“A bruised reed he shall not break,
and a smoldering wick he shall not quench, until he establishes justice on the earth.” These are the words that jump out at me most from last weekend’s scripture selections. The prophet Isaiah was describing the messiah to come as a leader who would practice tenderness and compassion to the bruised and burnt.
This verse in Isaiah is one of my favorite descriptions of Jesus because it shows the stark contrast between how Christ operates in the world and how the rest of humanity reacts to the world.
Instead of accepting the “bruised reeds” in my life who are acting in unacceptable ways, I want to judge them and break them in order to bring about justice. I want them to get their act together and quit their whining (ask my kids!).
When I encounter “smoldering wicks” who’ve been burned by the ups and downs of the life they’ve been dealt, or perhaps are smoldering in their own anger, I want to throw water on their fire and put it out, either in an attempt to ease their suffering or to protect myself from being burned by them. Water might come in the form of doing for them what they could do for themselves under the pretense of “helping,” or it might be lashing out in anger or self-righteousness to keep them at arms length and out of striking distance.
We humans want to deal with the symptoms of the dis-ease of feeling separated from our Source (or as some people call it, sin). We have the best of intentions – easing the suffering in the world by ridding ourselves of tyrants and creating utopia. We think we can out-legislate evil. But even if we could eradicate all the symptoms, the disease would still be there. Only God has any control over the problem of evil, and even the omnipotent power of God is voluntarily subject to the free will of His creation.
This is a sticking point for many of my atheist and agnostic friends. How can a supreme, all-powerful will of God choose to coexist with the free will of human beings and not DO something about the mess we make? Worse yet, why would he create it that way in the first place? It is a contradiction.
Many Christians (including yours truly) are no better; we profess to believe in an all-powerful God, but we generally don’t go to that all-powerful source of help until after we’ve exhausted ourselves exerting our own “spiritually informed” will on the problems of the world, even though experience has shown that my best attempts at trying to “fix” myself and the world around me usually make things worse.
Recently I’ve become aware that one of my character defects is carelessness. Maybe it’s a bill that didn’t get paid on time, or a cut finger, or minor car accident, or running late. In response, I made a New Years resolution to be more responsible. I have been going to bed at a decent hour, waking up early, trying to be proactive. My efforts made me feel very good about myself. But I did not take into account that when I wake up early, my mind is a bit foggy. I do careless things when I’m still sleepy. Like leaving the water running in the bathroom sink while taking a shower.
Last Friday morning, I felt so proud of myself for getting out of bed as soon as the alarm went off, doing my daily reading, prepping for a busy morning of making lunches, paying bills and getting the little one to preschool on time. But not one of those goals got accomplished, because in my best attempt at responsibility, I left the water running and ended up creating a leak into the kitchen and two sizable holes in the ceiling drywall.
I am powerless over my own carelessness, and my best attempts to fix it made it worse. I broke my bruised reed, I quenched my smoldering wick and it did not bring about justice and righteousness in my own life. Rather, I put the cart before the horse.
Before I can “fix” anything, I need to ask God for help.
Better still, I need to ask God to do it for me, because even if I ask for help, if I’m the one “fixing” I will break it worse, whether it’s a relationship or a personal shortcoming or a problem at work. I have two holes in my kitchen as reminders of that.
I think that is why Jesus was baptized. He was born to save the world, and He knew He needed to ask for God’s help first.
Jesus may have been God incarnate and had no need to be cleansed from sin, but He was also fully human and needed to align His free human will with the all-powerful will of God. Jesus knew the mission that lay before Him. He knew that the gospel He would preach and the healing He would bring would shake the Hebrew hierarchy to its core. He knew the violent end He was facing.
Jesus also knew that even though His Father’s all-powerful will would not stand in the way of the free will of those who would ultimately kill Him, His Father’s all-powerful will would use the worst that humanity could throw at Him to bring about good.
Just as God’s divine will is voluntarily subject to human free will, Jesus voluntarily subjected His human free will to the divine will of God.
This is the justice that Isaiah hints at in the first reading – not that wrongs would be erased, but that even the bruised and burned would be useful and loved, that no human actions, either evil or well-intended mistakes, cannot be used by God for a greater purpose.
This is the hope of the Christian at Baptism. The sacrament doesn’t magically wipe away the symptoms of sin in the world. Like Jesus, we will continue to fight an uphill battle with evil, and unlike Jesus, we will sometimes lose the battles. But we cling to the hope that all of it, even our failures, are useful to God for something better, because Jesus won the war already.
Maybe it’s a silly, naive way to live. But it sure beats the alternative of the hopelessness of relying on my own best efforts, which often do more harm than good. I still have to do my part. I have to make myself willing to align myself with God’s purpose, to cultivate an attitude of trust and gratitude. That’s more than enough for me to handle. I’ll let God dictate how and when those holes in the kitchen ceiling get fixed.