Isaiah 50:4-9a - link to the NRSV text
We are entering into Holy Week; this is a time for Christians to remember the final week of Jesus’ earthly ministry and to prepare themselves for Easter Sunday. This particular Sunday is most commonly referred to as “Palm Sunday,” and for many there are fond memories of children waving palm branches and the singing of triumphal hymns and choruses.
But to restrict the liturgical action to just the remembrance of the palms and the shouts of “Hosanna!” is to do a disservice to the memory of the story. As Laurence Stookey puts it in his masterful book Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church:
The final Sunday of the Forty Days is known by various titles but almost nowhere is it any longer simply “Palm Sunday,” in either name or recommended manner of observance. The basic reason is this: To separate out the narratives of the entry of Jesus into the city and interpret the occasion behind them as utterly joyous and victorious is to misread the Gospels...The New Testament writers know fully well that the “Hosanna!” cries of Sunday will by Friday turn into the calls for crucifixion (Stookey, Calendar, 88).
Thus, for Palm/Passion Sunday, there are two connected liturgies to be observed, the Liturgy of Palms, which remembers the entrance into Jerusalem. This liturgy is then followed by the Liturgy of the Passion, which remembers the crucifixion and shows the movement of Holy Week from the cries of “Hosanna!” to the shouts of “Crucify him!”
My worship professor James Abbington once noted that when he was growing up, they kind of had the “Palm Sunday straight on to Easter Sunday” observance one year, with no Good Friday or talk about the Passion beforehand. And so he shows up on Easter and the congregation rejoices, “He is Risen!” “Great!” Dr. Abbington observed. “When did he die?”
Stookey points out this very problem out when he notes that even if we could have once counted on everyone observing Holy Week up to and including Holy Thursday and Good Friday, “that time is long gone” (Stookey, 89). So if you are a pastor or minister, and you are not going to observe Holy Week services, or you believe most of your congregation is not going to participate, then the observance of both the Liturgies of Palms and the Passion should somehow be incorporated into this Sunday. Properly, it should not be a case of “either” the Palms or the Passion, but an incorporation of both.
Our lection for the Liturgy of the Passion is from Isaiah 50, and it is a large portion of a passage that is commonly known as one the “servant songs” found in Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55). The context of Second Isaiah and thus these servant songs is the Babylonian exile, and the prophet anticipates the captured Judeans' liberation at the hands of Cyrus of Persia, who did indeed capture Babylon and allowed many exiles to return to Judah.
The identity of the servant is very much debated; Brevard Childs speaks of the servant as the embodiment of the nation Israel (see Childs, Isaiah, OTL, 382-85, 394). Many Christians have understandably read Jesus back into these songs, explaining why this is our text for Passion Sunday, and see them as predictions in the prophetic-fulfillment mode of interpretation. Most Jews and many scholars identify the servant of the songs as Israel, both the land and the people. Ultimately, I think to identify one person or one group as the servant is to miss the point. Maybe the author of the servant songs had a particular person or group in mind, but you could easily argue (or interpret) that the description of the servant found in verses 4-9a are not just indicative of the servant, but of any servant of God.
The song opens by describing the servant in prophetic terms; the servant has been granted the ability to speak (v. 4a, cf. Isa 6:6-7, Jer 1:6-9) and the ability to hear God (v. 4b-5a). The song then speaks about the obedience of the servant, “I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward” (v.5b), and describes an obedience even to the point of physical abuse and violence towards the servant.
The rest of the reading describes the servant’s confidence in the LORD God. God is twice described as a helper, and is the one who “vindicates” the servant. Thus, the servant sets his face like flint and knows that he cannot be disgraced, and asks if God is his helper and vindicator, who can truly oppose him?
For Christians preparing for Good Friday and Easter, it’s easy to see Jesus in this reading and it is not inappropriate, but don’t be too quick to get there. Many people of faith have faced adversity, faced suffering as servants of God. Think of faithful Jews who chose to die at the hands of Antiochus IV Epiphanes instead of going against their deeply held beliefs (cf. 1 Macc. 1:62-63). Think of the faithful martyrs of the church who gave their lives instead of denying the Lord Jesus. Think of priests and pastors putting themselves in the way of danger instead of allowing the Nazis to take the Jewish children that had been entrusted to their care.
The list could continue on for much longer, but the point is made. The servant of the song is not necessarily a particular person. Instead, the servant is a model of and for anyone who hears God, who is given a “word” to comfort, and gives of themselves to be the servant they are called to be. Of course, Christians confess that Jesus is the perfect embodiment of this ideal, God Incarnate, the Word-Made-Flesh, the perfect obedient servant to the will of the Father. But to reduce this passage to just a prediction about how Jesus would act in the face of crucifixion is to do the vision of the prophet a disservice.
Instead, this passage is a poetic and powerful motif for what it means to stand for God in the midst of injustice and evil, to be willing to suffer abuse and scorn for the kingdom of God, and to speak a word from the LORD even when you know that it is going to be unwelcome. The fate of the servant in this song is the possible fate for anyone who “speaks truth to power,” as Walter Brueggemann would say.
Or as Jesus taught before his own crucifixion, “If you want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the [good news], will save it” (Mark 8:34-35). Are we willing to be that kind of people, that kind of witness to God’s command, to God’s ideals of compassion and justice and mercy?
The words of the servant still hold for those of us who are willing: “The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced…It is the Lord God who helps me; who will declare me guilty?”
Personal Note: I’ve been extremely pleased and humbled by the amount of traffic this past week, and I especially want to thank Jenee Woodard for posting my entry for last week on textweek.com. If you are finding this helpful, or you have thoughts to add, leave some comments! I’d love to hear from you.