Wednesday in the 3rd Week of Advent: Isaiah 45:6c-8, 18, 21c-25, Luke 7:18b-23.
Justice is something I’ve been considering a lot in the face of crooked politicians making themselves rich while being morally abhorrent in behavior and policy. Of course it’s important to remember that this is nothing new — every generation has human greed and sin, dating back before the days of King Herod in Israel. But certainly there are times all of us want justice not to descend on the earth “like gentle rain,” but instead like a cracking, vindicating lightning bolt. God, in His mercy, has a different plan; if justice were so severe, there would be very few of us left to marvel at it!
Today’s readings tackle God’s promise of justice, and contemplating them has helped me start to reconsider what justice on earth might look like. Undoubtedly, we are faced with two types of justice: the justice that happens on Judgment Day, when souls are weighed and either accepted into heaven or sent to hell, and the secular justice that we experience while alive on the earth. I’m starting to wonder if there isn’t also a third — one that straddles these two — the loving, forgiving justice of God working through humanity here on earth. This is perhaps the most tenuous and paradoxical of all; it might be uncommon or it might be the most common thing ever, a testament to God’s grace at work in the world; it might seem fleeting in its smallness but likely looms as the most eventful thing in a person’s life, configuring them to the light until death. It seems to be the stuff of novels, a wispy but significant thread in the human experience that turns out to be stronger than steel. How can we truly explore this justice without living it? Let’s turn to scripture.
God, speaking through Isaiah, says, “Let justice descend, O heavens, like dew from above, like gentle rain let the skies drop it down.” He speaks of justice like dew, like a gentle rain — I’m reminded of manna in the Exodus, feeding the Jews who were following God’s commands. This is definitely not a fire-and-brimstone justice but more like a blessing. He then says, “Let the earth open and salvation bud forth; let justice also spring up!” We read earlier this week how Isaiah prophesies that salvation budding forth on the earth will be in the form of the Christ, the Anointed One. Thus, the “earth opening” to bring forth salvation we can understand as Mary bringing forth divinity, the mystery of the Incarnation. The corollary statement is “let justice also spring up,” which means that a second way God is giving the world justice is through His Son on earth. Thus, we have two forms of earthly justice given to us by God: His blessing/grace from above and His Son, the Way, the Truth and the Light made incarnate here on earth.
For the past few years, I’ve nearly given up on the idea of earthly justice, probably because I’m always putting it in secular terms. In other words, “why can’t that person go to jail or be found guilty and punished accordingly?” In the face of what seems like injustice all around and an increasing culture of hate and self-centeredness, I have turned my eyes to the heavenly kingdom to come. My past year of lectio divina, however, has made it apparent that God means for us to experience the Kingdom here and now if we can only meet Him, fully open to do His will. Nothing speaks more clearly to this desire for us to experience a kind of heavenly justice while alive on earth like these lines from Isaiah today: “The creator of the heavens, who is God, The designer and maker of the earth who established it, Not creating it to be a waste, but designing it be lived in: I am the LORD, and there is no other.” The culmination of the sentence is an confirmation of the first part of the Jewish profession of faith, the shema: Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One. The force of the sentence is that our God is the only God in the heavens, in fact he created the heavens and the earth, and nothing is impossible for Him to decree or to do. Yet placed in this sentence is an affirmation that earth was created for real, true, full living: “not creating it to be a waste, but designing it to be lived in.” For me, this means I can’t just scorn this world as a testament to the fallenness of humanity (no matter how much I want to at times). God wants us to live fully in the world, not to have it be a waste.
But how can we trust that God’s great plan for this world he created is not going to be wasted anyway, given the freewill granted to humanity to mess things up if they so choose? Well, here’s where faithfulness to God and trust in Him come to roost. Isaiah continues: “Turn to me and be safe, all you ends of the earth, for I am God; there is no other!” The answer is really quite simple: if you truly believe in your singular, all powerful creator God, then from what you know of His benevolence and scope of salvation history, you can’t doubt. In Isaiah’s words is comfort for anxiety: “Turn to me and be safe.” There is safety in the turning to Him, in the posture: physical, mental, and spiritual.
After these words of comfort, Isaiah then brings us back to justice: “Only in the LORD are just deeds and power. Before him in shame shall come all who vent their anger against him.” What does it mean that only in the Lord are just deeds and power? Does the preposition here mean that justice and power are relegated to heaven only and are only wielded by God from on high? Or does it leave room that those who live in the Lord may also accomplish just deeds and wield power (a power and justice that rightly come from God and belong to Him)? We have to be careful with our definitions; remember that Christ’s great lesson is that power resides in taking up the cross, a very contrary understanding to temporal power. Power flows from a love that conquers and purifies everything. It is reasonable to surmise that justice, too, is subject to love as its guiding principle.
God is known by His transformative love. What does His love transform other than beings in the sphere of creation? Revelation teaches us that this happens specifically in human hearts. Thus, as God’s love becomes active in the world in human hearts, so “just deeds and power” are present. The logic that flows from our scriptures teaches us about this third type of justice and power: while God may wield justice and power from on high, He also chooses to have them present in the world through us because He transforms us and conforms our hearts to Him.
Note how Isaiah’s second sentence paired to this declaration characterizes base, worldly actions as “venting anger against him.” I don’t think that all actions outside of those done in the Lord are a type of “vented anger” (some may be simply indifferent), but this category might be more expansive than we imagine. Any act that inherently works against love is contrary to God. Even the smallest thing that is done out of self-interest instead of love for another belies a type of vented anger, frustration, or brushing off of God’s law and God’s always-outwardly-focused love. I am reminded of the past few days’ worth of reflections on sin, even venial sin, and how it is the “blackest ingratitude, the greatest injustice, and the gravest outrage” to God, our rightful master. Thus, of course “before him in shame shall come all who vent their anger against him!”
The message I hear as I contemplate Isaiah’s words is that in order to have justice, we must trust in and channel the God who is love — love that is beyond Platonic, erotic, fraternal, and even agape; the unselfish, always forgiving, always wanting the best for the other, desiring to sow the seeds that will bear fruit in the other love of God that we cannot describe, understand, or even feel. We are poor vessels to carry His love and spread it, but it is His plan, nonetheless. It prepares us for eventual unity with Him. We are bound to fail, but how we deal with our failures is also of the essence (can we accept His forgiveness as His created creatures?).
At issue here is the fact that instead of embracing this charge to channel God’s love, we want to skip straight to the justice and the power. It’s convenient for us to think that justice can be implemented without that difficult, slow process of loving (which often changes the whole scenario and outcome), or that what we think is “power” can simply be enacted/enforced (even if, deep down, it’s just venting anger at God). Perhaps this is because our prophets and Lord have given us such great visions of justice and power that we want to just make it so. But this is impossible — “Only in the LORD are just deeds and power” — that is, justice and power must flow from Him and His transformative love. We can’t even conceive of what justice in any given circumstance will look like until we enter into this love. We can’t conceive of what power looks like either.
That’s not entirely true. Christ shows us the power of God here on earth. In today’s gospel reading, John the Baptist sends his disciples to Christ to see for themselves if He is the Messiah. “At that time Jesus cured many of their diseases, sufferings, and evil spirits; he also granted sight to many who were blind.” He manifests God’s love here on earth, pouring out blessings, healings (spiritual and physical), and above all, forgiveness and mercy. Jesus tells John’s disciples, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the good news proclaimed to them. And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.” Jesus calls us to testify to Him and His works. This none other than the same refrain He spoke to Isaiah 800 years earlier: “Turn to me and be safe, all you ends of the earth, for I am God; there is no other!” He is here to prove to us that we can trust in Him. We must share that essential message around the world because trust in God combats our propensity to define for ourselves justice and power without having His love as the essential part of the equation.
But why might he say, “And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me”? Who would take offense at healings and raising from the dead? Well, yesterday’s gospel shows us: the chief priests and elders who are shocked to hear that tax collectors and prostitutes are getting into the Kingdom of Heaven ahead of them. Those who embrace being transformed by God’s love are accessing the Kingdom being given to them here and now by Christ. This offends those who have practiced piety for so long but whose hearts are frozen in judgement against their “lesser” fellow humans. They think they know what justice looks like: this person who worked on the Sabbath or who consorts with prostitutes should not enter the Kingdom, much less be God Himself! These same people supposedly have power that they wield with their earthly positions in the synagogue. But that sense of justice and power is totally perverted. It means nothing if it does not emanate from God’s love.
This, of course, applies today. I know many a pious Catholic who prays longer, harder, and more frequently than 99% of us, but their hearts are frozen in judgement against those who are “polluting” the Church. What a sad state! Not just them; really any of us who gain our bearings in the world by defining “justice” as we see it are guilty of the same offense. I’m starting to realize that “justice” as a social and legal concept needs to be taken down from its secular pedestal lest it defile our understanding of divine justice, which is never ours to define or even completely comprehend. We might have to be jury members or judges in our work and civic life, but this should in some ways fill us with dread and unease. We are called to something much greater, and the more we can turn to that greater being, the more we can enact real justice in the world.