October 18, 2015
Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading: Isa 53:10-11
When the disciples notoriously whine about their future roles in the Kingdom in this Sunday’s gospel, Jesus promises them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized” (Mark 10:39 RSV). This is not a friendly invitation to a religious dinner party. When Jesus refers to “the cup,” it is the same one that he pleads with the Father to take away: “Abba, Father, all things are possible to thee; remove this cup from me; yet not what I will, but what thou wilt” (Mark 14:36 RSV). The cup Jesus will drink on Good Friday is the cup of suffering. He invites the apostles to drink from that same cup with him.
Does God Delight in the Suffering of His Son?
Isaiah, in this Sunday’s first reading, offers a portrait of this Suffering Servant who drinks the cup of suffering. This passage is taken from the end of the last of the four servant songs in Isaiah (42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13–53:12). It begins with a startling line: “the Lord was pleased to crush Him” (Isa 53:10 NASB). It almost sounds like it made God happy to hurt his Son. Indeed the word translated as “pleased” is chaphetz, which means “to delight.” How could that be? How could God delight in the pain of his Son? Isaiah’s wording illustrates the drama of the Cross. At one and the same time, God’s justice is satisfied and so he delights, while his mercy is also revealed, and so he weeps for the pains of his Son. It is a paradox how the Lord could simultaneously fulfill the demands of justice and promulgate mercy, and yet he does. If God were to merely wave his hand in pardon, he could show mercy and yet not be just. If he were simply to punish us all, he would show his justice, but be found merciless. In his mysterious wisdom, he finds a way to do both—to both reveal his justice in punishing for sin and demonstrate his mercy by inflicting that punishment on his very own Son rather than on us.
A Guilt Offering
Isaiah tells us that the Suffering Servant is an asham, a guilt offering (53:10). This is a technical term that comes up in Leviticus 5:14–6:17. Under the Old Covenant system, a person would make a guilt offering if he committed a serious sin against the covenant with God like violating an oath that invoked God’s name or defiling the sanctuary in some way. The guilt offering required restitution, paying back whatever had been stolen or defrauded from another. After making restitution, the penitent would then offer a ram as a sacrifice. Under the ancient covenant, one would have to engage in this complex asham process to remove guilt. When Isaiah tells us that the Suffering Servant’s “soul/life” (nephesh) is an asham, a guilt offering, we need only look back to the ram of Leviticus. The ram merely foreshadowed the real sacrifice to come. The Servant will be the authentic guilt offering for all. Later, Hebrews will tell us that “it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins” (Heb 10:4 RSV). Only the blood of One willing to drink the cup of suffering was powerful enough to truly cleanse us of guilt.
The Offspring of the Suffering Servant?
Isaiah tells us that the Suffering Servant will “see his offspring, he shall prolong his days” (Isa 53:10 RSV). As a reward for his faithfulness, God will bless him with long life and descendants. You can just hear the Da Vinci Code conspiracy theorists’ wheels turning! But no, Jesus did not have any children. So how could he fulfill this passage and yet not have children? This definition of blessing as including long life and children we see here is all over the Old Testament (Deut 30:20; Job 42:13-16; Psa 128:6; Prov 3:2). It is a stereotypical way of expressing how God blesses people. The “normative blessings” of life include long life and kids, but they are not the end-all be-all of human happiness. In fact, they are expressions of that ultimate happiness that we find in God himself. They signify God’s favor. Jesus does not have literal children, but he does of course have many spiritual descendants in all those who believe in him. And while he did not stick around on earth to enjoy your typical long life, he lives forever, reigning in Heaven.
Righteous Makes Righteous
As an asham, the Suffering Servant will “justify” many people. The Hebrew says yatzdiq tzadiq, which means “the righteous one will make righteous.” The power of Jesus’ suffering in some way lies in his righteousness, his innocence. If he had been a sinner like the rest of us, he would have deserved the punishment that he underwent. But since he was innocent, free of guilt, totally pure, then this very righteousness of his becomes the instrument of our salvation. He, as the righteous one, makes us righteous. Instead of our sin infecting him by his dwelling among us, his righteousness “infected” us at the Cross. His offering of himself turns back the tide of sin and makes thing start working backwards. Instead of the contagion of sin spreading from person to person, the “contagion” of righteousness spreads across the world from Mt. Calvary.
The Cost of Following Christ
The wonder of this undoing of the power of sin comes at a price: the spotless Lamb is sacrificed. While he invites everyone to follow, Jesus also invites us to “count the cost” (Luke 14:28) of following him. Christianity is not for wimps. We too are called to walk the hill of Calvary with Jesus, to “take up our crosses,” to drink the cup of suffering, to be “conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom 8:29).While it is easy to wonder about the rewards of discipleship, often we are faced with the cost. Yet it is there, in the midst of that cost, in the midst of the daily suffering with Jesus, that we finally begin to realize what life is really about, who God is calling us to be, what it all means in the end. And it is not about hoarding as much money and stuff as we can, but about giving ourselves away in love.