The first lesson appointed for today, the reading we heard from the Prophecy of Isaiah, begins with the words: “Here is my servant; …I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.”[i] Now this reading is like a supernatural transcription of what the prophet Isaiah heard from God: God’s spirit being promised to the long-awaited Messiah, and also, God’s spirit reaching to foreign nations and distant lands, to the gôyîm, the non-Jews: people like many of us. How will we know God’s presence and God’s power? What will be the evidence of God’s spirit at work, the outward sign, the fruit of God’s spirit? Justice. Justice to the nations. What will be the preeminent work and witness of the Messiah? Justice.[ii]
In the scriptures, justice is broader than what is dictated by law or custom. The biblical understanding of justice is that everyone is given their due, especially the poor and the weak. The Prophet Isaiah continues, “abruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench,” which shows a kind, gentle, dignified respect for others, especially the weak.[iii] The Prophet Isaiah closes with the words: “[The Messiah and we, the Messiah’s followers] will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth…” The Messiah’s mission begins and ends with justice. The biblical understanding of justice is that everyone is given their due. Justice!
Today we remember the baptism of Jesus, a baptism in which we share. Momentarily we will be invited to renew our own baptismal promises. There is one question in our Baptismal Covenant which is particularly poignant. We all will be asked, “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”[iv]The English word “dignity” comes from the Latin, dignitatem, which means worthiness, which is related, etymologically, to worship. Worthiness; worship. That to which we give the highest reverence we worship. So our pledging to respect the dignity of every human being is our ascribing worth and worthiness to others, reverencing them as persons – as children of God – and acknowledging they, too, have been created in the image of God.
We pledge to respect the dignity, to give worth, to every human being. This pledge goes without saying towards those whom we love, value, respect, identify with, and are grateful for. We pledge to respect the dignity of those whom we could otherwise scorn, curse, hold in derision, and condemn. Why? Because we learn something about the magnanimity of God’s respect for the dignity of creation, and about the limitless breadth of God’s love, for them and for ourselves. And we don’t allow undignified people to set the terms for life. We give dignity to those without dignity, recognizing their worthiness to be alive, to have needs, to have hopes, to have convictions and values which we may or may not share.
To push his point, Jesus even says two more very extreme things. Jesus reminds us to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” And Jesus makes the sobering point that God “makes [the] sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”[v] Love your enemies… or, if you don’t have enemies, then love the people you find appalling or repelling. The “jerks” on your list. Bequeath them dignity. And then Jesus goes one step further. He even makes a point of identification. Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”[vi] The least on your own list.
Back to our Baptismal Covenant. In the same breath that we pledge to respect the dignity of every human being – especially to respect the dignity of those who, in our eyes, may have no dignity – we also pledge “to strive for justice and peace among all people.” This echoes what we heard in our first lesson appointed for today from the Prophecy of Isaiah: about establishing “justice and peace among all people.”
Here’s where I need to make a disclaimer. I don’t quite have all my bearings on this, what this means for me and for us now: about establishing “justice and peace among all people.” Somany people are being left behind in our own country and in our world. What I am clear about is the context in which Jesus lived and worked, a context with many parallels to our own day. In Jesus’ day, Palestine had become an occupied territory. The omnipotent Roman Empire was in town and was in charge, and the rich were getting richer and the poor, poorer. The religious authorities actually only had authority among the religious, and not much authority at that. The “religious right” was very powerful – the Pharisees – however there were many other zealous religious parties, all of which claimed their own truth and faithfulness. Many lobbyists. Women and children were the most vulnerable, by far. Segregation and discrimination by religion, by class and caste, by ancestry, by age, and by appearance was rampant. Those of the service industry – the servant class – were often foreigners without citizenship, who had few rights or no rights.
This is the cultural backdrop for what we know of Jesus, and what Jesus calls us to be and do. This is the context in which Jesus says that “the greatest are the least” because there were so many small people. This is the context in which Jesus says “the last will be first,” because so many people were losing. This is why Jesus says that “the greatest among you are the least,” because there was so much flaunting of power and prowess. This is why Jesus promises us “peace, not as the world gives,” because Jesus’ peace was not contingent on the world being at peace, or the nation being at peace.[vii] It was not. Jesus promised an inner peace, beyond understanding, which will fill us and then teem out of us.
Consider the Gospel stories coming out of the most adversarial politics and conditions in Jesus’ own time. Jesus’ promise of his presence, his power, and his provision were spoken during a time of great uncertainty… which is also why he says repeatedly, “Don’t be afraid,” “Don’t be afraid,” “Don’t be afraid,” because there was somuch about which one could otherwise be afraid. “Don’t be afraid. I am with you.”
Respect the dignity of every human being. That seems clear to me. If you find someone whose dignity you do not experience, and for whom you find respectability wanting, rather than that being an obstacle, consider that an invitation. You’ve been given a gift. If you find some person or some group does not have dignity, give them dignity. And by all means, don’t curse them. Remember Jesus’ saying in a very sorry context, “bless, don’t curse,” when it would be so easy to curse.[viii] Cursed people do not get better. Pray God’s blessing be upon them, to multiply the good, and to arrest or redeem the bad. Pray for the intervention of God’s blessing, that God be at work in them, in an amazing way, whatever their motives may be.
And as for our pledge to “strive for justice and peace among all people,” we have relentless opportunities, most every day, where justice and peace are sorely needed, on a local level. Sometimes under the roof. It’s to strive for justice and peace among those whom we share life: our household, our neighborhood, our city, our colleagues, those whom we pass on the streets. Don’t wait for a big plan. Start with a small practice, and the ripples of grace will have a power that can do infinitely more than you can ask or imagine.[ix] And that’s the other thing Jesus talks about to a subjugated people of an occupied nation: power. You will have the power you need, Jesus promises.[x]
Don’t wait for a big plan. Move ahead with a practice. Jesus gives you a baptismal promise. It’s Jesus’ promise of his presence, his peace, his provision, and his power. He made his promise to us during his earthly life, in a time of incredible adversity for so many. And Jesus will make good on his promise. And with that, you can do it!
[ii]See Luke 4:16-21, Jesus’ reading from the Prophecy of Isaiah (61:1-3ff), when he begins his public ministry.
[iii]Insight from the commentary on Isaiah 42:1-7 in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, Raymond E. Brown, SS, ed. (1990), pp. 334-335.
[iv]See “The Baptismal Covenant” in The Book of Common Prayer (1979), pp. 304-305.
[vii]A riff on John 14:27.
[ix]Ephesians 3:20, 21 – “Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine: Glory to him from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever.”
[x]Acts 1:8 – “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be [Jesus’] witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
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