Apr 13, 2022: Wednesday of Holy Week

1st Reading – Isaiah 50:4-9a

The Lord GOD has given me a well-trained tongue,
That I might know how to speak to the weary
a word that will rouse them.
Morning after morning he 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;
my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting.

The Lord GOD is my help, therefore I am not disgraced;
I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame.
He is near who upholds my right;
if anyone wishes to oppose me, let us appear together.
Who disputes my right? Let that man confront me.
See, the Lord GOD is my help; who will prove me wrong?

The passage from Isaiah that we read today is a portion of the third Servant Song, which we also just heard on Passion (Palm) Sunday.

Isaiah offered words of hope to the Israelites while they were in exile in Babylon. He also helped them find meaning in the suffering they were enduring. In this context, the suffering servant Isaiah writes about is the nation of Israel; however, some commentators see this passage as being a description of Isaiah himself.

The Gospel writers saw the words of this song as finding fulfillment in Jesus — especially what the song has to say about the suffering and silent fortitude of the servant. Rather than avoid the suffering he is facing, the servant accepts it and professes confidence in God.

The Lord GOD has given me a well-trained tongue, that I might know how to speak to the weary a word that will rouse them.

God has appointed the speaker as a prophet and provided him with the tools required for his task (“a well-trained tongue” and later, open ears). These gifts are given to the speaker, but they are for the benefit of the weary, to whom he ministers.

It is not clear who these weary might be or what the character of his rousing words are, but there seems to be an implication that the hearers are in some way downtrodden and that the words are words of comfort.

Morning after morning he opens my ear that I may hear;

Open ears are symbolic of openness to God. The word is alive and fresh each day, for God opens the speaker’s ears “morning after morning.” He is always attentive to hear the word that is given.

Note that the servant takes no credit — it is God who opens his ear; his readiness to accept God’s will is a gift of grace.

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; my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting.

A heavy price is exacted from the speaker. Like the prophets before him (Amos 7:10-17; Micah 2:6-10; Jeremiah 20:7-18), the servant is tested by various torments.

He willingly hands himself over to be beaten and shamed. He does not try to escape or defend himself; he does not recoil from his call. If he suffers in silence, it is not out of cowardice but because God helps him and makes him stronger than his persecutors.

No explanation is given as to why his prophecy should elicit such a violent response, or even who his persecutors might be. All we know is that his ministry generates this response and that he does not abandon it or take himself out of harm’s way.

Christians see the servant’s docility as a reference to Christ:

“His self-discipline and wisdom enabled him to communicate to us the knowledge of the Father. And he was obedient onto death, death on the cross; he offered his body to the blows they struck, his shoulders to the lash; and though he was wounded on the chest and on his face, he did not try to turn away and escape their violence” (Saint Jerome, Commentarii In Isaiam, 50, 4).

The Lord GOD is my help, therefore I am not disgraced;

Despite his maltreatment, the servant is confident that God is with him. This is remarkable because at the time, suffering was generally thought to be the result of some kind of sin against God. Most in his position would have interpreted his abuse as evidence that God is on the side of their persecutors.

There are no grounds for the speaker to make this claim other than utter confidence in God.

I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame.

A phrase frequent in prophetic preaching (Ezekiel 3:8-9; Luke 9:51). It has special meaning here when you picture a face covered with spittle.

Note the speaker’s confidence is not that God will take away this suffering, but that God is present and will help him carry out his call.

He is near who upholds my right; if anyone wishes to oppose me, let us appear together. Who disputes my right? Let him confront me.

The language in these last verses is legalistic, calling to mind a court of law. The servant challenges his opponents to bring their case against him.

See, the Lord GOD is my help; who will prove me wrong?

A profession of exceptional confidence. With God at his side, no one will be able to make a case against him. Saint Paul will later refer to this verse when describing Christ in the role of intercessor on behalf of the elect, in the suit constantly pressed against them by the enemies of the soul: “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect?” (Romans 8:33).

The entire reading reinterprets the customary understanding of suffering, which was traditionally understood as a sign of alienation from God. However, here we see that even in adversity, even at our lowest point, God is with us as an advocate. He may not alleviate the affliction, but God stands by us; the suffering strengthens the one who laments.

