In the third Suffering Servant song or poem, the voice is still that of the servant. Today the servant talks about the suffering that he has endured. Despite his suffering he says: “The Lord GOD is my help, therefore I am not disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame.” (Isaiah 50:7)
To better understand this statement, it is important that we recall that this society is driven by the need to avoid shame and preserve one’s honor. Today we call it “saving face.” Westerners have a hard time understanding this kind of concern because by and large we don’t really care what others think of us. We tend to be “rugged individuals” rather than members of a group or commune. If others don’t like the way we live our lives, they are told to “take a hike.” However, for the people of the Middle East, honor was everything and shame was the worst thing that could happen. They did not think of themselves as individuals so much as members of a group, a tribe, a family, a community. If the person had been dishonored in some way, the group would shun him. If he had brought shame upon himself, he would be excluded. So saving one’s honor was the driving force behind all human behavior.
Now pay attention to what the servant has been asked to suffer: “I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who tore out my beard; my face I did not hide from insults and spitting.” (Isaiah 50:6)
Every society has gestures that are used to insult people. In the United States, we might “flip them the bird” or make a circle with our index finger while pointing at our head. In the Middle East, plucking the hairs of someone’s beard or spitting would be considered an insulting gesture. Of course, we also see in these gestures a proleptic view of what will happen to Jesus at the hands of his persecutors. Nonetheless, we are talking about gestures which rob a person of honor and make him an object of shame. So when the Suffering Servant claims that God will not allow him to be put to shame, he is asserting that true honor comes from God and not from other human beings.
Of course, that is exactly what the Church teaches today. We are not “valuable” because of what we do or because of what we accomplish. We are valuable precisely because of who we are, children of a God who loves us and cherishes us from the moment of our conception for all eternity. In this respect, we Westerners are similar to the people of the Middle East. So many of us find our worth invested in what we do. Almost the first question we are asked upon meeting someone new is, “What do you do?” So while we may not be driven by the quest to preserve our honor, we are often driven by the need to be successful in our work, to be seen as someone who has accomplished something important. In that respect we can learn something valuable from the third Suffering Servant Song – we are valuable because we are God’s.
The last of the Suffering Servant songs will be used in our Good Friday service. Tomorrow we enter into the Sacred Triduum. As our Lenten journey comes to an end, I pray that you will all have a very holy and blessed celebration of the Lord’s passion, death and resurrection.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator