January 19, 2014
In the Gospel reading this week from the book of John, Jesus asks the first two Disciples who follow him, “What are you looking for?” The Greek word for “what” (tis) is actually fairly vague – it could also mean who or which. The question is answered further into the reading, after Andrew (one of the two Disciples) goes to his brother Simon Peter and says “We have found the Messiah” (John adds “which is translated Anointed”) (John 1:41). Overall, we are left with a sense that the first two Disciples really weren’t sure what they were looking for, but they felt they would know it when they saw it.
Here at the beginning of the 21st Century, we’re all still looking for something, or someone, who will save us. We’re not sure what (or who) that is, but it’s important, and we’ll know it when we see it.
The word “Messiah” comes from the Hebrew ha maschiach, which means “the anointed”. In the Hebrew Blble, all kings of Israel were referred to as “God’s anointed,” because in order to be named as king, the individual in question had to be anointed with oil by a priest who had seen a sign that this person was appointed by God. Several people in the Hebrew Bible were designated as ha maschiah, including Joshua and Zerubbabel (Zech 4:14) and even the pagan Cyrus of Persia (Isaiah 45:1) for his role in liberating the Israelite captives of Babylon. So in the original Hebrew understanding, “Messiah” does not literally mean “Son of God.” It simply means someone who has been anointed for the purpose of leading God’s people. So when the Palestinian Jews of Jesus’ day were looking for the arrival of the Messiah, they were thinking of a leader who would be anointed to lead them to liberation from bondage under the Romans. But they were not sure exactly what (or who) that would look like.
The Hebrew Bible reading for this week is second of the four “Suffering Servant” oracles from the prophet Isaiah (42:1-4; 49:1-7; 50:4-11; 52:13-53). The Suffering Servant is an enigmatic figure – we are not sure exactly who or what the prophet means by this oracle (even though later Christian theologians would take them as a foretelling of the suffering Christ). On one hand, the oracle indicates that the servant is Israel itself: “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified” (Isaiah 49:3), and that the nation is “one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations, the slave of rulers” (vv.7). On the other, the oracle appears to be describing an individual person: “The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me. He made my mouth like a sharp sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me away” (vv.1-2). Whether a person or a nation, though, the Suffering Servant is designated as “a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (vv.6). We’re not sure what it is, but it’s important, and we’ll know it when we see it.
On the weekend commemorating the life and death of Martin Luther King, Jr., we would do well to ask ourselves “What are we looking for?” In death, the Rev. Dr. King has been made (literally) into a towering, stone monolith. The man, however, was altogether human and deeply despised by many, one of whom ultimately took his life. For the Rev. Dr. King, leadership was much more than simply cultivating a monolithic cult of personality; it was about offering a vision (“a light to the nations”) that is desperately needed for our time:“The stability of the large world house which is ours will involve a revolution of values to accompany the scientific and freedom revolutions engulfing the earth. We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing’-oriented society to a ‘person’-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered. A civilization can flounder as readily in the face of moral and spiritual bankruptcy as it can through financial bankruptcy” (Where do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? Boston: Beacon Press, 1967. pp. 186).
When we are looking for a Messiah, we are often looking for a monolith – someone (or something) who will save us. We often overlook the Suffering Servant, or the humble individual offering us ideas to bring ourselves out of our present situation – ideas likely to be denigrated and violently opposed by rulers and media drunk on racism, materialism and militarism. When we embrace each other as our primary goal, we realize (in the words of the 1978 June Jordan poem) “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for”.