NEXT SUNDAY’S FIRST READING: ISAIAH 50: 4-7
PASSION [PALM] SUNDAY [B]
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The Lord GOD has given me
a well-trained tongue,
that I might know how to speak to the weary
a word that will rouse them.
Morning after morning
he opens my ear that I may hear;
and I have not rebelled,
have not turned back.
I gave my back to those who beat me,
my cheeks to those who plucked my beard;
my face I did not shield
from buffets and spitting.
The Lord GOD is my help,
therefore I am not disgraced;
I have set my face like flint,
knowing that I shall not be put to shame.
The Book of the Prophet Isaiah is three separate collections by three different authors. The text is divided into a pre-Exile section [Chapters 1-39], a Babylonian Captivity segment [40-55], and a post-Exile segment after the return of the Israelites to Jerusalem after 539 B.C. In terms of style and content scholars are comfortable with the tripartite division of the volume named Isaiah.
For those of you who participate in the Holy Week liturgies, the second Isaiah (referred to in commentaries as “Deutero-Isaiah,” i.e., “Second Isaiah”) is quite familiar for its majestic poetry regarding the “Suffering Servant.” Deutero-Isaiah introduces the idea that one suffering soul has taken upon himself the sins of all in a universal act of redemptive suffering. Sunday’s reading introduces the theme, but its fullest and most dramatic proclamation will come during the Good Friday Liturgy [Isaiah 52:13—53:12.] Our commentator Father Boadt [see home page], speaking of chapters 52 and 53, comments that “It is a remarkable passage because it suggests more clearly than anywhere else in the Old Testament that God accepts one individual’s suffering to atone for the sins of others.” (p. 377) Israel was familiar with rituals of atonement involving the suffering and death of a goat, the “scape goat” ritual of Leviticus 16, but the concept of a human being atoning for general sin through an individual death was another thing entirely.
Did Isaiah understand his prophesy as directed to Jesus of Nazareth specifically? I have never come across a commentator who answered this question affirmatively in the literal sense. Isaiah’s breakthrough is more along the lines of the concept of redemptive suffering. Again, Father Boadt reminds us that Isaiah’s prophesy here is unique to the Hebrew Scripture and is not a major feature of later Old Testament books which extend as late as perhaps 150 B.C. If Isaiah’s prophesy was targeted and specific, as we sometimes make it out to be, it would have altered Messianic expectations. The Gospels are clear that this was not the case. The idea of a dying, executed savior was not understood by the Jews of Jesus’ time, and not even by the first Christians in the post-Easter era.
It is worth noting that Luke 24’s description of the meeting of Jesus and two disciples on the road to Emmaus involves two men who had not made any connection between Isaiah and Jesus. Luke reports Jesus to have spent the entire afternoon explaining every instance in the Scripture [the Old Testament] where the necessity of the suffering and death of the Messiah is depicted as part of God’s plan. Whatever Isaiah originally intended, the Christian Church eventually made the connection between Isaiah’s Suffering Servant and the redemptive death of Christ.
The text from Sunday’s first reading combines the personality of a Spirit-filled prophet with a courageous stance of a man who knows that his message will draw persecution and eventually abandonment. “The Lord is my help; therefore, I am not disgraced.” It is interesting that next Sunday’s Passion account from St. Mark includes a description of Jesus’ final moments on the cross in which he cries “My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?” This prayer resonates with the circumstances of Isaiah’s prophesy, when the exiles had been denied homecoming for several decades and perhaps had given up hope that they would ever see the holy city Jerusalem again. Mark, like Luke, writes to connect the vision of Isaiah with the intent of Christ, whose own preaching speaks repeatedly of a glorious and lasting homecoming in the Kingdom of God.