Remembering that the Tree of Jesse Started with a Stump
The intended Advent lesson, and in fact the one read to us, was the familiar vision of the “peaceable kingdom” in Isaiah 11 – the shoot from a stump, the wolf and the lamb, the leopard and the kid, the calf and the lion, etc. But the bulletin contained a typo, suggesting we were going to hear instead from Isaiah 10, leading me to muse about what the unintended key stroke might point us toward in this purple season. Here’s what I found:
Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statues,
to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right,
that widows may be your spoil, and that you may make the orphans your prey!
What will you do on the day of punishment, in the calamity that will come?
To whom will you flee for help, and where will you leave your wealth?
Not the stuff of children’s pageants! But of course the “stump” from which the messianic “shoot” shall come as described in Isaiah 11 is the result of a terrible judgment for the social sins detailed in Isaiah 10. It is a reminder that Advent offers more than costumed children and candle lit sanctuaries. Advent speaks of another Coming, one accompanied not only by salvation, but also by judgment.
In a time when full time workers in this wealthy country need various forms of public and private assistance to feed their families, the word of judgment needs to be heard. In a time when members of Congress debate over whether unemployment insurance should be extended for those still struggling to emerge from a recession caused in large measure by corporate greed and irresponsibility, the word of judgment needs to be heard. In a time when the Congressional debate over food stamps is not whether, but how much they should be cut for some of our most vulnerable neighbors, the word of judgment needs to be heard. In a time when a Walmart store implicitly acknowledges that its own employees don’t earn a living wage by soliciting gifts to establish a holiday fund to help them, the word of judgment needs to be heard. In a time when highly profitable corporations extort tax money with the threat of moving to another state, money that could help sustain a meaningful social safety net, the word of judgment needs to be heard.
In his recent Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), Pope Francis speaks a direct word to the prevailing voices in both political parties and in seats of economic influence who shape policy toward the poor in this country:
Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about great justice and inclusiveness in the world This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed.
Those who would celebrate the “Tree of Jesse” (portrayed in stained glass in the lobby of CTS) cannot ignore the jagged stump of a people who “turned aside the needy from justice and robbed the poor of their right.” What was true in the time before the first coming of the Messiah is also true in this time before the return of the Messiah.
The race to Christmas is in large measure an understandable rush toward the attractive allure of the celebration of a baby, meek and mild, accompanied by rich cultural and family traditions. But the rush to Christmas also conveniently whisks us past the faces of the poor and the structures that create and maintain their poverty, often with our complicity. The next time you relax into the soothing phrases of Isaiah 11, remember that they rest on the difficult judgments of Isaiah 10, and that Advent, properly observed, needs to attend to both.
John H. Thomas
December 12, 2013