Did your parents ever tell you about your first words? I think the first word I ever said was, “Dada,” followed not long after with “Mama.” All three of my kids’ first word was “Mama.”
We do not know the first words of the real baby Jesus. I like to think maybe He said, “Abba.” But we do know His first words in all four of the Gospels. In Mark, His first words were, “This is the time of fulfillment.” In John, they were, “What are you looking for?” And in Luke, “Why were you looking for me?”
These sentences are very thought provoking in their own ways, worthy of a personal response from me while I pray and meditate. But not as thought provoking as Jesus’ first words in Matthew’s Gospel, which we read this weekend.
The first reading from Isaiah lays the groundwork, describing the Messiah as a bringer of justice: “He shall bring forth justice to the nations, not crying out, not shouting, not making his voice heard in the street. A bruised reed he shall not break, and a smoldering wick he shall not quench, until he establishes justice on the earth. . . ”
Justice. Most of us associate “justice” with the concept of “fairness” or being morally “right.” Justice is also defined as the action or actions associated with the establishment of fairness, equality or righteousness.
To John the Baptist, it was not “right” or “fair” or “just” for the Son of God to be baptized for repentance; it should have been the other way around. It would be like my parish priest asking you or I to hear his confession. To John, baptizing Jesus was a miscarriage of justice.
God often works in backwards ways. The entire Bible is filled with examples – in fact, that’s pretty much the unifying theme of the entirety of the scriptures. Short term injustice leads to long term justice for those who trust God’s leadership in their lives.
God establishes justice not by carrying out the law in the way we assume is correct, but by fulfilling it in ways that we would never expect. That an innocent man would die a shameful execution on a cross doesn’t seem like justice, yet this is exactly how the Son of God establishes justice.
To undergo a baptism of repentance when He hadn’t committed any sins doesn’t seem necessary, yet Jesus couldn’t exhort us to follow Him without first walking the way ahead of us.
We know where Jesus learned his first words – from the mother who said to the angel, “Let it be done to me as you have said.” In other words, “Allow it.”
When I think of justice, especially in response to an obvious injustice like generational poverty or terrorism or the gross income inequalities and rape of natural resources that exist in many third world countries, I automatically assume that justice should mean swift and immediate action. The contemporary response is almost always retaliation in some form or other, and whether it’s a “war on terror” or a “war on poverty,” the unintended injustices that result are often worse than the injustice it was intended to rectify. We human beings suck at justice.
There’s the small, everyday “first world” injustices too – the cable company giving me the run around, the jerk cutting me off on the highway or driving ten miles under the speed limit, my ex not being on time to get the kids (as if I’m Ms. Perfectly-On-Time-Every-Time).
My life has thrown me a few unexpected curve balls, some that do not seem fair, but the challenge of Christ is the same to me as it was to John. “Allow it.” Sometimes that means practicing a loving tolerance of people who are doing the best they can. And sometimes, it means practicing a loving tolerance of myself, for the same reason.
One that really trips me up is my house. I have a 3,000 square foot home. When I was first embarking on the separation process, I assumed I would have to downsize, for economic reasons at least. But I put one foot in front of the other living one day at a time, asking God to guide the outcome, and nearly four years later I’m still in my big house, with a smaller mortgage, no less!
There are times when I look at this big house of mine and think, this is not right. I’m a single mom. I don’t make enough money to be living in a house this big or nice, and even if I did, it’s too extravagant. You could probably house an entire Haitian village here, and you could feed them for a year if you sold all the accumulated stuff that is no longer used. And God continually answers these thoughts with the same statement.
I wonder about God’s plans for me and this big house.
It seems the most confusing and unjust situations are also the most useful for God in establishing justice. Certainly this has been the case in Ghandi’s day, or Martin Luther King’s, or Nelson Mandela’s. These spiritual giants endured tremendous injustice, and yet their response was not retaliation. They clearly followed the exhortations of Jesus, whether or not they realized it.
It’s a great paradox of the Church. It will never be understood by secular rationalists or moral relativists. It probably won’t even make sense to the church-going folk who cling to the black and white rules and lack the capacity to accept such a paradox – it is in weakness that God’s strength is made visible. It is through injustice that God can fulfill all righteousness.
That’s not to say that we should be complacent about meeting human needs. I think Jesus was constantly reaching out to the poorest and marginalized people, and He clearly wants us to do the same. But I don’t think He wants me to ride in on my white horse and operate a homeless shelter in my 3,000 square foot house. At least, not today. But maybe eating dinner with a CARITAS guest at my church is a baby step in the right direction. Small acts with great love done by each and every one of us would go a long way toward establishing justice, if we allow it.
The message I get from this weekend’s scriptures is that justice is not about following a law or a dictate to make the world peaceful. Justice means accepting things as they are, no matter how confusing or ugly or painful or just plain wrong they seem, and turning to Jesus for direction and guidance. What is God asking of me? How does he want me to respond?
I can read the Bible, the catechism, the words of the Pope, but only by praying and listening to God himself speak in the still small voice in my heart can I know my part in establishing justice. Doing it on my own with what I assume is the right course of action will likely only harm people.
Allow it and do what Jesus asks of us, even if it makes no sense. That’s the lesson of Jesus’ baptism.