The First Reading gives us something rare in Scripture: a dialogue between God the Father and the Messiah he sent. But if you look at the verse numbers of our First Reading, you will see that Verse 4 has been omitted.*
The preceding Verse 3 is God’s line to the Messiah. My way of phrasing it would be, “You are my servant, and you will be a spectacular success; people will be able to see the glory of God by looking at you.”
This is a powerful expression of praise and affirmation, isn’t it?
But guess how the Messiah responds to God in the omitted Verse 4?
In the first of his two lines in Verse 4, the Messiah says (in my way of phrasing it), “I have labored in vain. I have used all my strength, and it has all been for nothing.”
This line is a powerful expression of failure, isn’t it?
You can see why someone might have thought Christ’s mission was a failure. The people passing by Christ on the cross certainly didn’t see the glory of God in him then! And by the time of his death, the work of Christ’s life had come only to this: he had a handful of disciples and a few women as hangers-on. If the goal was to bring salvation to the world, you can see that this result would look like total failure.
But here is the gist of what God says in Verses 5-6, in response to the Messiah’s expression of failure in Verse 4: “You are glorious, in the sight of the Lord, and God is your strength. Just saving Israel is too small a success for you; you will bring salvation to all the ends of the earth.”
The first communities of Christians and all the apostles were Jewish. By now there are Christian communities in every non-Jewish part of the earth, too. And so Christ’s mission to bring salvation to the Jews and the Gentiles was a glorious success, as in the First Reading God predicted it would be.
But all that success came only after the death of the Messiah.
Our success, like our glory, needs to be through God’s strength, in God’s sight, and in God’s time. And that is why, in the second of his two lines in the omitted Verse 4, the Messiah says, “my judgment is with the Lord, and my work is with my God.”
* In the bishops’ formal translation for the liturgy, that line is rendered as follows:
Though I thought I had toiled in vain,
for nothing and for naught spent my strength,
Yet my right is with the LORD,
my recompense is with my God.
Eleonore Stump is Professor of Philosophy, Saint Louis University
**From Saint Louis University