On Good Friday, the fourth and last of the Suffering Servant Songs is used as the first reading for the celebration of the Lord’s Passion. The first of those songs is written using God’s voice while the second and third use the voice of the servant. The fourth oracle uses the voice of God in the opening and closing verses, but in the middle verses we hear an anonymous voice in the third person. As sometimes happens in the Scriptures, this is something of an “empty set” which allows the reader to insert his or her own voice.
The voice of God at both the beginning and the end identifies the one who is suffering as “my servant.” God also speaks of the fact that although the servant will be considered “shamed” by the punishment that is visited upon him, in God’s own eyes he will be looked upon as the ideal son. In order to grasp this completely, we need to remember that there was a specific protocol for raising sons in the Middle East. From the time he is born until he reaches sexual maturity, a male child is given broad license in the family context. He spends his time with the women and children of the family, easily moving into the company of the male members of the household as he pleases but always returning to the female part of the household to eat and to sleep. He is pampered and given whatever he wants.
However, when a boy reaches puberty, he is excluded from the female part of the family compound and handed over to his father to be educated in the ways of manhood. The discipline a father uses to teach his son how to be a man in this culture is harsh and strict. The boy goes from a situation in which he “ruled the roost” to one in which he is the “low man on the totem pole.” No matter what the father asks of his son and no matter what the father does to his son, the boy is expected to respond with silence. This is clearly illustrated in the story of Abraham and Isaac where in a young man in the prime of his life allows his 100 year old father to bind him and place him upon an altar as a sacrifice.
To people of our Western culture, Jesus’ behavior during the passion is somewhat puzzling. We know he is more powerful than those who accuse him and stronger than the soldiers who taunt and ridicule him. Yet as he stands before the Sanhedrin and Pilate, as he is scourged and abused by the Roman soldiers, and as he is forced to carry his cross to the place of his execution, Jesus is for the most part silent, “like a lamb led to the slaughter or a sheep before the shearers.” (Isaiah 53:7b) People of his own culture would recognize in Jesus’ behavior the behavior of an obedient son who does as his father asks.
Of course, the motive for this behavior is also that of love for those who will benefit from his redemptive suffering and death. “Yet it was our infirmities that he bore, our sufferings that he endured, while we thought of him as stricken, as one smitten by God and afflicted. But he was pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins; upon him was the chastisement that makes us whole, by his stripes we were healed.” (Isaiah 53:4-5)
Those of us who bear the cross of chronic infirmity or disability can learn a valuable lesson from the fourth Suffering Servant Song. The temptation to complain about our pain or frustration is strong. If, however, we are serious in our desire to apply our sacrifice to the needs of the Church and the world around us, we will learn the lesson of Jesus’ silence. In that silence lies the mark of true obedience and resignation. In that silence lies the true mark of honor which Jesus receives from a Father who is well pleased by His Son.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator