Suzanne Bossert

Despite its universally famous conclusion, Holy Week is a flickering collage of colliding images and mistaken identities. With a suspense plot that keeps us guessing until the very end, a film version of Good Friday might be more M. Night Schamyalan...

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The Westminster John Knox Press Essays

From the “Connections,” “Feasting on the Word,” and “Feasting on the Gospel” book collections, (2012-2018)

Despite its universally famous conclusion, Holy Week is a flickering collage of colliding images and mistaken identities. With a suspense plot that keeps us guessing until the very end, a film version of Good Friday might be more M. Night Shyamalan (Academy Award winning director of The Sixth Sense) than Mel Gibson (The Passion of the Christ). Despite the way Easter Sunday has grown into a colorful arrangement of lilies and trumpets, pastel eggs and new white Sunday School gloves, underneath it is fed by a dark compost of blood and bone and mystery.[B2]   Like a Russian nesting doll, the bright painted face of the resurrected Christ is but a final exterior. This is what makes Isaiah’s enigmatic “Fourth Servant Song” astonishingly appropriate for Good Friday.

Pastors and scholars have long struggled with this pericope’s impenetrable message. Just who is the Servant prophesied by Isaiah? Jewish interpretation insists that it can be read only as a metaphor for the nation of Israel, despite textual challenges. Christians, for their part, have claimed with utter certainty that Isaiah’s servant is none other than Jesus Christ himself, obviously come to rescue the faithful as an atoning sacrifice (“By his wounds we are healed,” Isa. 53:5), despite the lack of substantiation in the Judeo-Messianic tradition.

 For Christians, one layer of value in reading Isaiah on Good Friday is the language itself. How easily Christ’s heroic efforts are muted by repetition, the sharp edges dulled by time’s erosion. It is right and good to slow down and remember the visceral suffering of the (Galilean) servant, resisting the urge to hop on down the bunny trail to Sunday morning’s alleluias. Once our eyes have adjusted to the dim light of that afternoon so long ago, properly recalling and thus honoring the particular suffering, our reading of Isaiah beckons us to submerge to a different depth as well, into the larger landscape of God acting in history. Isaiah brings us to that sweeping canvas by his ancient context. It is an ageless query: What is God doing through something so unrecognizable?

Despite thousands of years of reflection, we still spend an inordinate amount of time reconciling our ideas of our Creator with the movements of God in the world. We think we know how God should act. We pray and wait, impatient for answers.  We attempt to tame our unknowing by enclosing God in partisan constructs, much the way the poet Rainer Maria Rilke talks about a lonely God obscured behind a wall of images that we ourselves have built.  In the great polarity between traditionalists and progressives in American Christianity today, for instance, there seem to be more than one Jesus.  What is God doing? We think we know.

If snap certitude poisons faith into suffocating religiosity, then as now, Isaiah’s prophetic vision is surely an antidote. Because if we are really paying attention, we might just admit that we do not have all the answers. We might just admit that the suffering of Jesus in fact shocks us, just as Isaiah’s description of a battered and pitiful servant leader shocked the Israelites in Babylon. Behold, your savior: marred beyond human semblance, unlovely, undesired, hated, made to suffer such great anguish.  As Biblical translator Eugene Peterson puts it, “Who would have thought God’s saving power would look like this?”[1]

Surprise awakens adrenaline and sharpens the senses. Blinking, we sit forward in our seats, suddenly wondering what is to come next.  Who is this Servant who restores exiles to God? While remaining mindful of the exegetical tensions of the text, [B3] as well as the competing interpretations between traditions, perhaps another nesting doll should be pried open to get to the core.

Christians and Jewish believers alike can read Isaiah, celebrating together that the Creator of the world is a God who restores and rescues in awesome ways that we cannot predict and seldom expect. Our task is constantly to ready ourselves for the recognition of Christ’s presence where it is manifest, to comprehend the in-breaking—and once we recognize the shape, to imitate it–practicing it with our day-timers and calendars, not just our aspirations.  Following in the wise, non-violent footsteps of Christ is God’s prescription for this ailing planet: bearing one another’s grief, carrying common sorrows, working on behalf of those who are languishing in Babylon, cut off and utterly without hope.  The pattern of the innocent one standing up courageously against arrayed powers of the status quo is a proven fulcrum for shifting paradigms. Some of the most transformative people in history are those who suffered without losing their vision of truth: look at Gandhi, look at King, look at the monks of Burma.  Will we be able to recognize God’s work when it is right in front of us?

 Barbara Brown Taylor captures it this way: “In the end, it does not matter whether we can name the person Isaiah paints for us, because the portrait already has a name. “God’s servant” it says, and that is enough. Whether the words are capitalized or not, they speak to all of us who are God’s servants in this world. Whether we like it or not, every one of us is a full-fledged deputy of God’s kingdom. Some of us are better at it than others and some of us do more harm than good, but none of us is excused.”[2]

 It is the ultimate revelation of Eastertide—we are not just saved, we are called. Like the Jewish understanding of Isaiah, we as a community are to be the servant as well. It is the wholly unexpected plot twist, and it is so easy to miss. Who would have thought God’s saving power would look like this?  God has created something entirely new, something that still startles the nations, causing kings and presidents and CEOs and even ministers to shut their mouths in astonishment. Behold God’s handiwork. Behold the cross lifted high, pointing to the largeness of the power of love, a love that shatters every expectation.


[1] Eugene H. Peterson, Isa. 53:1, The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language (Colorado Springs: Navpress Publishing Group, 2002.

[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Laboring in Vain,” in Gospel Medicine, (Boston: Cowley Publications, 1995), 159.

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