“He shall not judge by what his eyes see or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness, he shall judge the poor and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.”
There is an internet video clip that shows a large group of young adults lined up on a field to begin a running race. The winner of the race will be given one hundred dollars. The person who is organizing the race says that before the race begins, he gives a series of instructions that apply only to some participants. “Take two steps forward if your parents are still married. Take two steps forward if you grew up in a family with a father figure. Take two steps forward if you never had to worry about where your next meal was coming from … Before anyone actually starts to run, some of the competitors are more than halfway to the finish line.
That video, like today’s reading from Isaiah, invites us to pay attention to the fact that too often we judge people only by the end result: who gets to the finish line first? We assume that the person with the best job or the most friends must be the more deserving person. We assume that the one with addictions or the one in jail must be less deserving. We tend to be in favor of laws and policies that support and promote the people we view as more deserving and punish those who we deem to be less deserving. We rarely ask: where did they start? How much did they have to overcome? How much have they suffered because of the sins of others?
Some time ago I met a man who committed a horrible crime in his youth. He does not try to make excuses for what he did. It was wrong, absolutely wrong! But it was an act that was not very different from things that he had seen around him as he was growing up. He used violence to get what he wanted because that was all he had ever experienced. Growing up, if someone wanted something from him, the request for that something came with yelling or with swearing, with a fist or with a boot. He was arrested, convicted and sent to jail. In jail he found faith. He came to believe that God understood all that he had suffered, and that God loved him and wanted to free him from the never-ending cycle of suffering. Because of that faith, he began to change. Instead of trying to gain power over others, he developed compassion for them. He began to value peace and compassion over violence and force. But many people do not want to see the man he is now, they focus on the fact that he deserves punishment for who he was. Maybe before I met him, I too would have been one of those people.
But since I met him, I hear the words of Isaiah in a new way, not just as a metaphor for a distant peace, but as a call to see each other through the eyes of God. Isaiah says that when God judges, the wolf shall live with the lamb. The gentleman that I met would be considered a wolf by many, someone who should never be allowed a life outside of prison, yet he is a man who brings hope and healing to everyone he meets because he is someone who has truly recognized that real power lies in love and not in violence or anger. He has become like a lamb who provides what is needed and causes no harm.