The Paradox of Suffering

April 13, 2014
Palm Sunday
First Reading: Isaiah 50:4-7

“Anything worth living for is worth dying for.” It is hard lesson for us to learn. No one wants to go around dying, but of course, we all know that truly living for someone or something besides ourselves isn’t very easy either. The prophet Isaiah thrusts aside our hedging by presenting us with a stark contrast: a disobedient people who can’t even find their mother’s divorce certificate from God (Isa 50:1) and an obedient servant who willingly proclaims God’s message of repentance and deliverance in the face of terrible suffering (Isa 50:4-7ff). The passage selected for the First Reading is the words of that Suffering Servant.

Speaking of Tongues

This section of Isaiah begins with a self-description, starting with the tongue. It sounds a lot like other OT poetic passages where the poet describes his tongue and speech at the beginning of his song (Pss 35:28; 45:1; 51:14; 71:24; 119:172). Here though, the prophet Isaiah is not describing himself, but putting these words in the mouth of the Suffering Servant. The Lord has entrusted a special message to this servant. Indeed, his tongue is “well-trained” (50:4). The Hebrew word here, limud, is rare and indicates the kind of knowledge that results from discipleship. The point is not that the Servant has been inspired in the moment, but that his message is the result of a long period of training. He has been trained in righteousness, in the law of God.

Rousing the Sleepy and handing on the message

When the Servant goes to describe the purpose of his training, he surprises us. His “tongue training” is for the purpose of waking up the sleepy. His goal is to rouse, encourage, sustain and wake up others. He does not want to merely give people information, but to put heart into them. Isaiah is teaching us that encouraging is not just a gift, it is a skill. The Servant has learned how to rouse the weary. Of course, the kind of slumber we’re talking about is not mere physical sleep, but spiritual stagnation, acedia, sloth. The Servant will wake people up out of their sleepy spiritual approach to life.

The Servant emphasizes his role as handing on a message from God. “Morning after morning” the Lord speaks to him and day after day, he faithfully conveys the message he hears to others. So his mission involves both listening and speaking. God “awakens” his ear and conveys a message to him. Faithful listening leads to faithful speaking. One must first be awakened in order to awaken others. The Servant consciously passes along a message, a difficult message of repentance, a call to return to the Lord, but also a message of hope and restoration. He insists also on his fidelity. He says “I have not rebelled; I have not turned back.” However, his faithfulness to God’s message will cost him.

Suffering Servant

The Servant will suffer for speaking out, for conveying the message he hears from God. He mentions four specific forms of physical suffering he endures: 1.) beating on the back, 2.) beard plucking, 3.) buffets (or reproaches), and 4.) spitting. Rather than fleeing like a coward and getting wounded in the back, the Servant presses on through a frontal assault in order to complete his task, to convey his message. The specific forms of suffering he describes match up remarkably well with Jesus’ passion when he is flogged on the back, spat on, and subjected to the angry derision of the crowds. In fact, the lengthy Gospel reading from the Gospel of Matthew for this Palm Sunday includes some of these incidents (Matt 26:67, 27:26, 30). The Suffering Servant’s obedience in the face of persecution contrasts with the nation of Israel’s disobedience, which Isaiah points out early in chapter 50. Jesus himself fulfills the character of the Suffering Servant: he conveys the Father’s message of repentance to the people and suffers intensely in spite of his righteousness. He is unjustly condemned and treated with disdain.

Shame and Glory

In Isaiah 50:7 the Suffering Servant says, “The Lord GOD is my help,/ therefore I am not disgraced” (NAB). Normally, public humiliation is disgraceful. That’s the point of public punishments, whether being put in the stockade, wearing an orange jumpsuit while doing community service, or even being publicly executed. But Jesus’ public humiliation, while seeming to be disgraceful, actually isn’t. God the Father supports him, helps him, and honors him in the midst of human shaming.

A Face like Flint

Lastly, the Servant says that he has set his “face like flint.” That might sound odd, but flint was a very hard stone, often found as nodules in limestone deposits. Limestone is all over the Holy Land, as the typical building stone. It is soft and easy to work with, but flint is another matter. It can only be broken and shaped by “knapping,” the way cavemen made stone tools. The Servant looks to the future, to the completion of his mission, with the determination of the hardest rock. Jesus indeed “set his face” toward Jerusalem (Luke 9:51) and went up Mt. Calvary willingly. He chose the hard, but right path, the path of sacrifice and martyrdom, the path of redemptive suffering, rather than the easy road of doing what the crowd approves of. His moment of seemingly disastrous shame actually turned out for his glory. Through his suffering and death, Jesus becomes the Savior of the World.

His powerful example shows us that the vindication of the Lord is more important than the shaming of other people. He takes our suffering upon himself so we can be free and in the process teaches us that what seems glorious might actually be disgraceful and what seems disgraceful might turn out for our glory. Such a profound paradox can only be taught by example.

Editor’s Note: Unpacking the Old Testament is a series by CatholicBibleStudent.coms 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.


Mark Giszczak (“geese-check”) was born and raised in Ann Arbor, MI. He studied philosophy and theology at Ave Maria College in Ypsilanti, MI and Sacred Scripture at the Augustine Institute of Denver, CO. He recently received his Ph. D. in Biblical Studies at the Catholic University of America. He currently teaches courses in Scripture at the Augustine Institute, where he has been on faculty since 2010. Dr. Giszczak has participated in many evangelization projects and is the author of the blog. He has written introductions to every book of the Bible that are hosted at Dr. Giszczak, his wife and their daughter, live in Colorado where they enjoy camping and hiking in the Rocky Mountains.

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