “The cross shows us a different way of measuring success. We need to remember that we are followers of Jesus . . . and his life, humanly speaking, ended in failure, in the failure of the cross.” And the pope was right; by the standards of the moralistic solution – good things happen to good people – Jesus was a failure. No one would call dying by crucifixion a “good” thing. Certainly no one would call it a “success.” But the cross’s way of measuring success is not that of what the world calls success. It is the path of the Servant who gave himself for us, who bore our griefs, and carries our sorrows, and calls us to be servants to others as he was a servant to us.