The messianic nature of Isaiah’s suffering servant songs was only understood after Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection. Once the early church came to terms with Jesus’ crucifixion, the suffering servant songs were used to probe the mystery of suffering. In them was found the profound truth that sometimes, in order to be faithful to one’s vocation, one must accept suffering.

Suffering has a role in God’s mysterious plan.

Psalm 69: 8-10, 21-22, 31, 33-34

R. Lord, in your great love, answer me.

The responsorial psalm for this week comes from Psalm 69, a lament about suffering. Despite his difficult circumstances, the psalmist maintains hope that all will be set right.

Unfortunately, crying out to God in grief or sorrow is not something we are accustomed to doing or hearing from others. Perhaps some think it is unseemly or disrespectful to complain to God; however, a lament is actually a statement of profound faith: It acknowledges that God has power over the circumstances of life, and it is an expression of humble faith that God will come to the aid of those who cry out.

For your sake I bear insult, and shame covers my face. I have become an outcast to my brothers, a stranger to my mother’s sons,

The passage opens with an outline of the reasons for the lament. The psalmist suffers reproach and shame as well as family alienation, and all for the sake of God.

This is a serious matter in a society structured on kin relationships and strongly influenced by questions of honor and shame.

Because zeal for your house consumes me, the insults of those who blaspheme you fall upon me.

The psalmist’s religious devotion can be seen in his love for the temple, which has made him the target of criticism by those who have no respect for the holy place and the presence of God therein.

Our Lord Jesus Christ bore the sufferings described in this psalm in a unique way. Aside from Psalm 22, this psalm is the most quoted in the New Testament to show that it was fulfilled in Jesus Christ, and to exhort us to find in its text, as in all scripture, the consolation that helps to keep our hope alive (Romans 15:4).

Jesus’ disciples were reminded of the words of this verse when he showed his respect for the temple by expelling the traders from it (John 2:17).

Insult has broken my heart, and I am weak, I looked for sympathy, but there was none; for consolers, not one could I find. Rather they put gall in my food, and in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.

The psalmist describes the reproaches he has received, by the fact that he feels so alone, and by the traps laid by his enemies.

In their accounts of the passion of our Lord, the Gospel writers recall these verses:

  • abandoned by all in the garden of olives (Matthew 26:40-41; John 16:32)
  • shown no compassion by his executioners (Matthew 27:29, Mark 15:17)
  • the Romans gave him wine mixed with gall to drink (Matthew 27:34).

I will praise the name of God in song, and I will glorify him with thanksgiving: “See, you lowly ones, and be glad; you who seek God, may your hearts revive! For the LORD hears the poor, and his own who are in bonds he spurns not.”

Covenant theology includes a promise by God to care for the needy, and the responsibility of humans to care for one another. Israel believed that when someone within the covenant community was disadvantaged and not cared for by other members of the community, God would step in and redress the imbalance.

The psalmist seems to be counting on a display of such divine justice. He calls on all the downtrodden to join him in his hymn of praise to God.

Despite his awful circumstances, the psalmist perseveres in faith.

Gospel – Matthew 26:14-25

One of the Twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot,
went to the chief priests and said,
“What are you willing to give me
if I hand him over to you?”
They paid him thirty pieces of silver,
and from that time on he looked for an opportunity to hand him over.

On the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread,
the disciples approached Jesus and said,
“Where do you want us to prepare
for you to eat the Passover?”
He said,
“Go into the city to a certain man and tell him,
‘The teacher says, ‘My appointed time draws near;
in your house I shall celebrate the Passover with my disciples.’’”
The disciples then did as Jesus had ordered,
and prepared the Passover.

When it was evening,
he reclined at table with the Twelve.
And while they were eating, he said,
“Amen, I say to you, one of you will betray me.”
Deeply distressed at this,
they began to say to him one after another,
“Surely it is not I, Lord?”
He said in reply,
“He who has dipped his hand into the dish with me
is the one who will betray me.
The Son of Man indeed goes, as it is written of him,
but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed.
It would be better for that man if he had never been born.”
Then Judas, his betrayer, said in reply,
“Surely it is not I, Rabbi?”
He answered, “You have said so.”

In today’s gospel reading, we hear Matthew’s version of Jesus’ foretelling his betrayal by Judas, a prediction that was made during the Last Supper.

