“…According to the Scriptures:” The Suffering Messiah

Part two outlined the parameters for the new kingdom. In part three another aspect of the new kingdom and its king is explored, an aspect that is perhaps the most perplexing to the modern mind: suffering.

From the Gospel of Mark,

“And Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.” And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him. And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.””
‭‭Mark‬ ‭8:27-33‬ ‭ESV‬‬

“…the Son of Man must suffer many things?” Why is suffering a part of all this? Why is it necessary? Why indeed? Reflecting the understanding of the Messiah at the time, Peter rebukes Jesus — “we will never let that happen to you!” After all a suffering (or dead) messiah is no messiah at all. But Jesus fires back at Peter for his common sense urge to avoid it. Peter too is perplexed.

In the passage, Jesus implies a link between the notion of the Son of Man and the so-called “Servant Songs” written by Isaiah in the Old Testament. The passages are fairly long but they are worth quoting at length.

“Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law.”
‭‭Isaiah‬ ‭42:1-4‬ ‭ESV‬‬

The servant has the spirit of God in him. In the last post the spirit of God was characterized as another sort of “consciousness” residing alongside the individual’s conscience. The servant will bring about justice but it will not be without struggle. Yet, in the end he will faithfully push through without faltering.

“Listen to me, O coastlands, and give attention, you peoples from afar. The Lord called me from the womb, from the body of my mother he named my name. He made my mouth like a sharp sword; in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow; in his quiver he hid me away. And he said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” But I said, “I have labored in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my right is with the Lord, and my recompense with my God.” And now the Lord says, he who formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him; and that Israel might be gathered to him— for I am honored in the eyes of the Lord, and my God has become my strength— he says: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Thus says the Lord, the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One, to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nation, the servant of rulers: “Kings shall see and arise; princes, and they shall prostrate themselves; because of the Lord, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.””
‭‭Isaiah‬ ‭49:1-7‬ ‭ESV‬‬

This is a difficult passage to parse. The servant is portrayed as an individual but yet God calls the servant “Israel,” e.g., “…you are my servant Israel.” The sharp-tongued servant’s assignment is to bring the nation back to God, and, yet, he is despised and abhorred by those same people.

“The Lord God has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word him who is weary. Morning by morning he awakens; he awakens my ear to hear as those who are taught. The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious; I turned not backward. I gave my back to those who strike, and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard; I hid not my face from disgrace and spitting. But the Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame. He who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who is my adversary? Let him come near to me. Behold, the Lord God helps me; who will declare me guilty? Behold, all of them will wear out like a garment; the moth will eat them up. Who among you fears the Lord and obeys the voice of his servant? Let him who walks in darkness and has no light trust in the name of the Lord and rely on his God.”
‭‭Isaiah‬ ‭50:4-10‬ ‭ESV‬‬

The servant stands alone against his adversaries. He stands up for what is right and suffers persecution because of it.

“Who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people? And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth. Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand. Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.”
‭‭Isaiah‬ ‭53:1-12‬ ‭ESV‬‬

This last passage (Isaiah 53) is the most famous of all the Servant Songs. It is also the most difficult to unpack. But, essentially, a summary goes something like this: by the will of God the sins of the people are heaped on the servant and he bears them on their behalf — in other words, the servant’s suffering is for the sake of the people.

This idea that an individual can bear suffering on another’s behalf seems strange to the modern mind. But a closer examination shows the same phenomenon occurs in the modern world. When something bad things happens, such as a plane crash, the search for the culprit begins. Someone must be held accountable for the tragedy. As is often the case, the accident may be due to back luck or timing or due to circumstances that were simply unavoidable and beyond anyone’s control and so no single individual can be identified. Bad things happen sometimes for no good reason. Nonetheless, there is an innate sense among those affected by the tragedy that someone needs to take the blame despite the lack of a culprit.

In that case, a scapegoat must be found to bear the weight of the blame — and one is usually found. Whether that person is actually guilt of anything is not the point — the blame needs to go somewhere. The idea of the scapegoat crosses crosses the divide between the ancient and modern worlds. There isn’t space to devote to the concept here but the idea of the scapegoat originated in the Old Testament book of Leviticus. It is what lies beneath the suffering servant passages.

So, the “Servant Songs” paint a picture of the servant as one who suffers, but, again, why is this tied to the idea of the messiah? Why does Jesus insist that suffering is part of his mission as the messiah.

