by Father Mike Stubbs
With the atrocities being committed in the Middle East, and with the gun violence going on in the United States, it sometimes looks as though a cruel God is torturing the world.
Why does God allow such suffering? Does God take pleasure in our pain?
The opening words of Sunday’s first reading might reinforce that impression: “The Lord was pleased to crush him in infirmity” (Is 53:10). But the words that immediately follow place that statement in context: “If he gives his life as an offering for sin.”
God does not take delight in suffering as such. But the willingness to sacrifice one’s self for a worthy cause does please God. God appreciates the love and concern that lie behind such a decision.
The reading from Isaiah describes the sacrifice as “an offering for sin.” We should remember that in the time before Christ, sacrifices could be offered in the Temple of Jerusalem in atonement for sin. Sacrifices were offered for other reasons as well: as part of the daily worship at the Temple or as thanksgiving to God for favors rendered. Ordinarily, the sacrifice involved the killing of a sheep or some other animal. However, human sacrifice was not practiced in the Temple of Jerusalem.
In contrast to the usual practice, the reading from Isaiah describes the willingness of this unnamed person to give up his life as “an offering for sin.” It is extending the notion of sacrifice to outside the Temple. It is describing this generous act as an act of worship.
What makes it generous is that the person offering himself in sacrifice is not doing so for his own sins but, rather, for the sins of others. As God declares in the reading: “Through his suffering, my servant shall justify many, and their guilt he shall bear.”
It is one thing to suffer for one’s own sins. It is quite another to willingly suffer because of the sins of another. That takes considerable generosity and compassion. That is what pleases God.
That is why, centuries later, the followers of Jesus identified him as the unnamed person in this reading from Isaiah. After all, although Jesus was clearly innocent, he willingly gave up his life on the cross.
The passage from Isaiah helped them to interpret Jesus’ gift of his life as a sacrifice offered to God. And, since Jesus was sinless, the sacrifice had to be on behalf of other sinners — namely, us.