[This article is part of the series The Politics of Scripture. While the focus of the series is on weekly preaching texts, we welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and profane literature, film, and artistic expression. We also welcome sermons. Submissions may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org]l
The Old Testament lection for this week from Isaiah 50 is one of the “Suffering Servant Songs,” (SSS) which, though there is nothing explicitly messianic in many of them, early Christianity nonetheless read as prophecies of Jesus. As George E. Nicklesburg demonstrated in a path-breaking article more than three decades ago in the Harvard Theological Review, the Suffering Servant was an important literary motif to which Israel returned repeatedly in an effort to make sense of its status as subordinate state in the larger geopolitical world in which was situated. Characters such as Joseph, Esther, and Daniel represented models of proper behavior and deportment on the part of Jews living in an alien moral universe fraught with everything from the seductive suggestions of compromise to the existential threats of extermination by the foreign powers which dominated them for so many centuries, first as the suzerain of the Israelites and then later, after 587, as their conquerors. The SSS are thus the poetic and prophetic complement to the narrative accounts of the righteous sufferers.
In Isaiah 50, the righteous sufferer is cast as a teacher, who is possessed of two important, related characteristics. First, the teacher is one who is capable of listening to God, whom the teacher recognizes speaks to him (he has a beard in the story, so we know he is a “he”) each morning (v.4). Second, this aptitude is restated in the next verse as “not being rebellious” (v..5). The end-product of the process of making a teacher who speaks with boldness and authority thus begins with a pliancy and humility that remains even long past the teacher’s training phase right down to the present, as each morning, again and again, the teacher assumes the posture of a pupil and inclines his ear to what the LORD is saying.
The word that the teacher delivers from the LORD is a troublesome, difficult word, for its intended audience is “the weary” (v.4). These recipients are weary, not because they have insomnia, but because they are physically exhausted from laboring on the land, the benefit for which accrues, not to the laborers themselves, but to others. Thus the word that the teacher is offering is one of resistance and empowerment against the forces which would seek to keep the people in their weariness. We know this because of the reaction in the text that comes from those who benefit from the weariness of others and who therefore are willing to do whatever it takes to get the teacher to shut the hell up. His back is beaten and beard plucked, he receives for what has come out of his mouth, that which comes out of the mouths of his detractors, the insults and spittle of others who are none too pleased with what he has to say. (v.6).
Yet the teacher does not give up, nor will he shut up. He commands no armies, wields no weapons. All he has in his defense is his body to be given up for the sake of the weary and the LORD who will not leave him, nor let him be ashamed (vv. 7-9). The concern for the teacher’s physical protection appears to be of secondary importance to him. What matters is that the essential justness of what he has said be not impugned in any way. He does not seek to avoid that which he must suffer, nor does he expect the LORD to stop him from being hurt. But he trusts in the LORD that he will be proved right in the end, to show that, in standing with the weary, the teacher was speaking what was faithful both to the facts of the matter, but also to the God who had awakened him in the morning to tell him what he had to say that day.
This text suggests a very different model for pedagogy than is practiced in much of modern society, including the church. The easy path for the preacher this coming Sunday will be to pass this off as referring to Jesus, say that Jesus paid it all, and let’s all get home before the kickoff. But the text faithfully preached will present a much more stark confrontation. The text implies that the preacher who opens her ears to what God will say each morning is going to hear a word from the LORD A) that is going to be directed to the marginal and B) that the teacher who delivers it is really gonna piss some people off. If the preacher finds herself NOT preaching such a word or NOT getting any kind of push back, the obvious inference is that the preacher may not really be listening to what the LORD has said or that, having heard the word faithfully, the preacher flinches in the face of what it might cost her. Yet for the preacher who does hear what is said and who faithfully proclaims what she has heard, the text still stands as promise of vindication. The personal question for the pastor or anyone else who teaches thus has to be, “Will such divine vindication be enough for me, or does my safety and standing come before fidelity to my call?”
Or you might just wanna preach another text.
Timothy F. Simpson is Managing Editor of Political Theology and the Minister for Worship at the Lake Shore Presbyterian Church in Jacksonville, Florida, where he also teaches at the University of North Florida.