More than Worth the Cost
Twenty-ninth Sunday of the Year. Fr Bruno Clifton considers the prophecy of the suffering servant.
For generations the liturgy has presented the suffering servant of Isaiah as a prophecy of Christ. We find this today in our mass where the first reading from Isaiah is proclaimed in preparation for the Gospel of Mark and Jesus’s third prediction of his suffering. Such an interpretation of Isaiah appears to be as old as the first preaching of the good news (cf. Acts 8:30-35); and we can imagine that part of Christ’s risen explanation of himself on the road to Emmaus included reference to Isaiah’s servant (cf. Luke 24:25-27).
It is my conjecture, however, that this is not what Isaiah thought. Note that by this I do not mean that Isaiah rejected the Christological resonance, simply that he could never think of it. Not only was God’s entry into the world many centuries hence, but also such a revelation is the culmination in the fullness of time (Gal 4:4; Eph 1:10) of a process by which God was revealing his intentions to his people . Isaiah was certainly a part of this process, but not privy to its fulfilment. Note also that I do not deny a prophetic connection between Isaiah’s words and Jesus. Under God’s providence, unfolding of his prophetic teaching sounds the oracle so that its echo is heard in due time in the revelation that is Christ.
If this explanation is entertained, then this means that Isaiah refers to something else by his prophecy: some other events, some other person who is bruised by the Lord. But because God in his providence was leading us, through the prophetic oracle, to the fulness of truth, this initial meaning and referent must contribute to deepening our understanding of Christ’s suffering and death, the seed of which was sown many centuries earlier.
What, then, might Isaiah be talking about? Unfortunately, there are almost as many ideas as there are people who have thought about it. A reasonable supposition, though, is that Isaiah 53 refers to the time when the Persian King allowed the return of the Israelites to their land to rebuild the Temple. In this context, struggles over this momentous change to life in the Promised land lie behind the suffering that ‘makes many righteous’. And this is understandable. Almost hundred years had passed since the deportation to Babylon and not everyone had left the land. Life had continued—without priests and scribes, without a Temple, without Jerusalem even having walls.
‘Is it a time for you yourselves to live in your panelled houses, while this house lies in ruins?’ (Haggai 1:4)
The immigration of a new generation with grandiose ideas and a sense of superiority because of their exile, would hardly have been received well. We can read about this struggle in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah and the prophets Zechariah and Haggai. But Isaiah too, seems to reflect on what this ideological clash means.
‘The Lord desired to crush him with pain; if he sets his life as a sin offering, he will see descendants, he will lengthen days, and the Lord’s desire will prosper in his hand.’ (Isa 53:10)
This contrast between adversity and reward shows the faith Isaiah has that rebuilding the Temple is the right thing to do and is worth the cost. Isaiah’s point seems to be that we trust in God’s providence; that the condemnation of the innocent should be seen as serving the goal of holiness (cf. Sir 36:4); that the glory of the Temple, the place God lives with his people, is only raised through travail.
‘Destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it up’ (John 2:19).
We begin to see how the providence of God deepens our understanding of the Gospel. James and John ask Jesus for glory on the way to Jerusalem – the place of the Temple and the place of suffering. They don’t see that the cup Jesus will drink is the glory, that the baptism is the reward; that Jesus has come to rebuild the Temple, no longer the building in Jerusalem, but the person of Christ, whereby God dwells among us, ‘full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14). This is how service becomes greatness; how suffering becomes salvation – trust in the providence of God.
‘From his life’s trouble he sees; he is filled with knowledge. My righteous servant will make many righteous and he will bear their iniquities’ (Isa 53:11).