Jesus as suffering servant is the exemplar for our relationship with all of Earth community.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year B 2012
By Dennis Ormseth
Reading for Series B: 2011-2012
Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost
Two Sundays ago we probed the significance of family relationships within a biblical understanding of the human vocation for care of creation; last Sunday we sought an understanding of the bearing of economic relationships within the community of faith on that care. The vocation of serving all creation, integral to right relationships in the family, we suggested, is also a central concern in economic relationships of the community. In the way of Jesus, both contexts require the giving of self in relationship with others, just as God gives of Godself in both creation and its restoration. The texts of the lectionary for this Sunday develop this expectation for yet an additional realm: leadership in the community is likewise for those who follow in the way of Jesus' own sacrificial giving of self, again for the benefit of all creation.
The development of this series of reflections is driven, of course, by the fact that we are now following, Sunday by Sunday, the narrative of the Gospel of Mark towards its conclusion. As that story moves toward the final conflict in Jerusalem, the reality of the structures of power in the temple-state of Israel moves steadily into central focus. At the same time, the significance of Jesus displacement of the temple as the locus of encounter with God, which we have argued is the key to understanding the orientation to creation and its care in Jesus' community, becomes increasingly clear. Indeed, the issue of leadership in the community draws us into a crucial moment of this development.
The Gospel reading is preceded in Mark by the Gospel's third portent of Jesus' crucifixion, death, and resurrection: “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will condemn him and hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again” (10:33-34). The following exchange between Jesus and his disciples makes clear that positions of leadership in his community will be given to those who follow him in this path: “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.” But as Ched Myers notes, leadership in the community will not be “transferred executively;” it . . .
belongs only to those who learn and follow the way of nonviolence—who are 'prepared' not to dominate but to serve and to suffer at Jesus side” but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is or those for whom it has been prepared. (Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark's Story of Jesus. Maryknoll, New York, Orbis Books, 1988, p. 278).
The relevance of the teaching goes beyond the role of Jesus immediate followers. With trenchant emphasis, Jesus contrasts the manner of rule in his community with that of his Gentile opponents: those the Gentiles “recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.” In Jesus' community, in contrast, “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” (10:42-45).
There is an allusion to Isaiah 53 here, in the image of the suffering servant. “Slave,” Myers notes, “is a euphemism for the political vocation of martyrdom, which Jesus will invoke later in his highly charged parable attacking the ruling leadership of Israel (12:2, 4).” This is “the opening round,” Myers suggests, “in what will become during the Jerusalem section [of Mark's gospel] a fierce ideological struggle over the meaning of Davidic messianism . . .” The allusion to Isaiah 53 serves to anticipate how Jesus’ death will be seen, contrary to the disciples' reaction to these portents, to be in accordance with the Hebrew scriptures. “Isaiah's suffering servant and the lowly Human One was not what Peter had in mind when he confessed 'Messiah' at the beginning of this section. But it is the only Messiah Mark proclaims” (Myers, p. 279). And in the sequence of these Sundays' readings in the congregation, the significance of the allusion looms large indeed. The appointment of Isaiah 53 as the first reading this Sunday fairly demands that the role of the suffering servant, through whom, as the prophet writes, 'the will of the Lord shall prosper,” and the many are made righteous (53:10,11) be given central place in the reflections of the day. Self-giving service, already the standard in the realms of family and economy, becomes here the paradoxical standard for positions of power and honor in the community—and beyond the community, we believe, in political leadership that works to the benefit of all creation.
Terry Fretheim shows why an understanding of God as Creator is essential to Isaiah's identification of the suffering servant as the agent of God's redemption of Israel. “Creation,” he notes, “is a theme more frequent in the oracles of Isaiah 40-55 than in any other prophet,” which he explains primarily by reference to the historical situation of the Babylonian exile:
These oracles are a proclamation to a dispirited people of Israel, still reeling from the devastations wrought by Babylon's armies, deeply wondering, even despairing whether they had any future (Isa 49:14; 40:27). What word from God would be most fitting for a people in such a situation? From the perspective of Isaiah 40-55, a word regarding creation is crucial if the situation is to be appropriately addressed (Terrence E. Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation. Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2005, p. 181).
Creation language, Fretheim explains, “related as it is to every stage in Israel's life—from birth to death—is used to speak rich words of comfort and assurance.” Cut off from its history and “given to wonder about the value of its historical heritage, creation language could reach deeply into the substratum of life and thought, into the heart of their very identity as human beings” (Fretheim, p. 183). Not only does the assertion that Yahweh is the creator of all things mean that there are no gods beside Yahweh, which places “all particular histories within the universal framework of God's good and just creation . . . and the liberation of Israel within the context of God's cosmic plan . . ;” it also makes available to the prophet a whole new vocabulary for understanding God's way of working in the world (Fretheim, p.184; the quotation is from Ben C. Ollenburger, Zion, The City of the Great King: a Theological Symbol of the Jerusalem Cult, 1987).
With reference to their bondage in Babylon, there are issues beyond God's sheer power to free the exiles of newness and creativity, Fretheim argues:
What God is doing in Israel's present situation will have to connect with those deeper human issues; hence, images of birthing a renewed people come into play (42:14 49:14-21; see 66:7-14) and the suffering that is necessary to bear away their sin (43:24-25; 53:5-6,8, 11-12). These oracles speak to the revitalization of the weak and the weary (40:2; 43:24-25; 44:22), the deep healing of those who despair (53:4), and the forgiveness that is needed to get to the heart of the issues they face (a40:2; 43; 24-25; 44:22). The power of armies would prove to be remarkably insufficient for such a purpose . . .The future is finally shaped by the forgiveness that can come only in and through the suffering of God and the servant (43:24-25; 53;1-12). The basic understanding of the power of God in Isaiah 40-55 will finally be shown in 53:1: Who would have believed that the arm (power) of God would be revealed in such a one as this (the suffering servant)? Kings won't believe it (52:15) (Fretheim, pp. 176-87).
The role of the suffering servant thus has broad significance, in Fretheim's view, as an integral part of God's work of redemption of creation as a whole:
In linking redemption and creation, Isaiah 40-55 shows that redemption is not something extracreational or extrahuman, something different from what God gives in creation; redemption makes ordinary human life in creation possible once again . . . . Redemption as well as distinguishable continuing acts of creation (e.g. healing) are the means; a new creation is the end, ultimately a new heaven and a new earth. God's redemptive activity is in the service of that new creation; indeed, because of sin, creation must be redeemed or the end would not be what God intends. Redemption is the divine act in and through which the forces that threaten life and creation are overcome (Fretheim, pp.193-94).
When human beings are redeemed from their despair and their sin, the whole creation benefits. Indeed, since the new covenant that God is to bring into being “does not have the possibility of being undercut by human failure, this new creation will be much greater than Eden ever was” (Fretheim, pp. 197-98.)
The reason for Jesus' insistence on servant leadership in the community is thus manifestly obvious. Where issues of power are most clearly at stake for the community, it is of crucial importance that service, even self-sacrificing service, be the norm, in contrast to the way humans usually govern themselves. As Norman Wirzba writes,
One way to characterize Christian life is to see it as the school in which people learn to make an appropriate sacrifice. As the path of deep and true communion, sacrifice is both the way of and the way to God. When Christians considered the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, they saw in him the pattern for their own sacrificial living . . . . In other words, Christ's sacrifice was not understood so much in juridical or substitutionary terms but as a representative act in which Christians are called to partake” (Wirzba Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 127).
It is important to emphasize that this sacrifice is not the passive experience of a victim; it is the free act of one who is empowered by the example of Jesus. Indeed it is a matter of “self-limitation and self-surrender that emanate from the very being of God.” The “sacrificial logic of self-offering that is made evident on the cross was already at work at the foundation of the world” (Wirzba, p. 125; Wirzba cites Ian C. Bradley, The Power of Sacrifice on this point). Only in the genuine exercise of this kind of power will the relationship of humans to each other and Earth be transformed in preparation for the coming of the new creation in the kingdom of God. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews obviously agrees. Jesus' own suffering establishes the pattern that will work to bring the salvation of all: Jesus “was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek” (5:7b-10). “Suffering does not negate salvation, but is the way that God brings about salvation,” as Craig Koester sums up the author's understanding, which will be explored in more depth in the continuation of the lections from the letter on remaining Sundays of the church year (Craig R. Koester, Hebrews: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. New York: Doubleday, 2001, p. 299). Leaders lacking this understanding can only contribute to the alienation of humans from each other, and to the consequent destruction of the communities of creation in which they participate.