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Isaiah 50:4-9a

For Christian readers this passage instantly evokes images of Jesus’ trial and conviction. All three synoptic gospels either allude to, or directly quote a portion of it. In its larger context, the poet is responding to God, when God asks why no one will rise up to answer Him when He comes to ransom Israel. The voice of the poet echoes back in answer, accepting the role. A similar image comes up in revelation when the hosts of heaven begin lamenting that no one is worthy to open the scroll, and then a voice declares in response that the lamb that was slain is worthy.

In this poem the voice says ‘I’m here, I have answered’. They claim the tongue and ears of a disciple, highlighting their commitment to learn from, and speak on behalf of God. And for this, the speaker has been ridiculed, and others seek their humiliation. Yet, the speaker is not humiliated, because they know that their detractors have no fit cause for causing them harm. They know they are on the right side, and that one lives who will make the truth apparent.

These thoughts flow out of the author’s own experience, but the time of the prophets was not terribly dissimilar to the time of Jesus. In the time of the prophets, those with power; kings, high priests, the wealthy, they’d actively seek out and support prophets who told them what they wanted to hear, and taught them things they already believed. Chief among those beliefs they paid prophets to reaffirm for them was that God would never allow Jerusalem to fall. But when on occasion one of these persons in power came across a prophet who actually spoke from revelations about what God was really doing, they’d at best dismiss the prophet as a quack. More often though, people in power would use their power to silence dissenting voices; a reality reflected in the prophet’s words here.

The time of Jesus was another inflection point in the history of the Jews; another moment when war was coming, and people in power were seeking out voices who would promise them that God would never allow Jerusalem to fall… this time. The political, religious, and cultural leaders of the Jews were all seeking to rally support among the common people to ensure that when God inevitably gave them victory over Rome, it would be their group leading the charge. When Jesus declares right at the heart of their nationalistic recruitment that Jerusalem had been condemned, and the Temple would be destroyed He instantly became a threat to the ambitions of the elites of Jerusalem.

To this day, people are more than willing to pay someone to prove to them things they already believe. We still have a nasty habit of seeking out voices that will assure us that we’re doing the right thing, that God is fine with our bad habits and iniquities, that the groups we identify with; our country, our political party, our denomination, that those groups are squarely in the center of God’s plan, and the harm they cause is justifiable, because we’re in a war against those people over there, outside of God’s plan. We may even still harbor a violent impulse towards those who would present us with counterevidence to our assumptions.

As far removed as we are in terms of culture and time from the audience of the prophet, or the council of elders interrogating Jesus, we are not all that far away in terms of attitude and impulse. It’s a problem that Christians are uniquely susceptible to, because it is tempting to frame all conflicts and disagreements in stark, black and white, good and evil divisions which minimize the complexities inherent in many of those situations.