For those churches that follow the lectionary, the lessons for this Sunday, the Twenty First after Pentecost, come from Isaiah 53:4-12; Hebrews 5:1-10; and Mark 10:35-45. All of them are about service, or even a servant.
The First Reading comes from one of the four Servant Songs, also known as Servant Poems, or Songs of the Suffering Servant found in Second Isaiah (Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-11; 52:13- 53:12). Since these compositions were first identified by Bernhard Duhm in his commentary on Isaiah in 1892 there has been a lot of discussion as to the identity of the Servant.
In Jewish scholarship, the consensus is that the Jewish people collectively are the Suffering Servant.
In a previous post entitled “Sometimes transformation and legacy can only be understood in retrospect”, we wrestled with the question of the sufferings of the Jews – the holocaust, for example – and wondered how it all ties up with the workings of the Divine. The servant’s picture in this Sunday’s reading – and indeed in all the Servant Songs – is not one of glory and exaltation, but pain and degradation. It is a portrait of humility and, yes, suffering.
It is no wonder that, for Christians, Second Isaiah – the whole of Isaiah, in general – is the most popular, even the favorite book of the Hebrew Bible. For, in retrospect, Christians identify the Suffering Servant with Jesus.
The broader message though, is that Jesus’ servant-hood, or service, is unique. It is different from what we normally associate with service. Looking at our society today, service and suffering seem to be incompatible. On the contrary, gain and benefits supercede sacrifice.
In the Gospel Reading, the disciples – notably the Zebedee brothers James and John – portray the popular view of service as power or authority rather than sacrifice and giving of oneself on behalf of others. Indeed, the Epistle Reading uses the priestly duties of the high priest as an example of service rendered on behalf of others.
Thus, Jesus is portrayed as both the Suffering Servant and the High Priest. For his followers, he is the example to be emulated. It is interesting to note that some see Isaiah 61:1-3 as the Fifth Servant Song even though neither the word “servant” nor “suffering” appear in those verses. But, as Jesus himself declared in the synagogue in Nazareth, Isaiah 61 summarizes his ministry: healing the sick, restoring sight to the blind, feeding the hungry, setting prisoners free – that is the service that now, his followers must do, and do so following his example.