Read the text below, preferably aloud. As you hear the word, “listen with the ear of your heart” for a word or short phrase that God has for you this day.
He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him of no account.
Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
The ancient Jews carried with them a strong sense of their sins, how they themselves had turned away from God and endangered that most special of relationships. The stories they carried with them, their heritage, told them that while God had kept faith, they had turned away time and time again. In part because of this deep awareness of having turned from God, the role of animal sacrifices was extremely important. Because of God’s mercy, the blood shed when the animal was offered took the place of the debt owed by the sinner.
By the time of this writing from Isaiah, sacrifice had become an integral part of the Jewish world. It had been written down and filtered into precise formulas, and became a practice that was often abused. What had begun as a sinner humbly recognizing the enormity of a debt and the inability to pay it had become a license to feel okay about the sin and get back to more important worldly tasks.
The prophets, a group defined by their willingness to go against the grain, spoke out again this. In Isaiah 1:11,16-17 we find:
What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
says the Lord;
I have had enough of burnt-offerings of rams
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.
It was the meaning behind the sacrifice that really mattered, not the ritualistic practice itself. It is interesting that this is the context for the Suffering Servant passage. Scholars attest that there are actually multiple authors (i.e. First Isaiah, Second Isaiah) at play here, yet the message was nonetheless interwoven into this context of true sacrifice.
The “suffering servant” is the extreme atoning sacrifice. All sins are made up for because of the willingness of this servant to silently suffer extreme agony. Yet…that is not enough. The people must humbly recognize where they have gone wrong so that the sacrifice has value. Isaiah has to convince the people that like mindless sheep, we have all gone astray. The underlying change must take place; the people cannot hold him “of no account” any longer.
To modern Christians who identify Jesus as the suffering servant, this idea is familiar. Somehow Jesus’ death brings atonement (one of the few theological words derived from English: at-one-ment), restoring God and us together. But we have to accept it, realizing the truth of the situation and allowing ourselves to be changed.
Doing so requires that we take a good look at where we have gone wrong. How have we been unkind? From whom do we hide our faces? How has our society been unjust? In a sense, this is the Lenten journey.
© Suffering Servant, Donald Jackson, 2005. The Saint John’s Bible, Order of Saint Benedict, Collegeville, Minnesota. Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Catholic Edition, © 1993, 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.