We’ll never understand why Deutero-Isaiah composed his Second Song of the Suffering Servant if we just listen to it in its liturgical form. I have no idea why verse 4 has been left out of today’s first reading.
In his original reflection the prophet can’t understand why Yahweh says, “You are my servant through whom I show my glory!” (The word “Israel” was added by a later scribe applying the song to all the Chosen People, just as later Christians applied it to Jesus.) In the omitted verse 4, Deutero-Isaiah tells us why he’s so perplexed. “I thought I had toiled in vain, and for nothing, uselessly spent my strength.”
Though the prophet is convinced Yahweh has called him to his prophetic ministry, he’s just as convinced he’s a failure. No one seems to be changing his or her value system because of the message he proclaims.
Once we restore verse 4 to its proper place we also have a key for interpreting our other two readings on a deeper level.
Paul, for instance, begins his first letter to the Corinthians by giving his pedigree: “Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God....” No one can be more certain he’s doing what God wants him to do. Yet after we read all the Apostle’s letters, we find he often has to deal with failure in his God-given mission. We need only turn to the second half of chapter 11 in this very letter to hear Paul’s frustration with the way some in the Corinthian community are celebrating the Eucharist. They’re completely ignoring his teaching on the body of Christ. And we can never forget his painful comment in Galatians 4, “I am afraid on your account that perhaps I have labored for you in vain.” It’s one thing to do what God wants us to do; a totally other thing to succeed in that endeavor.
We must be careful when we deal with the image of John the Baptist expressed in our Christian Scriptures. In the minds of the four evangelists, John has been designated by Yahweh to prepare the way for Jesus. As we hear in today’s gospel pericope, he succeeds in doing so, introducing the long-awaited Messiah to everyone in earshot: “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.. . . Now I have seen and testified that this is the Son of God.” No one could be more successful in his or her God-assigned task.
Yet scholars contend this picture of the Baptist is historically inaccurate. Only after his untimely death did Jesus’ followers begin to look at him as their mentor’s precursor. He probably looked at himself as failing in his primary mission of bringing his people to Yahweh, and helping them make Yahweh’s will a priority in their lives. It never crossed his mind that one of his followers, a Capernaum carpenter, one day would be regarded as Yahweh.
All three - Deutero-Isaiah, Paul and John - are proof we can’t trust our own judgment on ourselves. It’s in the midst of failure that God most seems to be working through these three individuals. After Jesus’ death and resurrection Christians quickly began to interpret him through the person and words of the martyred Deutero-Isaiah. The Baptist’s failed ministry became the gospel stepping-off point for Jesus’ own ministry. And Pauline scholars agree that out of the Apostle’s authentic seven letters, the best are those he wrote when he was totally out of control of the churches to whom they were directed.
Almost 50 years after the close of Vatican II, many of us inspired by the vision of church expressed by the majority of the council’s participants probably judge our life and ministry as a failure. Yet if we keep living both their and Jesus’ dream of reform, I wonder how people 150 years from now will look at our “failure.”