A Taught Tongue

The Lord GOD has given to me a tongue of those-taught to know to sustain the weary with a word.  He wakes in the morning, in the morning he wakes my ear to hear as those-taught. Isaiah 50:4 [my translation]

Text for Sunday, April 14: Isa 50:4-9; linked here https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=isa+50%3A4-9&version=NRSV

My translation is clunky.  This is deliberate.  I want to have to think about every word.  I don’t want my eyes to glide across the line merely reminding myself of the text and what I know.

I want to hear it.  I want to know something new.

Which is risky, and frightens me a little.

I’ve bought a book by an author I’ve never read before.  I am excited to hold it in my hands, to anticipate hearing a voice and stories which are to me entirely new.  I open the book, tugging at its still-stiff binding, and suddenly I am aware of a frisson of fear.  What if it is not what I expect?  What if I find I don’t care for the author’s voice, or her story?  Or — perhaps worse — what if I do?  What if I am taken with it all, and am taken thereby to someplace I do not want to go?   My worry is not that I shall have wasted money or time in reading.  It is that I shall have wasted part of my heart in caring.  I am already so tired; I do not have the energy for another’s book-bound pain.

My study Bible helpfully captions Isaiah 50:4-11, ‘The Servant’s Humiliation and Vindication’ just in case I can’t follow the progression from smiting and spitting (50:6) to flint-faced confidence (50:7-8).  Some of my students immediately ‘know’ that this passage is about Jesus; the connection between Jesus and Isaiah’s servant is an early Christian tradition (Acts 8:32-35).  But I assign my students articles that identify the servant as the prophet who wrote, or the prophet Jeremiah, the king Zedekiah, the holy city Zion, or the nation of Israel, sometimes called Jacob (e.g. Isaiah 41:8).  I have in my files as many articles again.  The reams of studies can make it seem as if as if the text was written to be a riddle — ‘Who is the servant?’ — a test of our ability to answer correctly.  

But what if the text does not pose that question?

The Lord GOD has given to me a tongue of those-taught.

The NRSV describes God’s gift as ‘the tongue of a teacher,’ but the Hebrew is ‘taught-ones,’ or ‘disciples.’  The same term recurs at the end of the verse, applied to the speaker’s ear waked to hear.  The organs of hearing and of speech linked by this descriptor of each as taught, each as open to receive the LORD’s gift, the LORD’s waking.

What is the LORD waking me to hear?  Is it even a question?  And if the LORD wakes me, instead, with an answer, then what is the question I am meant to have asked?

What if the point of these verses is not the identity of the servant but of the ‘me’ gifted by the Lord GOD?  The one wakened to hear, wakened to be taught, wakened to speak as one who has heard and learned.  The one who knows that the waking and the teaching are not only for my own, personal, sake, but for the sustaining of the weary.  Even if the ‘weary’ and the taught are the exact same ‘one.’  Or ‘ones.’  It’s plural, after all.

It’s easier, I realize — and, I admit, fun — to follow the threads of text-connection — to pretend that the point is the question ‘Who is the servant?’  Because once we answer that, right or wrong, we can be done with it.  Because ‘the servant’ is Jesus or Jeremiah or Jacob or Zion, but in any case not-me, not us.  

But what if the text is not a riddle but an invitation.  Morning by morning to be waked to listen,  so to speak the story I — we — have heard.  Which means morning by morning to be waked not just by the noise of birds singing the sun up or school buses rumbling past but by others’ voices, others’ stories.  In print, in person, even in ancient texts read anew.  To risk not just my time and energy but my heart.  To identify with and as, even at risk of being pulled unwilling to places I did not want to have to go.  To be able to set my story, there, so, with all the rest, to see it in its proper shape and size and to see the way it fits as part of the larger whole.  To sustain with my speech, and, speaking and hearing, to be sustained.

We are on the verge of Holy Week.  From Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, through his suffering and death, and past death into life.  If it’s only about Jesus, we can tick the boxes, turn in our test papers, and promptly forget the whole.  

But what if it’s about us?  What are our ears waked to hear?

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