Homily for the
29th Sunday of Ordinary Time
[October 18, 2015]
Isaiah 53: 10-11
I expected to be with my Scout troop this entire weekend, but their plans went awry and we were compelled to return home on Saturday afternoon. So no Sunday homily for me. What follows, then, is a really old one--actually one prepared for a homiletics class in seminary!
“Yet it was the will of the Lord to bruise him: he has put him to grief.”
On Oct. 24, 1976, the Coast Guard located a small orange raft bobbing in the Pacific. They’d been hunting for it for over 30,000 square miles of water. In the raft lay Bruce Collins, the hungry and dehydrated survivor of a shipwreck 28 days earlier. We may well imagine the anguish the Collins family during those 4 weeks.
Such anguish is trial enough. Unfortunately, it’s not the entire tragedy. For there had been 3 young people in that raft when their ketch sank in a storm. Two of them were buried at sea a week before rescue came for Bruce.
Why? What did these young sailors do to deserve that kind of physical and mental suffering? What did their parents do? Why do the innocent suffer? These are questions no one has ever been able to answer with much satisfaction. They are questions the prophet Isaiah is concerned with today. The first reading speaks of the Lord’s Servant undergoing undeserved punishment. This punishment acts as an atoning sacrifice for a multitude of sinners who probably were more deserving of punishment.
We don’t know who this unnamed Servant is. The passage seems to reflect Abraham’s story. Who was more righteous than this Hebrew patriarch? He was righteous by virtue of his supreme faith in God, and this faith of Abraham’s justified many nations (Rom 4:3,11,17-18; Gen 15:16; 17:5). Abraham’s faith had to undergo a grievous test. He believed God was commanding him to offer his only son in sacrifice. He was ready to do so; still believing God would keep his promise. Losing a son or daughter, as those families did when a sailboat sank in the Pacific, is painful. What did Abraham suffer as he prepared to sacrifice his own Isaac? God let him know, of course, that he desired not Isaac’s death, but Abraham’s complete faith. Because he believed, Abraham saw his offspring and prospered.
That offspring was Israel, who could also be the Suffering Servant of our passage. It is true that a good deal of what Israel suffered at the hands of the Gentiles was well deserved. The prophets of the Old Testament make that clear. But Isaiah seems to say Israel has gotten more than she has earned. She is still the Lord’s chosen one, his servant. We are well aware that after this passage was composed at the end of the Babylonian Exile, about 540 years before Christ, Israel has much suffering ahead of her despite and often because of her fidelity to the covenant God made with her. What value did such suffering have? If we believe God’s word spoken here thru Isaiah, like Abraham’s anguish Israel’s pains have justified many sinners. She has been the innocent lamb offered in sacrificial atonement for the sins of mankind (Lev 5). At the same time she has come to understand better her prophetic role in history. This is, in fact, a recurrent theme in Jewish literature. Suffering, if we let is be, can be the means in which we become open to the will of the Lord which is bruising us or others. It makes us realize how insignificant we are and, paradoxically, how noble we can be, like the martyrs of Judaism and Christianity, or just on the human level, like baseball’s Lou Gehrig in the face of lateral sclerosis. Bruce Collins did, in fact, admit having a religious experience during those 28 days adrift. The good in what is painful comes only when we open ourselves to suffering atonement, atonement that is either personal or universal.
We can get still more radical. Acceptance of imposed suffering isn’t easy, but we don’t have a whole lot of choice about enduring it. Yet we find men and women who deliberately choose the way of atonement: St. Therese suffering in her French convent that God might convert far-away pagans; Albert Schweitzer abandoning a successful scholarly career that he might bring medicine to black Africa and atone for his fellow Europeans’ mistreatment of them.
And we see the greatest example of suffering atonement in him whom the Church has for 2,000 years seen as the Suffering Servant—Jesus Christ. In the gospels we see him ever submissive to his Father’s will, quite aware that he is cast in a role which involves suffering and death (cf. Phil 2:8). His sin offering was such a total submission to the divine will that it has atoned for the wicked rebellion of all of us and made us righteous. And certainly it is we who deserve the suffering, not Jesus. Because he obeyed, he has been raised up and sees the fruit of his travail: the Church born from his pierced heart, as the Fathers of the Church have put it.
No, neither Abraham nor Israel, neither Jesus nor the saints explain why you and I suffer. There is no apparent reasoning behind our fates. Neither the wisdom writers of the Old Testament nor the philosophers of all ages have found a reason either. We can discover but two things: what the reading told us in the first line: “It was the will of the Lord to bruise him,” and what Paul tells us, that we share in Christ’s suffering now and in his glory later. The Lord’s will is a loving will, and he has his own loving reasons for permitting evil, which includes suffering. We sometimes see the love in retrospect, like children who’ve grown up. At other times we’ll only grasp the full breadth, length, height, and depth of that love (cf. Eph 3:18-19) when we’ve been raised up with Jesus.