To begin with, suffering is a part of life. One cannot be fully human without suffering. Consider for a moment any memorable story of struggle or suffering whether of some public figure or from your family or circle of friends. Whether it comes from adversity or conflict or a failed relationship or emotional or physical pain or any other source, at some point in their lives everyone knows what it is like to suffer. And stories of people overcoming struggles are inspiring to those in the midst of their own, so in a sense, we share in the suffering of others.

Humans must toil to carve out an existence from a world that isn’t “for” them and often wishes to see them fail or just doesn’t care one way or the other. To live is to suffer — at least for most. The modern world goes to great lengths to avoid or relieve suffering but in the end its efforts are futile. Suffering may come and go but its ultimate end is death, and it is the finality of death that the modern world tries to ignore or evade. Suffering and death renders everyone’s existence futile. In the end does anything really matter if all is erased by death?

Second, suffering is somehow redemptive. As noted above, there is something compelling about stories of people fighting through suffering that resonates with the very core of our humanity as New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote in his column years ago about suffering, “What Suffering Does.” (The article is worth reading in its entirety.)

When people plan for the future, they often talk about all the good times and good experiences they hope to have. We live in a culture awash in talk about happiness….But notice this phenomenon. When people remember the past, they don’t only talk about happiness. It is often the ordeals that seem most significant. People shoot for happiness but feel formed through suffering.

But the big thing that suffering does is it takes you outside of precisely that logic that the happiness mentality encourages. Happiness wants you to think about maximizing your benefits. Difficulty and suffering sends you on a different course. 

The natural instinct for humans is to chase after happiness and avoid suffering. The modern notion of this chase (as Brooks puts it) is virtually the same as chasing pleasure. A more classic notion of happiness, however, is more akin to “fulfillment” than pleasure, and, as Brooks points out, suffering gives shape to pursuing fulfillment. How? Brooks explains,

First, suffering drags you deeper into yourself. The theologian Paul Tillich wrote that people who endure suffering are taken beneath the routines of life and find they are not who they believed themselves to be. The agony involved in, say, composing a great piece of music or the grief of having lost a loved one smashes through what they thought was the bottom floor of their personality, revealing an area below, and then it smashes through that floor revealing another area.

Then, suffering gives people a more accurate sense of their own limitations, what they can control and cannot control. When people are thrust down into these deeper zones, they are forced to confront the fact they can’t determine what goes on there. Try as they might, they just can’t tell themselves to stop feeling pain, or to stop missing the one who has died or gone. And even when tranquility begins to come back, or in those moments when grief eases, it is not clear where the relief comes from. The healing process, too, feels as though it’s part of some natural or divine process beyond individual control.

People in this circumstance often have the sense that they are swept up in some larger providence. Abraham Lincoln suffered through the pain of conducting a civil war, and he came out of that with the Second Inaugural. He emerged with this sense that there were deep currents of agony and redemption sweeping not just through him but through the nation as a whole, and that he was just an instrument for transcendent tasks.

It’s at this point that people in the midst of difficulty begin to feel a call. They are not masters of the situation, but neither are they helpless. They can’t determine the course of their pain, but they can participate in responding to it. They often feel an overwhelming moral responsibility to respond well to it. People who seek this proper rejoinder to ordeal sense that they are at a deeper level than the level of happiness and individual utility. They don’t say, “Well, I’m feeling a lot of pain over the loss of my child. I should try to balance my hedonic account by going to a lot of parties and whooping it up.” 

It works in both directions at the same time. The more introspective people are the more aware they are of their “true selves,” and, when they discover who they “really are,” are, yet, compelled to seek some sort of transcendent meaning and purpose in life. Brooks calls it a sense of providence which, in turn, instills a sense of calling. The previous post explored the spirit of God as another me inside of me. Could the spirit be the same as this sense of calling to which Brooks refers? It certainly appears so.

Brooks continues,

The right response to this sort of pain is not pleasure. It’s holiness. I don’t even mean that in a purely religious sense. It means seeing life as a moral drama, placing the hard experiences in a moral context and trying to redeem something bad by turning it into something sacred. Parents who’ve lost a child start foundations. Lincoln sacrificed himself for the Union. Prisoners in the concentration camp with psychologist Viktor Frankl rededicated themselves to living up to the hopes and expectations of their loved ones, even though those loved ones might themselves already be dead. 

Suffering strips one to the core. Brooks hints that seeking redemption is the appropriate response to suffering — turning something bad into something sacred or holy. As strange as it sounds, Jesus’ insistence on suffering as part of his mission as the messiah is rooted in both the recognition that it is part of life and its redemptive quality. Such is the nature of suffering.

There is one last thing to consider in all this as all humans eventually succumb to suffering.: death.

Next, the victory over death as the new kingdom arrives.

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