The third of the Suffering Servant Songs (a repeat from the first reading this past Sunday) is best understood when we remember that the culture of the Middle East is driven by the concepts of shame and honor. The quest for preserving one's honor and for avoiding shame is far more important in the minds of the people of this region than the quest for truth. Those of us who live in the Western World find this almost impossible to believe as we are so relentless in exposing lies and hypocrisy.
The servant (Israel) describes the shameful behavior that he is forced to endure. I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting. (Isaiah 50:6) To endure this kind of treatment would be the height of shame for someone of this culture. However, because he realizes that true honor is bestowed by God, the servant is able to reconcile himself to the dishonor heaped upon him by his persecutors: 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. See, the Lord GOD is my help; who will declare me guilty? See, they will all wear out like a garment, consumed by moths. (Isaiah 50:7,9)
While these verses help us to understand the passion and death narratives of the Gospel, they also inform the conduct of our own lives. While shame and honor might not be the driving forces of our culture, the concepts that do drive our society are also secondary to the blessings of God's love in our lives. For instance, our culture esteems usefulness, the ability to perform, the ability to get the job done. However, for those who suffer from chronic illnesses and/or disabilities, we can turn to these verses to remember that God is our help, God is our source of dignity. As long as we have God's good graces, we need not human regard or esteem.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator