When my great-uncle died, I discovered my mom’s family has a family graveyard plot. It’s located in the middle of an old graveyard covered in tombs, tombstones, statues and monuments. The family plot surprised me because a 12 foot obelisk was erected on it. The obelisk is covered and is overflowing with names to the point where the last few were added on a separate stone so that they can lean against it. Compared to the tombstones around it, this monument is actually pretty modest. But compared to today, it’s a little over the top. Large stones can be a sign of a family’s wealth and status even if they didn’t have much wealth or status. There’s no history in my family of any incredible wealth but that tombstone tells a different story. It’s safe to say that this family plot is located in the “rich” part of that old cemetery. In our context, that is seen as a good thing. But as we see in our first reading, Isaiah 53:4-12, being buried with the rich is a complicated metaphor that we need to unwrap.
This reading from Isaiah is one of the texts described as “The Suffering Servant.” The Suffering Servant was the name given to parts of Isaiah 52-53 in the 19th century. They describe a “servant” who is caught in a cycle of humiliation and exaltation. For our Jewish friends, the servant is typically identified as Israel (or an unnamed one at work in ancient Israel). For Christians, we identify the Suffering Servant as Jesus. In Jesus’ time, Isaiah 52-53 was not considered a prophetic text describing the Messiah (the one who would restore Israel’s power and glory). But once Jesus died and rose from the dead, early Christians saw these texts as one that described Jesus’ life and ministry. The Jewish and Christian interpretation of these texts are different but “both Jews and Christians have seen in their own history, in quite particular ways, the capacity and willingness of . . . God to do something new through suffering” (Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 40-66, page 144.) The Suffering Servant texts are poems inviting us to discover the God who is at work in our world. Death, suffering, and vulnerability are not dead ends. We are, through our baptism, living into the new future God is bringing about.
The Suffering Servant is utterly rejected and that rejection continues from life into death. His burial among the rich is a negative thing. The people writing these words viewed the rich as those who took advantage of others. The Suffering Servant “is grouped with despised ones whom the world thinks have succeeded” (page 147). The Suffering Servant is a nobody who is the only one who can break the cycle of violence that exists in our world. But this violence – exploitation, hatred, anger, physical and mental assaults – can’t be broken by force. Violence, according to scripture, only begets more violence. Instead, the Servant, must break this violence by embracing what makes them vulnerable. It’s through weakness that God’s power is made known. Your hurt or weakness isn’t the limit of who you are. God knows you, including what makes you vulnerable, and loves you fully. We don’t know exactly how God’s power will be made real through us. But I trust that we’ll finally see God more clearly when we embrace what we try to run away from: our vulnerability. Then God is inviting us to change.
Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, 10/21/2018.