It is easy for us to take justice for granted in our society with courts, appellate courts, judges, lawyers, prisons, laws, and constitutions. We rarely personally feel the sting of injustice. I like to look back on an earlier time, the Old West, when, at least in all of the fictional presentations, a strong sheriff with integrity in town is necessary for the enactment of justice. Without the sheriff, bandits and outlaws can rob banks, steal cattle and wreak havoc. Sin is the same way—it makes a moral mess of our lives and imprisons us by addiction. We need a powerful and righteous deliverer to free us from its chains.
January 12, 2014, Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, First Reading: Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7
The Suffering Servant
This Sunday’s reading from Isaiah 42 portrays the Lord’s “Suffering Servant,” who will bring justice not only to the people of Israel, but to the Gentiles as well. Isaiah contains four so-called “servant songs” (42:1-7; 49:1-13; 50:4-9; 52:13–53:12) which describe this heroic figure. This first song explains the calling of the Suffering Servant: He serves the Lord. He is upheld by the Lord. He delights the Lord. And the spirit of the Lord is upon him—just like the spirit of the Lord came upon the judges and kings of old. The Lord has appointed the Suffering Servant to fulfill a mission—bringing justice to the Gentiles (nations).
A Rescue Mission
This mission is like the mission of a just sheriff, but in the ancient world the chief law-enforcer or justice-bringer would be the king. Part of his job was to make sure that people were dealt with fairly at all levels of society, that cases were adjudicated correctly and that the poor were not oppressed. The Suffering Servant appears as a kind of Messianic king—one who will come to free people from oppression and establish the reign of justice. The Hebrew word here for justice is mishpat, which comes from the same root as “judge”—as in Gideon, Samson, etc.—in the Old Testament. So this appointed representative of God will bring justice, but he will also act with mercy. The text says “a bruised reed he shall not break, and a smoldering wick he shall not quench” (Isa 42:3). These images show him acting with clemency, not severity. He does not come to crush, but to rescue those who are oppressed and broken.
Land and Law
A few details help complete the picture of this messianic figure. He will bring justice “on the earth,” but these words could just as easily be translated as “in the land,” the land of Israel of course (42:4). Also, the people are waiting for his “teachings” (NAB), but this word, torah, is normally translated as “law,” and is used to name the first five books of the Bible: the Torah. If we opt for “land” and “law” in translation, we can see more clearly how Isaiah is portraying the Suffering Servant as a king—one who establishes law-based rule in a particular place. These kingly images and references to places are meant to point to a much greater, more spiritual fulfillment.
Jesus as Fulfillment
The Gospel of Matthew twice points us to how Jesus fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah 42. Matthew 12:18-20 actually quotes Isaiah 42:1-3 to explain why Jesus kept his messianic role somewhat secret during his ministry: he would not cry aloud in the streets. Again, in the Gospel reading for today, Matthew 3:13-17 points to this passage. Jesus insists on John the Baptist baptizing him “in order to fulfill all righteousness” – an allusion perhaps to the justice-bringing mission of the Suffering Servant. Also, when God the Father speaks from the heavens at Jesus’ baptism, he quotes Isaiah 42:1, calling Jesus the one “with whom I am well pleased.” The Gospel of Matthew clearly shows that Jesus is fulfilling the Suffering Servant prophecies of Isaiah. The Messianic king whom God appoints to bring justice to the Gentiles is Jesus himself. He is a new kind of king who comes to vanquish the power of sin and establish God’s righteous law in our hearts. Jesus will also open the eyes of the blind and free prisoners from the dark confinement of sin. Indeed he will even be “a covenant of the people” (Isa 42:6). Normally covenants are not thought of as people, but Jesus embodies the New Covenant as priest, king, and sacrificial victim. He will perfectly fulfill man’s covenantal responsibility to God.
Appointed and Approved
Two features of the Suffering Servant passage stand out for me. First, the Servant is appointed by God. Repeatedly, the prophet emphasizes how God has called the Servant for his particular mission. The Suffering Servant is not a lone ranger with a good idea, rather he is appointed to his role by the only ultimately legitimate authority: God himself. This aspect of the Suffering Servant is crucial for us who are trying to model our own lives after the pattern of Jesus. Jesus was sent, appointed, called by God. We too need to find God’s calling for our own lives. In fact, the word “vocation” comes from the Latin vocare, the verb for “calling.” The meaning of our work, our family relationships, our role in this world is derived from God’s calling on our lives. Second, the Suffering Servant is approved by God. The Lord not only calls him, but he delights in him. The Lord is pleased with his Servant. Jesus says, “Many are called, but few are chosen” (Matt 22:14).
It is possible to be called, to have a vocation, but not to be living out that calling rightly, not to be approved by God. Once we discover God’s calling on our lives, we want God to delight in us, to be pleased with us, to approve of us, because by his grace we are faithful to his calling. In fact, God wants to delight in us, joyfully encouraging every small step we make toward him. He rejoices at even our most imperfect turnings toward him. Let us pray for the grace to recognize how God is calling us and to let him delight in us.
Editor’s Note: Unpacking the Old Testament is a new series by CatholicBibleStudent.com‘s Dr. Mark Giszczak. Dr. Giszczak is here to help us all come to a richer understanding of what can otherwise be a very daunting collection of books, the Old Testament. Look for his column every Friday from Catholic Exchange.