Column: Does prophet speak for himself, Christ — or us?

Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.
Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.

by Father Mike Stubbs

When I hear confessions, I can sometimes easily identify the person, even ton the other side of the screen. At other times, the person, even on the other side of the screen. At other times, the person remains a mystery. I can perhaps guess the age and sex of the person, but nothing more.

We might wonder who is the person speaking in Sunday’s first reading — Is 50: 4-7. Since the reading comes to us from the Book of Isaiah, the prophet, we might suppose that it is Isaiah speaking.

On the other hand, most Scripture scholars believe that this section of the book dates from a later period, that it was composed by a disciple of Isaiah whose name was lost, but who is usually called “Deutero-Isaiah.” Frequently, bands of disciples formed around the prophets of the Bible. These disciples helped to collect the teachings of the prophet and to preserve them for posterity.

This unknown disciple of Isaiah is a prophet in his own right. Like Isaiah, he also has received a call to bring God’s word to the people. Deutero-Isaiah specifically reports that he has accepted that mission: “And I have not rebelled, have not turned back.”

Deutero-Isaiah is able to speak God’s word, only because he himself has first listened to it on a regular basis: “Morning after morning he opens my ear that I may hear.” God is the one who opens Deutero-Isaiah’s ears.

Because Deutero-Isaiah has been listening to God’s word, he then is in a position to relay it to others: “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.”

And what reward will Deutero-Isaiah receive for faithfully proclaiming God’s word? “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.” Evidently, the people are not receptive. They only offer insults and injury to the prophet.

This harsh response to the prophet is to be expected. In some cases,
a prophet was run out of town or physically harmed. The treatment that Deuteron-Isaiah describes is not at all unusual.

So, is Deuteron-Isaiah speaking from his own personal experience, or is he speaking in general terms for all prophets? It is not at all clear. In that case, we return to the original question: What person is speaking in Sunday’s first reading?

Christian tradition identifies that person as Jesus Christ. The description of the insults and beating closely matches the treatment he received during his passion and crucifixion. Jesus’ faithfulness to his mission, despite what he was enduring, resonates with the passage in Deutero-Isaiah. It all fits.

That holds true, whether or not the writer of Deutero-Isaiah believed that he was describing his own experience as a prophet or whether he was speaking on behalf of all prophets. If anything, the undefined identity of the prophet in Deutero-Isaiah helps to link Jesus Christ to the general experience of all prophets, and to the specific experience of Deutero-Isaiah.

Like the prophets before him, Jesus Christ had to endure suffering as he brought God’s word to others. Can we expect anything different?

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