Lectionary blog for Jan. 12, 2020
First Sunday after Epiphany
Isaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 29;
Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17

Have you ever had one of those conversations in which you are talking with two people at once but are sharing insider jokes or remembrances with one of them? At a party many years ago, I told a story to a friend and my wife, but I kept mentioning things that were little insider jokes or significant terms. These words had special significance for my wife and me but were just part of the story for my friend. So as I was telling my friend a mildly interesting anecdote, I was giving my wife verbal winks and telling her how much I enjoy our own “secret” language. Scripture can be kind of like that.

As the Spirit speaks to us through God’s word, over the centuries the same words have meant different things to different people. If Scripture really is God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16), and alive and active (Hebrews 4:12), we should expect that a prophet’s words that meant one thing to the original audience in ancient Israel and Judah would mean quite another thing during the Second Temple Period—and still another thing hundreds or thousands of years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. That Scripture has many meanings is a good and beautiful thing that we should be grateful for, as God uses the same old words to speak powerfully into new contexts and situations. This week, the lectionary turns to one of the most frequently reinterpreted Scripture passages, and I like to marvel at all the things it has meant across the centuries.

Isaiah 42 begins with one of the “servant songs,” in which God describes the character and work of a special agent. God speaks to an audience, saying: “Behold: my servant whom I uphold, my chosen who delights my soul” (Isaiah 42:1). The servant won’t make a ruckus or shout (2), but will bring justice to the nations (1, 3). The servant will be incredibly gentle and won’t cause even the weakest or most frail to suffer (3). Most importantly, the servant won’t be tired or defeated until justice is established across the world (4). But who was or is this servant?

I would love for us to think, early in 2020, how the Spirit might be calling us to be humble, justice-oriented servants of God and servants of our neighbors.

From the earliest times, interpretations differed. The Septuagint (an ancient Greek translation of Scripture) glosses Isaiah 42:1 as “Behold Jacob, my servant and Israel, my messenger .…” The Hellenistic Jewish world and medieval Jewish commentator Rashi follow this line of thinking and argue that the servant songs are about the Jewish people as a whole. The Targum (an ancient Aramaic translation of Scripture) and medieval Jewish commentator David Kimhi believe this passage could only be pointing to the Messiah. In the ancient world, there was basically a split between Greek-speaking Jews who saw the servant as the collective nation of Israel and Semitic-language-speakers who saw the servant as an individual messianic person.

Still other commentators, like Abraham ibn Ezra, say God’s servant must be the prophet Isaiah himself. Saadia Gaon argues that the servant songs are about Jeremiah. Even before Christians enter the discussion, there are many interpretations of who Scripture is pointing to as a gentle establisher of justice throughout the world.

But Christians can’t help but read Jesus as God’s servant. The writer of the Gospel of Matthew specifically records the echoes of the language of Isaiah 42:1 when God proclaims: “This is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). Indeed, Jesus was a gentle servant of God, who suffered—rather than conquered—and allowed God’s righteous justice to be brought to the nations in a new way. We will see more in the coming weeks about how the servant songs in Isaiah help us think about Jesus’ life and ministry.

What I would like to suggest is that—without seeking to replace or supersede other people(s) to whom the servant designation has been applied—we could do worse than trying to echo the lives and actions of previous servants of God. Scripture is still speaking to us in the 21st century no less than it did to people in the first century. And we seek to be Jesus’ disciples just as those in the first century also sought to follow him. In what way does God’s grace empower and call us to be peaceful, humble, passionate pursuers of justice? What would it look like to follow Jesus’ example of reaching out to the outcasts of society while at the same time engaging peacefully and honestly with those who wield various kinds of power?

I would love for us to think, early in 2020, how the Spirit might be calling us to be humble, justice-oriented servants of God and servants of our neighbors.

Cory Driver
Cory Driver is a minister of word and service, and the director of the Transformational Leadership Academy in the Indiana-Kentucky Synod. He earned his doctorate in Jewish religious cultures from Emory University, Atlanta. Cory lives with his family in Indianapolis.

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