God in Suffering

Isaiah 53. 4-end; Mark 10. 35-45

We all surely remember (or will one day encounter) our first face-to-face experience of deep human suffering and death, whether it be of a family member, friend, or acquaintance.  It is a heart-wrenching thing to see the brutal physical decline of a loved one, sometimes inexorably filled with great pain until death gives release.  Our own suffering can likewise feel inscrutable.  Sometimes these hard experiences lead us to question the goodness, power, and presence of God.  I suspect, however, that few (if any) of us would automatically see suffering and death as the most obvious way in which God might be revealed or active.  And yet, today’s texts point towards God’s presence in the brutal reality of both: in our Old Testament reading, the suffering of an innocent servant expresses the will of God; and in the Gospel, Jesus prepares to give his life as a ‘ransom for many’ as part of his service to God.  What are we to make, then, of the biblical image of the ‘Suffering Servant’ – so often applied to Jesus – when it exalts the harsh reality of pain and death?  How do we square it with a loving God?

          We might start by putting the reading from Isaiah into its own context rather than seeing it as simply foreshadowing Jesus and how his sufferings are effective for the whole human race.  Divorced from this archetype, the Suffering Servant of Isaiah has a less exalted but equally revealing drift.  As one of a number of so-called Suffering Servant songs found in Isaiah, it is unclear whether the Suffering Servant here is an historical individual or a symbolic representative of a group.  Most scholars prefer the latter interpretation: the servant is the suffering community, broken after the destruction of Jerusalem by foreign invaders.   While the visceral nature of the suffering remains undeniable, and is indeed seen as judgement for moral failure, the proper emphasis of the reading is on redemption.  Indeed, in the final few verses we hear:

When you make his life an offering for sin,
   he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days;
through him the will of the Lord shall prosper.
   Out of his anguish he shall see light;
he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge.
   The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous,
   and he shall bear their iniquities.
Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great,
   and he shall divide the spoil with the strong.
The present reality of suffering and destruction felt by a community give way to healing and wholeness.  While trying to make sense of why suffering happens, the final emphasis is on God’s loving action.  This may not reduce a sense of discomfort at the idea that God sanctions suffering, but it at least allows us to see that the end to which God tends involves love and the overcoming of suffering.

          The background to our Gospel is often taken to be this very text from Isaiah.  The communal aspect of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant helps recast what initially appears to be a difficult text.  The Gospel represents one of the few verses in Mark’s Gospel where Jesus interprets the meaning of his own suffering and death: the ‘cup’ he drinks alludes to an Old Testament image of divine punishment (Ps. 75.8) and ‘baptism’ to being overwhelmed with catastrophe (ps. 42.7; Is. 43.2).  Like Isaiah’s figure, Jesus sees his suffering and death as sanctioned by God and he acts as a focal representative, a servant, for a community.  Beyond the perplexing idea that God ordains Jesus’ suffering, however, is again a light shining in the darkness.  Later interpretations of Jesus’ words often fail to recognise that the ‘ransom’ he offers does not necessarily mean paying a price for sin in order to appease a wrathful God or to pay off the devil, as some commentators have historically understood the word.  In Exodus, God ransoms his people from slavery in Egypt not by paying a price but by offering freedom.  Jesus’ death, then, represents somehow the redemption of a new people of God from the slavery of sin.  Why a death is needed is not spelt out, but the focus remains on the creation of a new community, lovingly formed even out of the worst possible circumstances.  As with Isaiah, the inscrutability of suffering and death are promised to give way to the Exodus of a new people travelling to a new Promised Land of healing and wholeness.  The ransom is something freely and lovingly offered as a great gift, not a price paid.  It makes us into an upside people where the great among us are those who serve others.

          While there are troubling and confusing aspects to today’s readings – not least that God on occasion might will suffering or that Jesus sees his death as a divine imperative – the over-riding emphasis is on healing and wholeness.  In our daily experiences of suffering and even death, this may not mean an easy, quick-fix physical solution.  Neither does it mean that we have easy or glib answers about what suffering means, why some suffer more than others, or how God can be present in suffering.  But it does represent a promise of solidarity and hope, even in death.  As God promised to the broken people of Isaiah’s text, so too through Christ does God pledge the hope that, in this life or the next, all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well, to use Julian of Norwich’s well-known phrase.  In Jesus’ sufferings on the Cross and in his death, we see God present even when it seems that He has forsaken us.  Alongside Jesus’ exclamation that ‘my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ we have the resurrected Christ promising to be with us always.  God knows and rests alongside our sufferings, our deaths, but also affirms healing and new life.  May we hold fast to those promises and, in the little crucifixions of our lives, and find God’s resurrected presence even in unexpected places of suffering.  Amen.