For the second consecutive Sunday, we're missing an essential verse from a Deutero-Isaiah reading (Is 49:3, 5-6). One of the Scripture's most important passages, this Second Song of the Suffering Servant deals with the experience of failure in following God. But, without verse 4 in the liturgical reading, we'd never guess that the prophet's ineffectiveness is the reason he reflects this second time on his call and ministry. Deutero-Isaiah originally wrote: "'You are my servant,' Yahweh said to me, 'through whom I show my glory.' Though I thought I had toiled in vain, and for nothing, uselessly, spent my strength. Yet my reward is with Yahweh, my recompense is with my God. Now Yahweh has spoken...." Besides reinserting verse 4, I removed the word "Israel" from verse 3. Scripture scholars believe a scribe added the word to the text, turning a song originally about an individual prophet into a reflection on the whole Chosen People. New mission In its restored form, the passage shows Deutero-Isaiah's amazement at being rewarded by Yahweh after failing to carry out his original Yahweh-given mission. Though unable to bring Jacob back to God or gather Israel to Yahweh, the prophet isn't reprimanded. God gives him a wider mission! "I will make you a light to the nations," Yahweh proclaims, "that my salvation will reach to the ends of the earth." If the Jews won't listen to him, the Gentiles will. But our concern with Deutero-Isaiah's future mission shouldn't lead us to overlook Yahweh's first comment: "You are my servant through whom I show my glory." The late Rev. John L. McKenzie explained in his famous "Dictionary of the Bible," that to see Yahweh's glory in this context means "to witness Yahweh's saving acts." When we couple McKenzie's definition with Deutero-Isaiah's reflection, we discover a deep, confusing truth: Yahweh saves us just as much through our failures as through our successes! Paul of Tarsus would have agreed completely. Scholars are fairly certain that he knew he had lost control of the Corinthian community. He had worked hard to instill a quest for unity amid diversity in his converts. Yet now he's convinced that this "holy" concept has been shattered by everyday envy and insecurity (I Cor 1:1-3). Though the Apostle mentions one of his most significant themes - his insistence that individual Christian churches are part of a more universal Christian church - he does so against a background of this particular church being torn apart by factions and selfishness, and beset with doubts about personal resurrection. There's almost no "otherness" in Corinth, the otherness which should characterize all Christian communities. Yet failure doesn't stop Paul from instructing, pleading and encouraging his community to become the people he had hoped and prayed they would be. In the process, he composes a letter which has helped shape Christian communities for almost 2,000 years. Paul's lack of success in Corinth gives life to the whole Church. Success in failure In a similar way, John the Baptizer enlivens Jesus' followers by his failure (Jn 1:29-34). Unfortunately, the only "John" we know is the John we find in the Christian Scriptures: the precursor of Jesus. Scripture scholars often remind us that the historical John probably looked at his mission from a different angle than those who later made it revolve around Jesus. According to Christians, John was a great success at proclaiming "the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world" and in confessing that "the one who ranks ahead of me was before me." Yet scholars believe that John historically thought he was sent to reform Israel, to help Yahweh's people carry out Yahweh's will. What a surprise when, after his failure and death, he arrives in heaven to discover he actually succeeded in a mission he didn't realize he had! In his failure to reform Israel, he had inadvertently prepared the way for the One who would reform Israel and the world, the one who would help all people discover Yahweh's will. Sunday's biblical message couldn't be clearer. When we reflect on our lives and ministries, we'd better not omit our failures. In those embarrassing moments, God was at His saving best.

(01-14-99)