Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one with whom I am pleased, upon whom I have put my Spirit; 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; the coastlands will wait for his teaching. Thus says God, the LORD, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spreads out the earth with its crops, who gives breath to its people and spirit to those who walk on it: I, the LORD, have called you for the victory of justice, I have grasped you by the hand; I formed you, and set you as a covenant of the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes of the blind, to bring out prisoners from confinement, and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness. (Isaiah 42:1-7)
During Holy Week the Church uses the four oracles of the Prophet Isaiah which have become known as the “Suffering Servant Songs” as the first reading for the liturgies of Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday of Holy Week. A quick survey of the blog entries that I have written for Holy Week in the past five years shows that I have written about these songs or poems on several occasions. However, this year I find myself looking at them differently because of Pope Francis’ Bull of Indiction for the Holy Year of Mercy which we find ourselves celebrating. Paragraphs twenty and twenty-one of that document speak of the relationship between justice and mercy.
The voice in the first Suffering Servant Song is God’s. God is speaking about Israel. (It is important to remember as we read these songs that while the Church sees Jesus as the Suffering Servant, the oracles were originally written about Israel as God’s servant.) God tells us that Israel was created for “the victory of justice.”
When we hear the word “justice,” our thoughts automatically think in terms of our system of laws and the enforcement of said law in society. When one breaks the law, justice demands that the law breaker must bear the consequences. This usually means the payment of a fine or imprisonment or, in some cases, the forfeit of one’s life. However, Pope Francis points out in his writing that God’s justice is different.
“If God limited himself to only justice, he would cease to be God, and would instead be like human beings who ask merely that the law be respected. But mere justice is not enough. Experience shows that an appeal to justice alone will result in its destruction. This is why God goes beyond justice with his mercy and forgiveness. Yet this does not mean that justice should be devalued or rendered superfluous. On the contrary: anyone who makes a mistake must pay the price. However, this is just the beginning of conversion, not its end, because one begins to feel the tenderness and mercy of God. God does not deny justice. He rather envelopes it and surpasses it with an even greater event in which we experience love as the foundation of true justice.” (Vultus Misericordiae, 21:2)
When we place this text next to the oracle from Isaiah, we begin to see that when God calls Israel to the victory of justice, that victory is mercy. As I have commented in the past, the pattern of God’s justice is mercy. We see this exemplified over and over again in the Hebrew Scriptures. Israel is punished for its sin by exile at the hand of the Assyrians. Yet as soon as the punishment begins, God’s thoughts turn to mercy and forgiveness. “How can I give you up, O Ephraim! How can I hand you over, O Israel! How can I make you like Admah! How can I treat you like Zeboiim! My heart recoils within me, my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger, I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not man, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come to destroy” (Hosea 11:8-9).
The oracle tells us that God’s servant will bring about justice quietly. “. . . he shall bring forth justice to the nations, not crying out, not shouting, not making his voice heard in the street” (Isaiah 42:1c-2) As I consider this text today, I cannot help but think of all the shouting that has been going on of late. Anger has been pouring forth from the mouths of our citizens daily. As that anger bubbles over into words, fists begin to fly. Violence erupts. While the voices of reason call for quiet and reflection on what we are doing to one another, the anger seems to get ever louder. Yet God’s justice is a quiet movement. As we heard the passion narrative yesterday and will hear it again this coming Friday, one cannot miss the fact that Jesus stood silently before his prosecutors and torturers. Instead of using his power to thwart the will of his enemies, he chooses to shed his blood in order to save us from our sins. His blood becomes the instrument of God’s mercy.
During this Holy Week, we are called to reflect on our own need for God’s mercy. However, Pope Francis also calls us to be instruments of mercy, quietly setting things right by using our own experience of being forgiven to extend mercy to others. Just as Israel and Jesus have fought for the victory of justice, we too are asked to follow in their footsteps to hasten that victory for all people of our world.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator