She sits on the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer’s “Entertainment” section (December 30, 1983). She is a model wearing military camouflage clothing. A heavy black belt constricts her waist. Immediately above it a skull grins on a black t-shirt visible beneath the camouflage suit zipped open to her waist. Above the skull part of the word “mercenary” is visible. Her eyes peer out from under a black beret and over black glasses. Behind her march the stars and stripes of her proud country’s flag.
She appeared above a story about the explosion in war-oriented dress styles and values that took place in America after the invasion of Grenada.
“It’s been unbelievable,” said Tom Hall, manager of five … Army and Navy stores. “Especially kids’ camouflage. Every piece I could get my hands on, I could have sold.”
A Philadelphia psychiatrist bubbled warmly on about the value of this commando image as a guide to the maturity which operates independently, self-sufficiently and effectively in a dangerous world. The commando image remains a fitting symbol of the obsession with glitter, glamor, war and winning that continues to possess the national psyche.
Perhaps for all of us the pull is there, the allure of possessing competent, strong selves equipped to stride unflinchingly through life, no matter how many mortar shells and truck bombs may explode across our paths. But if the essence of sin is estrangement from others and from parts of ourselves, then when we worship the commando image we commit the grievous sin of idolizing a narrow segment of ourselves at the expense of all the rest.
While such worship appears to be increasing in our society, particularly as terrorists wound our national pride with bombs, hijackings and bullets, the seduction is old.
Signs of commando thinking popped up throughout the history of Israel. During the days of the judges, the people began to simmer restlessly as they watched the nations surrounding them crowning their kings, those enticing symbols of destinies under control. Despite warnings against it, they crowned their own kings, and entered the world of commando maneuvers, in which each nation competed to see who could establish the largest sphere of control and dominion.
King David, one of the great leaders of this transition period, burned on in succeeding centuries as an archetypal example of mighty commando leadership. Almost three centuries later, King Ahaz, threatened by Israel, Syria and Assyria, persisted in commando thinking, as he attempted to ensure his security through his own political and military manipulations, even after the prophet Isaiah warned him only God could make him safe.
It is into this commando-dominated world that we find one of the most moving and mysterious passages in the Bible, the fourth of the Servant Songs found in Isaiah. There is nothing to jar the commando mind as the song begins: “See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted” (Isaiah 52:13).
Yes, yes, this makes perfect sense. The servant will be another David, come to rescue the captive Judah of the 540’s B.C. from the clutches of the Babylonian Empire and restore the glory of bygone days.
But as the song proceeds, a shocking reversal of emphasis erupts. The servant is disfigured and twisted and marred beyond adequate description. Says the song (Isaiah 53:2-6):
He grew up before Him like a tender shoot,
and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to Him,
nothing in His appearance that we should desire Him.
He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.
Like one from whom men hide their faces
He was despised, and we esteemed Him not.
Surely He took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows,
yet we considered Him stricken by God,
smitten by Him, and afflicted.
But He was pierced for our transgressions,
He was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was upon Him,
and by His wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.
Exactly who the author of this song thought the servant to be no one knows for sure. Theories concerning his identity fall into three broad categories. Some think he was a historical figure who suffered pain or disfigurement, possibly King Hezekiah, King Uzziah, the prophet Jeremiah or perhaps the author of the song himself. A second view, and one particularly important in Jewish thought, is that the servant was not one man but a symbol standing for all Israel; God’s intent was to use the suffering Israelites as the vehicle through which to bring redemption to all people.
Those who see Israel as having indulged in sin and rebellion more than in faithful suffering break this view down into narrower categories, suggesting that the servant-image applies to a committed remnant within Israel, such as the priests, the prophets or the faithful among the common people.
Perhaps, as William Barclay points out, the author was creating a “composite picture which included the lineaments of all those who had in their sufferings borne the sins of others …” (Jesus as They Saw Him, Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, p. 179).
No matter how one views these attempts to resolve the mystery of the servant’s identity, the shattering emphasis of the song cannot be escaped. The common Old Testament view was that God’s blessing is attested to by prosperity and beauty, and God’s revenge against sin by misfortune and ugliness.
Yet here is upheld as a saving figure a being who has become parched, devoid of strength or sap, twisted by some such horrible curse as leprosy. It is an image that floats incomprehensibly above commando mentality, both past and present.
Now it’s time to move forward five or six hundred years to explore the third way of understanding the servant’s identity. A man stands on the edge of decision. He has just been baptized, and a voice from beyond has broken in on Him, saying, “You are my son whom I love; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11).
Even as He feels unmistakably a divine call, He is plunging into critical internal battle, torn between two radically different ways of carrying out the call. He is torn between (among others) images like those of the commando and the leper.
The commando image sings its sweet, seductive, siren call. If He plays his cards right, He can take control of the world in order to transform it. He will turn the stones to bread and jump from dizzying heights. He will win with food the loyalty of the hungry masses; He will conquer the religious establishment by using miracles to become an irresistibly-attractive religious leader. Then He will don His camouflage suit and throw all this power into a great charge across the world to liberate all people.
But there is, almost lost beneath that proud commando song, a tiny, weak and broken melody: the servant song, still persisting through the centuries. Jesus, well-versed in His tradition, must have known the song by heart. Jesus was not a robot, forced to carry such predictions out. Jesus was free to make choices about his life direction, and the prophet was doing his best to communicate an image meaningful to the people of his day, an image that in bits and pieces may have been fulfilled back then. But the image, God-inspired as it was, was too big to be exhausted by historical individuals or groups.
As Daniel Hertzler puts it, when Jesus encountered this song it contained a job description which had yet to be adequately filled (Adult Study Guide, Mennonite Publishing House, December 1983-February 1984, p. 67).
It remained open for Him. The agony of choice must have been overwhelming, certainly justifying forty days of desert wrestling. On the one side, conquering commando. On the other, leper, weakling, outcast. To choose, as he did, that route, would mean to lead from below, to affirm what we tend to reject, the leper, the cripple, the tender, the communal, the unconscious, the out-of-control rather than the in-control.
Jesus devoted Himself to expressing and reaching out to all we have cast out, redeeming our rejected parts so we could be reunited with them, restored to wholeness, healed by His wounds, saved. Don S. Browning says that through His atoning mission Christ accepted “repressed and denied creation in sinful men” (The Atonement and Psychotherapy, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1986, pp. 182, 247).
Then, after He had victoriously followed that path, Jesus asked us to do the same, to choose between the commando and the leper as our primary guiding image. The point is not to choose one and reject the other, but rather to choose which will take the lead. The leprous suffering servant was Jesus’ guiding image, but He remained free to use the resources of his commando side in its services.
He seems to suggest in the parable of the shrewd manager (Luke 16:1-12) that such commando traits as functioning independently, effectively, shrewdly and in a controlled way are to be affirmed as long as they are servants of lives guided by the leper image and not their master.
This is a crucial matter for the church to confront. Will we import the world’s commando values and create an atmosphere skewed subtly in favor of those blessed with education, high-wattage minds, smooth tongues, the ability to live spotless Christian lives and luxuriant locks of hair? Or will we remember the Jesus who loved crippled hands and blinded eyes, prostitutes and drunkards?
Will we welcome the lepers who may best understand God’s leper-favoring kingdom even as we sniff at their slow minds, stumbling tongues, weak or sinful lives, and bald heads? The commando gifts of the strong and capable among us can be precious assets, but only to the extent that they serve leper values.
To answer the call of the leper image will mean to see as clearly as possible our ripped and tattered parts and then, rather than trying to reject and cover them up, to stand within their pain and reach out to the similar hurts of others. Commando living which hides from such wounds brings the distance and hostility that make us see the world as a place filled with people to be conquered so we can feel secure. Leper living tears down walls and stretches out trembling fingers to offer and receive the intimacy which yields true security.

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