For those who want a change from the Gospel
Good Friday – Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12
Two for the price of one this week, as this post will concentrate on the Good Friday OT, and a second on Easter Sunday.
On this day of all days, as we gaze upon Christ on the cross, we can see in this ‘Servant Song’ from Deutero-Isaiah a picture of Jesus, the servant on whom God has laid the iniquity of us all. That is certainly how many of the NT writers read the passage, and when the Ethiopian eunuch was puzzled by it, Philip used the text to explain the good news of Jesus. Of course by now you are all sick of me telling you that the OT isn’t primarily about Jesus, but rather that people, having met and understood Jesus, could not help but see foreshadowings of him in the Jewish Scriptures, even if he was not their primary or original meaning. There are suggestions that the Servant of Isaiah was not an individual but the despised and rejected nation of Israel, as a whole, a nation which had suffered through exile and slavery but whom God would soon rescue and use to bring good news to the nations of the world. This is certainly how many Jewish commentators have understood the passages.
But I recently read a commentator who had an interesting twist on the Servant Songs, and this one in particular, which I believe can illuminate the place of Israel at the time, and which can also help us to reflect on the marginalisation of the Church in our day. His work began by looking for differences, rather than similarities between Christ and the Servant. Did the Servant, for example, actually die? While there is some language about death, slaughtered lambs and so on, the text doesn’t actually mention the death of the Servant. There is also the material on the Servant’s disfigured appearance. People were appalled to see the state of him, and we usually read this as the state of Jesus’ face after the Roman soldiers had beaten him up. But the Hebrew words are used elsewhere not of violent physical injury, but rather of disfiguring illness. We know the fear which people in biblical times had of anything which looked like leprosy, believing it to be highly contagious. Not only was it unpleasant to look at: it was positively dangerous to get too close. So the reaction would be to despise and reject such a sufferer, and to hide one’s face from him. Not only did he have to live with physical suffering: he also had the social stigma of his disability. Perhaps the eunuch really related to this. And if that was so, the whole idea of him being a sacrificial victim to take away sin was completely ruled out, as sacrifices had to be without blemish. So it could be that too close an identification of Jesus with the Suffering Servant simply won’t work.
So let’s return to the corporate identification of the Servant with Israel as a people, with a calling to bring forgiveness and reconciliation between God and the nations. Clearly not every individual was disabled or disfigured, but might Isaiah have been suggesting that the rejection of Israel, and her forced incarceration in Babylonian exile, was similar to the social stigma and isolation which someone with a disfiguring disease would have experienced within Israel? The less politically correct might still today describe as ‘a leper’ someone who was for whatever reason socially outcast and unattractive. It is certainly true that throughout history Jewish people have been ostracised and hated, as both Shakespeare and Hitler would know. Nevertheless Israel as a nation were God’s people, and had a calling to look outwards in mission to gather all peoples to the worship of the one true God.
I’m not saying this is the only, or even the correct, interpretation of these texts, but I find it illuminating as I reflect on the place of the Church in 21st century Western society. People both hate us and reject us; our reputation is at rock bottom, and, like Israel, we thoroughly deserve much of it, for our irrelevance, our corruption and our compromise with the spirit of the age. It is interesting to read Is 53 as not about Jesus but about us, partly because like a mirror the text shows us to ourselves as we really are, but also because it reassures us that we are still God’s people, that our mission and his love for us remains intact, and that nothing which has happened is outside the mysterious purposes of God. It can encourage us to believe that however despised God’s Church may be, we will eventually see the light of life and be satisfied.