Saturday, October 17, 2009

1st Reading, 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time

From: Isaiah 53:10-11

Fourth Song of the Servant of the Lord (Continuation)

[10] Yet it was the will of the LORD to bruise him; he has put him to grief; when he makes himself an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand; [11] he shall see the fruit of the travail of his soul and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous; and be shall bear their iniquities.

52:13-53:12. This fourth Song of the Servant is one of the most commented on passages in the Bible, as regards both its literary structure and its content. From the point of view of structure, it interrupts the hymn-style of chapter 52 (which is taken up again in chapter 54); the style here is more reflective; the theme, the value of suffering. In terms of content, the song is unusual in that it shows the servant triumphing through his humiliation and suffering. Even more than that--he makes the pains and sins of others his own, in order to heal them and set them free. Prior to this, the idea of "vicarious expiation" was unknown in the Bible. The passage is original even in its vocabulary: it contains forty words that are not to be found elsewhere in the Bible.

The poem, which is very carefully composed, divides into three stanzas: the first (52:13-15) is put on the Lord's lips and it acts as a kind of overture to what follows--taking in the themes of the triumph of the servant (v. 13), his humiliation and suffering (v. 14), and the stunning effect that this has on his own people and on strangers.

The second stanza (53:1-11a) celebrates the servant's trials, and the good effects they produce. This is spoken in the first person plural, standing for the people and the prophet: both feel solidarity with the servant of the Lord. This stanza has four stages to it: first (53:1-3) it describes the servant's noble origins (he grew up before the Lord like a young plant: cf. v. 2) and the low esteem in which he is held as a "man of sorrows". Then we learn that all this suffering is atonement for the sins of others (53:4-6). Traditionally, suffering was interpreted as being a punishment for sins, but here it is borne on behalf of others. This is the first lesson to be learned by those who see him "stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted", and it marks the climax of the poem. Thirdly (53:7-9), the point is made, again that he has freely accepted suffering and meekly, offers himself as a sacrifice of atonement (he is like a lamb, like a sheep). His death is as ignominious as the suffering that precedes it. Finally (vv. 10-11a) we are told how fruitful all this suffering is: like the patriarchs of old (the text seems to imply) the servant will have many offspring and a long life and be a man of great wisdom.

In the, third stanza (53:11b-12) the Lord speaks again, finally acknowledging that his servant's sacrifice is truly efficacious: he will cause many to be accounted "righteous", that is, he will win their salvation (v. 11) and will share in the Lord's spoils (v. 12).

The fourth song of the servant of the Lord was from very early on interpreted as having a current application. When the Jews of Alexandria made the Greek translation of the Old Testment (the Septuagint) around the second century BC, they tinkered a little with the text to indicate that the servant in the poem stood for the people of Israel in the diaspora. Those Jews, who encountered huge obstacles in their effort to maintain their identity in that Hellenistic and polytheistic environment, found comfort in the hope that they would emerge enhanced, just like the servant.

Jews of Palestine identified the victorious servant with the Messiah, but they reinterpreted the sufferings described here to apply them to the pagan nations. The Dead Sea Scrolls interpret this song in the light of the ignominy experienced by the Teacher of Righteousness, the probable founder of the group that established itself at Qumran.

Jesus revealed his redemptive mission to be that of the suffering servant prophesied by Isaiah here. He referred to him on a number of occasions--in his reply to the request made by the sons of Zebedee ("the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many": Mt 20:28 and par.); at the Last Supper, when he announced his ignominious death among transgressors, quoting 53:12 (Lk 22:37); in some passages in the fourth Gospel (Jn 12:32, 37-38); etc. He also seems to refer to it in his conversation with the disciples of Emmaus (Lk 24:25ff) to explain his passion and death. Therefore, the first Christians interpreted Jesus' death and resurrection in terms of this poem; evidence of this is the expression "in accordance with the scriptures" in 1 Corinthians 15:3; the words "for our trespasses" (Rom 4:25; 1 Cor 15:3-5); the Christological hymn in the Letter to the Philippians (Phil 2:6-11); and expressions used in the First Letter of Peter (1 Pet 2:22-25) and in other New Testament passages (Mt 8:17; 27:29; Acts 8:26-40; Rom 10:16; etc.).

Patristic tradition reads the song as a prophecy that found fulfillment in Christ (cf. St Clement of Rome, "Ad Corinthios", 16:1-14; St Ignatius Martyr, "Epistula ad Polycarpum", 1, 3; the so-called "Letter of Barnabas", 5, 2 and "Epistula ad Diognetuin", 9, 2; etc.). The Church uses it in the Good Friday liturgy.

52:14. "Beyond human semblance": this phrase sums up the description given in 53:2-3 and shows the intense pain reflected in the servant's face: the description is so graphic that Christian ascetical writing, with good reason, reads it as anticipating the passion of our Lord: "The prophet, who has rightly been called 'the Fifth Evangelist', presents in this Song an image of the sufferings of the Servant with a realism as acute as if he were seeing them with his own eyes: the eyes of the body and of the spirit. [...] The Song of the Suffering Servant contains a description in which it is possible, in a certain sense, to identify the stages of Christ's Passion in their various details: the arrest, the humiliation, the blows, the spitting, the contempt for the prisoner, the unjust sentence, and then the scourging, the crowning with thorns and the mocking, the carrying of the Cross, the crucifixion and the agony" (John Paul II, "Salvifici Doloris", 17; cf. idem, "Dives in Misencordia", 7).

53:1. St Paul cites this verse to prove the need for preaching (Rom 10:16). The verse also underlines the extraordinary degree of undeserved suffering endured by the Servant. It is sometimes interpreted as a further sign of the humility of Christ, who, being divine, took on the form of a servant: "Christ is a man of humble thought and feeling, unlike those who attack his flock. The heart of God's majesty, the Lord Jesus Christ, did not come with loud cries of arrogance and pride; he came in humility, as the Holy Spirit said of him: 'Who has believed what we have heard?'" (St Clement of Rome, "Ad Corinthios", 16, 1-3).

53:4-5. "He has borne our griefs [or pains]": the servant's sufferings are not due to his own personal sins; they are atonement for the sins of others. "The sufferings of our Savior are our cure" (Theodoret of Cyrus, "De Incarnatione Domini", 28). He suffered on account of the sins of the entire people, even though he was not guilty of them. By bearing the penalty for those sins, he expiated the guilt involved. St Matthew, after recounting some miraculous cures and the casting out of devils, sees the words of v. 4a fulfilled in Christ (Mt 8:17). He interprets Jesus Christ as being the servant foretold by the prophet, who will cure the physical suffering of people as a sign that he is curing the root cause of all types of evil, that is, sin, iniquity (v. 5). The miracles worked by Jesus for the sick are therefore a sign of Redemption: "Christ's whole life is a mystery of "redemption". Redemption comes to us above all through the blood of his cross (cf. Eph 1:7; Col 1:13-14; 1 Pet 1: 18-19), but this mystery is at work throughout Christ's entire life" ("Catechism of the Catholic Church", 517).
Source: "The Navarre Bible: Text and Commentaries". Biblical text taken from the Revised Standard Version and New Vulgate. Commentaries made by members of the Faculty of Theology of the University of Navarre, Spain. Published by Four Courts Press, Kill Lane, Blackrock, Co. Dublin, Ireland. Reprinted with permission from Four Courts Press and Scepter Publishers, the U.S. publisher.

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