In her description of Jesus’ wilderness experience – namely, Jesus’ rejecting those concepts of Messiah that were extant in his day – Elizabeth Howes (Jesus’ Answer to God) may have missed a part of the picture — the influence of the suffering servant passages of second Isaiah. She does acknowledge that these passages were different from the Messiah expectations present duringJesus’ lifetime. She simply assigns them as a corporate metaphor for Israel. She does acknowledge that where the ‘Son of man’ is mentioned in the ‘suffering servant’ passages that these connections were probably “at work in the awareness of Jesus” (page 36).
As I read Spong’s description of the ‘suffering servant’ …
The realization dawned on these exiles that they were destined to live in weakness, not power; to bear pain, not glory; to be victims, not victors. Embracing this reality emotionally and rationally, the unknown prophet we call II Isaiah perceived a new image of how the Jewish people could live out their messianic purpose, how they could still be a blessing to the nations of the world. They were to turn their defeat and their weakness into an expression of their purpose. They were to allow themselves to be victimized by the world’s hostility and in the process to transform that hostility into life and wholeness. They were to drain the world of its anger simply by absorbing it and then returning it as love. They were to accept their status as the despised, the rejected; a people of sorrows and acquainted with grief. They were to be wounded for the transgressions of the world, bruised for the iniquities of the world, and through their suffering, their stripes, the world would be made whole. The servant was to be the symbol, the dramatic presentation of this newly understood messianic vocation for the Jewish people. In their suffering they were to remain silent, not to open their mouths in protest. In this way the servant, another lamb of God, became “an offering for sin,” and thus it was said of the Jews who would be faithful to this vocation that “many may be accounted righteous” (Isa. 53: 11).
[Spong, John Shelby (2013-06-11). The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic (pp. 183-184). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.]
… I begin to wonder if what Yesuha did was to take the content of ‘suffering servant’ passages, translate them from a corporate image (Israel) to a process available not only to him but also to all humankind, and then use the term ‘Son of man’ to describe that content and the choice necessary to actualize it.
Perhaps the reason that Howes does not do more with the ‘suffering servant’ passages is that she understands it as a strong force:
In these poems the servant, though wounded for the transgression of others, and stricken and suffering, becomes a radiant, majestic, all-powerful one who will usher in the new era. This especially appears in Isaiah 53. Christianity has assumed that Jesus has fulfilled this suffering servant function, and has given him this title among others. Our question is how much the moving and transformative features inherent in the Isaiah suffering servant moved and toughed Jesus — in the Son of man as suffering, and in “I am in the midst of you as one who served.” (page 9)
What I find interesting is that Howes’ reading has Jesus take concepts and turn them inside out — not discarding them, but letting them breathe with radically new life. I think the church has been right in seeing the analogy between the suffering servant and Jesus, but has been wrong in identifying that correlation with the concept of the Messiah. That Jesus embodied the suffering servant was not the fulfillment of predictive prophecy; instead, it was the foundation upon which Jesus presented a new understanding of the messianic process available to all humankind. If you want to know what salvation and redemption are all about… If you want a description of what it means to “sell all” for the Kingdom… If you are looking for Messiah… Then, look within yourself and compare what you see and how you act with this description of a true servant of God. It is not just a fanciful dream or a continuing hope, it is a possibility for all.
To capture this, I have taken the paragraph from Spong and re-written it to elaborate and explicate the sentence from Howes: “He sacrificed being the natural man to become a supranatural man— or to live the Son of man stretched between divine and human.” (page 213):
The realization dawned on Yeshua that he (and all those who commit to God) were destined to live in weakness, not power; to bear pain, not glory; to be victims, not victors. Embracing this reality emotionally and rationally, Yeshua perceived a new image of how to live out the messianic purpose, how to be a blessing to the world. He would embrace defeat and weakness, integrating them into an expression of God’s purpose. He would allow himself to be victimized by the world’s hostility and in the process to transform that hostility into life and wholeness. He would drain the world of its anger simply by absorbing it and then returning it as love. He would accept his status as the despised, the rejected; a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. He would be wounded for the transgressions of the world, bruised for the iniquities of the world, and through his suffering, his stripes, the world would be made whole. The Son of man was to be the symbol, the dramatic presentation of this newly understood messianic vocation. In his suffering he would choose to remain silent, not to open his mouth in protest. Howes writes (p. 202) that Yeshua “knew that what was behind the Messianic longing for a savior to redeem the people had been manifested inside him,” [and now for the radical nature of Yeshua’s understanding] “and knew that the same reality could happen to others.” The messianic is not the sole prerogative of Yeshua; it is an option, a choice, open to all of us. In this way the Son of man, the “basis for authority and decision making,” became “an offering for sin,” and thus it can be said of any who would be faithful to this messianic vocation that “many may be accounted righteous.” (Isa. 53: 11)