Omitting just one verse often changes the meaning of a biblical passage -- as in Sunday's first reading (Is 42:1-4, 6-7). For some unknown reason, those who select and edit our liturgical readings deleted verse 5 from Deutero-Isaiah's First Song of the Suffering Servant of Yahweh. Immediately following "the coastlands will wait for his teaching" and before "I, Yahweh have called you for the victory of justice" should be this statement: "Thus says God, Yahweh, creating the heavens and stretching them out, spreading out the earth with its crops, giving breath to its people and spirit to those who walk on it."
Throughout the 16 chapters which Scripture scholars attribute to this anonymous prophet of the Babylonian Exile, Deutero-Isaiah strives to rally his depressed, beaten-down people with the belief that Yahweh is about to act on their behalf. Not just a God of past glories and future achievements, Yahweh is present and at work in their everyday lives.
The prophet uses a simple grammatical device to stress God's presence: participles. Instead of employing finite verbs -- which would imply the action is over -- Deutero-Isaiah describes God's actions as ongoing. Participles such as "creating, stretching, spreading and giving" suggest the continuation of Yahweh's actions into the present.
Not by accident, this chock-full-of-participles sentence is found in the middle of the prophet's reflection on his own ministry, indicating Deutero-Isaiah's acknowledgment that Yahweh also is working through him.
In a recent lecture, Rev. Roland Murphy noted, "Spirituality is the ability to see the divine in our everyday lives." We find it relatively easy to experience God's spirit in others, but rarely notice that same spirit in ourselves. Deutero-Isaiah not only sees Yahweh present, delivering the Israelites from exile, but also experiences Yahweh at work in his own actions -- his not crying out, his words of comfort, his mission to the Gentiles, his message of freedom. The prophet must first acknowledge Yahweh in his own life and ministry before he can experience Yahweh anywhere else.
Five centuries later, Jesus of Nazareth receives a similar insight. The Synoptic evangelists (Matthew, Mark and Luke) presume that at some point in His earthly life, the historical Jesus discovered the divine in Himself. Early traditions located this insight in Jesus' baptism by John (Mt 3:13-17).
The evangelists uniquely weave the baptism story into their compositions. Matthew, for instance, turns the prelude to the event into a discussion between Jesus and John about the propriety of John baptizing Jesus. He also changes Mark's famous "You are my beloved Son" to "this is my beloved Son," making what originally was a sign to Jesus into a sign to those around Jesus. As second- and third-generation Christians begin to appreciate more deeply Jesus' divinity and its implications, they significantly alter His baptismal narrative. Yet they never downplay Jesus' realization that God's Spirit and pleasure are shown through Him, the carpenter from Galilee.
God in Gentiles
Luke carries this insight one step further. Not only does he recognize God in Jesus "doing good and healing all those oppressed by the devil," he also recognizes God at work in the Gentiles who follow Jesus. Addressing the Gentile Roman centurion, Cornelius (Acts 10:34-38), Peter proclaims, "I see God shows no partiality. Rather, in every nation, whoever fears Him and acts uprightly is acceptable to Him."
Jesus' earliest disciples -- all Jews -- had to take a giant step to see God working in Gentiles as Gentiles. Here, writing to a Gentile community, Luke reminds them that such an insight was momentous: an admission of God's universal presence.
Just as Deutero-Isaiah and Jesus eventually acknowledged God present and at work in areas they originally hadn't noticed -- themselves -- so Luke believed the Christian community also was correct in experiencing God in its Gentile converts. Maybe there's really something to this participle stuff. Hate to think of what would happen if everyone regularly started using them when they speak of God.