The four readings for this Sunday present us with a pair of contrasts: voluntary versus involuntary suffering, and divine versus human help. The first and last readings are about the first kind of suffering – that to which one gives assent; suffering that one is willing to risk and endure for the sake of a greater good, or a higher calling. In the passage from Isaiah, the speaker (the voice of the prophet, of the community of Israel, or, proleptically, of the Christ) declares, “The Lord GOD opens my ear that I may hear;/and I have not rebelled/have not turned back.//I gave my back to those who beat me/my cheeks to those who plucked my beard.” The suffering described may not have been sought, but at least the sufferer has the confidence that enduring this suffering is an act of obedience to God. So also the one to whom Christ says, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.”
The suffering spoken of in the Psalm is, it seems, of quite a different sort. It suggests a suffering that is perhaps both unbidden and unexpected, that is, involuntary, without a reason or purpose, and without the deep sense of acceptance that comes from confidence that in suffering, one is following the way of Jesus for the sake of the kingdom. Regarding his or her suffering, the Psalmist recounts,” the cords of death encompassed me;/the snares of the netherworld seized upon me;//I fell into distress and sorrow.” This is a deep, dark suffering, perhaps as much psychological and spiritual as physical.
The one thing the Psalmist is confident of is God’s deliverance. While the wording itself suggests that the suffering has passed (“I was brought low, and he saved me”) this need not be the case. Sometimes the past tense simply reflects the speaker’s confidence of a future outcome: “I shall walk before the Lord in the land of the living.” What if one is suffering in a terminal way, though, without the confidence that one can be “saved” from this distress? Here, I think, the Psalmist’s words allow for hope both in the resurrection, and in “life” that is characterized by hope and faith, even in the midst of the daily deaths of suffering, and even as we anticipate our physical death. In other words, when the sufferer asserts “I believe I shall walk before the Lord in the land of the living,” “the land of the living” may have a much fuller sense than simply being soundly in one’s body.
The reading from James presents us with the second contrast. Whereas the Psalmists looks to God for deliverance, James asserts that genuine faith will be attuned to the suffering and needs of others, and will do something to alleviate it. This affirms that, while suffering seems inevitable and Christ charges us to “take up our cross,” suffering is not God’s original intention for humanity. In caring for the needs of others we to witness to, and demonstrate God’s goodness. And we act as Christ did, who came to be with us in our suffering, and to bear suffering for us, in order that we might walk before the Lord in the land of the living.