by Father Mike Stubbs
Once in a while, a fundraiser auction will offer an item which attracts a great deal of interest.
It is a surprise box. It may contain a check for $1,000, or one for $10. It may contain a diamond ring, or a second-hand blouse. No one knows. That is part of the attraction. It’s a mystery. (It is not permitted to rattle the box.)
In a sense, Sunday’s first reading, Is 53:10-11, is a similar mystery box. It holds many surprises for us, all revolving around the figure usually referred to as the “Suffering Servant.”
The first line of the reading informs us that “the Lord was pleased to crush him in infirmity.” This may surprise us. Why would God take pleasure in seeing a person who was serving God suffer so greatly? Is God a sadist? Where is God’s compassion?
The answer lies in understanding God’s pleasure as not in the servant’s suffering, but in the servant’s steadfast faithfulness in carrying out his mission, despite the sufferings involved. Obedience to God is what crushes the servant. That obedience pleases God.
Another surprise comes when the reading goes on to tell us that the servant “shall see his descendants in a long life . . . he shall see the light in fullness of days.” The prediction of a long life for the servant appears to contradict the verses preceding the reading which tell us about the servant’s death: “When he was cut off from the land of the living, and smitten for the sin of his people, a grave was assigned him among the wicked” (Is 53: 8-9a).
This contradiction is more difficult to resolve. Who could suffer a painful death, only afterwards to enjoy a long life? As Christians, though, we believe that Jesus Christ fills the bill. He died on the cross, only to rise from the dead a few days later on Easter Sunday. His resurrection explains the apparent contradiction that we see in Isaiah.
Jesus Christ also fills the bill as far as the first surprise is concerned. Through his suffering and death on the cross, Jesus fulfilled God’s plan. Jesus’ faithful obedience to God pleased God immensely. In that way, we can say that the Lord was pleased to crush him in infirmity.
This is why we Christians identify Jesus as the Suffering Servant in Isaiah. And in making that discovery, it is as though we have opened the surprise box and found a wonderful treasure within — one that surpasses all our hopes and dreams
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