For those who want a change from the Gospel
Good Friday – Isaiah 52.13 – 53.12
‘Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?’ asks the Ethiopian official in Ax 8. This question has provided hours of fun for theological students down the ages, but of course we all know that this was a prophecy about Jesus’ passion which was to happen 500 years or so in the future. Or was it? Of course it is easy to see how the NT writers could see Jesus as having fulfilled this and other OT passages (such as Psalm 22, the Psalm set for today), but to read this merely as a fulfilled prophecy is to break the golden rule of hermeneutics (interpretation): ‘a passage means what the original author meant the original hearers to understand by it’. That’s why context is so important. So we need to forget Golgotha for now, and ask about historical and literary context.
The passage is part of the writings of ‘Deutero-Isaiah’, an unknown prophet who ministered in Babylon towards the close of the exile, and whose works were attached to the book of Isaiah of Jerusalem written around 200 years earlier. Chapters 40-55 of our book of Isaiah are essentially an extended commentary on its first couple of verses:
Comfort, comfort my people,
says your God.
2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.
The exile is coming to an end, and the people will soon be on their way home.
Part of this writing is four ‘Servant songs’ of which our lectionary passage is the final. Like the Ethiopian eunuch, scholars have debated long and hard who it is that these songs refer to, but the general consensus is that the nation as a whole is God’s servant. They have been battered, disfigured beyond all recognition, they have been the recipients of violence and cruelty, but through all this suffering salvation is coming. The nations will discover through Israel the way to salvation, and will come to her to find wisdom and life. And – and here is the most profound message of this passage – this wounding and suffering didn’t happen by accident, or simply because of the cruelty of others. It was all within God’s plan. Through suffering salvation comes.
Of course it is easy to see how Jesus fits the bill perfectly, and there are some uncanny similarities between the sufferings of exiled Israel and their archetypical manifestation in Jesus the Jewish Messiah. Of course the NT writer could not help but write up Jesus’ passion using the language of Isaiah 52-53. But what a contextual reading of the passage tells us is that the ‘salvation through suffering’ motif belongs not just to Jesus but also to his followers. On this day the Church traditionally prayed for all ‘Jews, Turks, Infidels and Hereticks’, a somewhat politically incorrect reminder that down the ages God’s people have suffered persecution at the hands of others (Common Worship prays more sensitively for ‘God’s ancient people’ and for greater understanding). But the fact is that today Christians around the world are in exile of various kinds, are treated cruelly and even martyred for their commitment to Jesus. Jesus’ followers are indeed called to take up our crosses and follow him. We can’t, of course, win our own salvation through suffering, but we do walk the path of the cross because of the salvation won by our pioneer.
My personal favourite collect was the one we used a few weeks ago on Lent 3, but it is as relevant today as then:
whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain,
and entered not into glory before he was crucified:
mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross,
may find it none other than the way of life and peace;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
Common Worship: Services and Prayers for the Church of England, material from which is quoted here, is copyright © The Archbishop’s Council, 2000