Wednesday of Holy Week
Christ’s Betrayal and the Servant Songs
Today, many Christians have clear ideas in their minds about who Jesus was. In his time, however, people did not always hold clear ideas about his identity. For instance, after thirty years of being an unknown figure, Jesus, called some strangers to follow him. They probably did not consider him as the heir to the throne of Israel, much less the son of God. However, they followed him because they knew he had charisma, an appeal that made them follow him.
The disciples later had an abundance of experiences which would seem to demonstrate Jesus’ identity. Yet, even then, his identity was ambiguous. For instance, Jesus worked many miracles, but many ancient cultures believed in regular divine intervention in human affairs. Thus, miracles, though welcome, were not necessarily considered exceptional. Later, after many experiences with Jesus, Peter acknowledged Jesus as the “Son of the living God” (Matt 16:16). That might seem to be a clear confession, but that expression had a variety of meanings at the time.
By the time the disciples entered Jerusalem with Jesus they had very high expectations. For instance, the mother of James and John requested that Jesus give her sons seats at his right and left hands in his coming “kingdom” (Matt 20:21) Later, when Jesus entered Jerusalem, he rode on a donkey and a colt, as the prophet Zechariah predicted that the future king of Israel would enter Jerusalem. Having come to believe that Jesus was highly significant, and that through him a new kingdom would be established, the followers were devastated a few days later.
The gospel authors and the church try to make sense out of Jesus’ ignoble end through the “Servant Songs” in the Book of Isaiah. The songs describe a faithful servant of God who was crushed and downtrodden, but was later raised up by God. In the readings for today’s mass the church includes Matthew’s account of Jesus’ betrayal and the third servant song from Isaiah. This song includes the often-cited lines,
“I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting. . . . [but] I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near” (Is 50:6-8).
The servant songs were composed approximately five centuries before Christ, in conjunction with the Babylonian Exile. At that time, the Babylonians destroyed the temple and carried the Judeans to imprisonment in a foreign land. All seemed lost. However, the servant songs helped the people to make sense out of their suffering, to see it as a part of a larger picture. The servant songs helped in the same way the followers of Christ to make sense of out his death centuries later.
What is to be learned from juxtaposing the Servant Songs with Christ’s betrayal and denial? A lesson is that God is not necessarily to be found among the great and powerful of the world but among the despised. God is lord of heaven and earth, but this great monarch does not shun lowliness. He conceived his son through a peasant woman from the countryside, and she declared, “The Mighty One has done great things for me. . . . he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones” (Lk 1:49, 51-52).
Dr. Ted Ulrich
Professor of Theology
(All quotations were taken from The New Revised Standard Version in The New Oxford Annotated Bible, eds. Bruce M. Metzger and Roland E. Murphy [New York: Oxford University Press, 1994].)