Monday of Holy Week – First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 42:1-7

Today we have the first of the four Songs of the Servant of Yahweh from Isaiah. Together, they describe the finest qualities of Israel and her great leaders. Today’s song, describes a ‘chosen one’ like Moses, David, and all Israel. As the Servant, he fulfils the role of Davidic king and prophet. It is a beautiful description of a mysterious servant of God which the Church has long realised applies so aptly to Jesus.

The passage is taken from the ‘Book of Consolation’, or Second Isaiah (chaps 40-55). It speaks of Israel as a ‘Servant of Yahweh’, chosen or set apart, to act as God’s witness before the nations. But the four Songs of the Servant of Yahweh (42:1-9; 49:1-6; 50:4-11; 52:13-53:12) present a mysterious ‘servant’ who in some ways is like the servant-Israel of the other passages. In today’s passage, however, he is distinguished from the servant-Israel, and shown to have other qualities which show him as a particular individual.

Called by Yahweh while still in his mother’s womb, ‘formed’ by him, filled with his spirit, the servant is a ‘disciple’. Yahweh has opened his ears, so that, by establishing justice on earth, he may instruct mankind, and sort them and judge them by his word. He performs his task gently and without display, even appearing to fail in it. He accepts outrage and contempt and does not succumb because Yahweh sustains him.

Yahweh is speaking and says, “Here is my servant”. He designates and consecrates the Servant. In the royal terminology of the ancient Near East, “servant” could mean something like “trusted envoy” or “confidential representative”.

Jesus, too, called himself a ‘servant’:

The Son of Man did not come to be served; he came to serve and to give his life to redeem many people. (Mark 10:45)

He gave a dramatic example when he knelt down and washed his disciples’ feet at the Last Supper (John 13:1-17).

He will not only ‘gather’ Israel, but he will be the light of the nations everywhere. The New Testament, sees Jesus as this servant – in his person the attributes of the King-Messiah, Son of David, are united with those of the suffering servant (see Luke 4:17-21).

In the previous chapter, King Cyrus of Persia had been introduced as delivering Israel from captivity in Babylon, but the Servant would deliver the whole world from the prison of sin.

The passage speaks of gentleness and non-violence, a message so necessary for our time. Gentle, but not weak or passive.

He does not cry out or raise his voice.

He is a bringer of harmony and peace, not of noise and turmoil.

He does not break the crushed reed or snuff the faltering wick.

He does not exploit the weak in a false show of power, but empowers through bringing healing and wholeness to the frail and the weak. This is just what Jesus did in his mission to the people.

He will not grow faint, he will not be crushed, until true justice is established on earth.

This passage is quoted by Matthew in his gospel (Matt 12:18-21). In his gentleness and compassion, there is no weakness. There is a great inner strength, but a total rejection of violence.

The coasts and islands are awaiting for his instruction.

This indicates the lands of the Mediterranean and, by implication, the pagan lands lying beyond Israel. The Servant has a mission to all, not just to some.

Then comes the special call made by Yahweh to the Servant.

I have called you in saving justice.

This is similar to the call made earlier to King Cyrus, who will deliver the Jews from their Babylonian exile and allow them to return home.

I have taken you by the hand and formed you.

In Hebrew, the same term is used in the creation story of Genesis to describe Yahweh ‘forming’ or ‘modelling’ the body of the first man. Jesus, of course, is the New Adam.

I have made you a covenant of the people and light to the nations…

Jesus as Messiah will inaugurate the New Covenant by his suffering and death, a covenant now embracing peoples everywhere. We will see that more clearly when we read more of the Suffering Servant during Holy Week.

This Servant has been called by God, the creator of all things, to do God’s work and carry out his will. He will be “a light of the nations” and will “open the eyes of the blind, free captives from prison and those who live in darkness from the dungeon”. Originally this referred to release from the prison of the Babylonian exile, but it also indicates the hope of liberation for every person from all spiritual and moral bondage.

As we begin Holy Week, we are reminded that this work of God’s servant, which we also are, has to go on through us. We are not here this week just to be spectators, even grateful spectators. We are to be part of the work which the Paschal Mystery inaugurated. We, too, are to be servants, ready, if necessary, to suffer as Jesus did for the sake of our brothers and sisters.

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