One of the Twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests

The name Judas is the Greek form of Judah (which in Hebrew means “praised”), a proper name frequently found both in the Old and the New Testament. Even among the Twelve there were two that bore the name, and for this reason it is usually associated with the surname Iscariot (Hebrew for “a man of Kerioth” or Carioth, which is a city of Judah (see Joshua 15:25)).

His birthplace in Judah differentiates him from the other Apostles, who were all Galileans.

and said, “What are you willing to give me if I hand him over to you?”

The gospels are unanimous in showing that Judas initiates the treachery.

They paid him thirty pieces of silver, and from that time on he looked for an opportunity to hand him over.

It is disconcerting and sobering to realize that Judas Iscariot actually went as far as to sell the man whom he had believed to be the Messiah and who had called him to be one of the apostles.

Thirty pieces of silver (shekels) was the price of a slave (Exodus 21:32); note that Judas assigns the same value to his master.

On the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread,

This is one of the three annual feasts for which all men were expected to come to the Temple. The city was jammed with people, many of whom rented space. The city’s normal population of 30,000 swelled to 130,000.

The feast lasted a week and a day (14 through 21 Nisan).

the disciples approached Jesus and said, “Where do you want us to prepare for you to eat the Passover?”

The apostles knew that Jesus would keep all the ordinances of the Passover, being the faithful Jew that he was.

Passover commemorates the Hebrews’ liberation from slavery in Egypt and the “passing over” of the forces of destruction when the Lord “smote the land of Egypt” on the eve of the Exodus.

Since he had no permanent home, the apostles sought guidance as to where their celebration would be held so that they could make the appropriate arrangements.

He said, “Go into the city to a certain man

Although this reference is to an unnamed person, Jesus probably gave the person’s actual name. In any event, based on what the other gospels tell us (Mark 14:13, Luke 22:10), Jesus gave the disciples enough information to enable them to find the house.

and tell him, ‘The teacher says, “My appointed time draws near; in your house I shall celebrate the Passover with my disciples.”’ The disciples then did as Jesus had ordered, and prepared the Passover. When it was evening, he reclined at table with the Twelve.

This makes it clear that no one else was present, contrary to the usual family setting of the Passover meal. Jesus will share this particular Passover with a different kind of family — those who will be instrumental in building his Body, the Church.

And while they were eating, he said, “Amen, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” Deeply distressed at this, they began to say to him one after another, “Surely it is not I, Lord?”

The apostles’ faith has been steadily fortified and deepened in the course of Jesus’ public ministry (see John 2:11, 6:68-69) through their contact with him and the divine grace they have been given (Matthew 16:17).

At this point, they are well aware that Jesus knows their internal attitudes and how they are going to act: each asks in a concerned way whether he will prove loyal in the time ahead.

He said in reply, “He who has dipped his hand into the dish with me is the one who will betray me.

Jesus knows exactly who the traitor is.

This echoes Psalm 41:10: Even my trusted friend, who ate my bread, has raised his heel against me. 

The Son of Man indeed goes, as it is written of him, 

Jesus is referring to the fact that he will give himself up freely to suffering and death. In so doing, he will fulfill the will of God, as proclaimed centuries before (see Isaiah 53:7).

but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed. It would be better for that man if he had never been born.”

This condemnation of Judas’ act is the most severe of all the gospels. Although Jesus goes to his death voluntarily, this does not reduce the seriousness of Judas’ treachery.

It was not inevitable that one of his friends should betray him.

The enormity of the deed is such that it would be better not to exist than to do it.

Then Judas, his betrayer, said in reply, “Surely it is not I, Rabbi?”

This verse is unique to Matthew and establishes a direct confrontation between the betrayer and the betrayed.

To avoid coming under the suspicion of guilt by his silence, Judas poses the same question as the others. Notice how the other apostles address Jesus as “Lord,” while Judas uses “Rabbi,” the title normally used in Matthew’s gospel by the faithless.

He answered, “You have said so.”

This is a half-affirmative. Emphasis is laid on the pronoun and the answer implies that the statement would not have been made if the question had not been asked.

This word from Christ was enough to convict him. If Judas’ heart had not been hardened, it could have persuaded him to abandon his plan and seek forgiveness. But alas, this was not the case — Judas had already given himself over to the enemy.

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