Formations 01.07.2018: The Suffering Servant

Isaiah 49:1-6

Bartolomé de las Casas

Lately I’ve been reading about Bartolomé de las Casas. A sixteenth-century Dominican friar, Las Casas is best remembered for his protests against the dominant forms of Spanish colonial and evangelical activity—the wars of the conquest and the encomienda system.

I was surprised, however, to learn that Las Casas had been an beneficiary of this unjust system early in his life. As a reward for his work as a chaplain during Pánfilo de Narváez’s wars in Cuba, he was granted some of the stolen land, including the labor of native people made slaves. By all accounts, Las Casas was a model encomendero, known for treating these native peoples fairly, at least by the standards of the time (46). Still, this aspect of Las Casas’s early life does not fit with his legacy.

While preparing for Easter mass, he read from Sirach: “the bread of the needy is the life of the poor; whoever deprives them of it is a murderer. To take away a neighbor’s living is to commit murder; to deprive an employee of wages is to shed blood” (Sir 34:25-27). This condemnation of greed forced him to see the encomienda system, which had been justified as a necessary tool for sharing the gospel, for what it really was.

In the aftermath of this encounter with God in Scripture, he referred to this system, not just its abuses, as “the true and effective cause…of the annihilation and decimation of all of these peoples” (287). In fact, in this purported tool of evangelism he recognized the obstacle to the flourishing of God’s light. So he gave up his encomienda and joined other Dominicans in their opposition to Spanish colonial oppression.

To be sure, in this process, Las Casas would be wrong a number of times. Some of these shortcomings he would correct, and others he wouldn’t. Still, in his life of growth, we recognize the mark of a prophet—the capability to see reality and the commitment to imaginatively sow light in situations marked by oppression.

This first week of January, we begin to explore evangelism in the Old Testament. And we will first encounter Isaiah’s Suffering Servant. Written by Isaiah’s disciples to people exiled in Babylon, this passage imagines a Servant to represent Israel, or at least some part of the former nation.

So into this situation—of Babylonian imperialism and lost identity—the prophet challenges the people of God to continue struggling with the work they had been called to as God’s people.

Having “labored in vain,” they detect a new call (v. 4). God, who meets them in such suffering, proclaims, “it is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob…I give you as a light to the nations” (v. 6). But this is not only a new task. Rather, God invites them to remember that call to bring all people into covenant, a call which had been present since Abraham.

As we consider evangelism in the coming month, we need to remember that our own tradition holds examples of evangelism that look like Babylonian and Spanish imperialism. We have attempted to sow the gospel through violence, slavery, and the disruption of peoples’ cultural memories, to name just a few. But let us also remember the inheritance of those like Las Casas and the Suffering Servant who recognized and responded to the real experiences in their midst, finding creative ways to sow light in places of darkness.

Gustavo Gutiérrez, Las Casas: In Search of the Poor of Jesus Christ, trans. Robert R. Barr (Maryknoll NY: Orbis, 1992).

Discussion

• What sources of suffering and oppression do you encounter in your community?
• What might God’s light look like in these contexts?
• How might you participate in the work to bring good news in these places?

Reference Shelf

Who Are We?

In the book of Isaiah, at times, the righteous “we”-group refers to the “remnant” (not to be confused or identified with the “remainees” during the exilic period) that escaped and survived the onslaughts of the Assyrian or Babylonian army—including the remnant of Israel that fled to Judah, At other times, the allude to the poor and the needy, the socially disenfranchised class that must endure the ongoing insults and injustices of the corrupt leadership.

[…]

Theologically and hermeneutically speaking, on the one hand, we should acknowledge our naiveté in claiming that we can distinguish the righteous from the wicked so easily and distinctively: “The outside is already inside. ‘Over there’ is right here. The enemy is us” (Miller 2007, 38). It is no wonder that Jesus’ parable describes the need to wait until harvest time to be able to identify the wheat and the weeds (cf. Matt 13:24-30), let alone the fact that Jesus’ traitor came out of his own twelve disciples (Matt 26:14-16). On the other hand, from the existential (and historical) locations of the marginalized and oppressed, especially those victimized in their aspiration to be righteous, their defiant condemnation against the wicked’s overwhelming injustice would be as vivid as the shining stars at night. True prophets were so convinced that the outcry of righteous, though dismantled and ridiculed, would ring loudly and clearly before God.

Hyun Chul Paul Kim, Reading Isaiah: A Literary and Theological Commentary, Reading the Old Testament (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2016) 18–20.

Suffering and Service

Those who had been blessed with wealth and good fortune were to share their blessings with others, placing themselves at the service of the less fortunate (cf. Job 29–31). Indeed, if necessary, they were to undergo suffering in behalf of others, recognizing that those who had received much were required to render much service.

In that context the picture of the Suffering Servant of Isa 40–55 is to be placed. First, Israel is God’s servant in the world, required to uphold God’s Torah before the nations, enabling all peoples to see that Israel is first and foremost in the service of God. Covenant requires such service, and God also serves Israel’s needs in innumerable ways. But secondly, the Servant of the Lord in Isa 40–55 also serves to display before the nations such fidelity to God in the midst of suffering that the nations are caused to marvel, recognizing that Israel suffers in their stead, faithful to God despite the mistreatment endured at the hands of these nations. At the time of deliverance, then, the prophet sees Israel exalted and glorified, coming into its promised inheritance, accepted and honored by God for its faithfulness.

Walter Harrelson, “Service,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 812.

William Scruggs is a graduate of Mercer University. His favorite pastimes are adding music to his listening list, TV shows to his viewing list, and books to his reading list. When he isn’t pretending to check items off these lists, he spends time with friends and plays music. He is excited for the opportunity to continue exploring the rivers of Middle Georgia and to stay in Macon as an associate editor at Smyth & Helwys.

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