A fundamentalist Christian minister recently defended the death penalty by claiming that Jesus Himself taught, "An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth."

He conveniently forgot to mention what Jesus said immediately before and after those words. In Matthew's Sermon on the Mount, Jesus first says, "You have heard it said," then follows with "But I say...."

In its original context, the minister's quote is part of an argument against the very unchristian practice he touted. I don't think Jesus is amused by those who alter His words for their own purposes.

I'd love to be a bystander at the pearly gates when the liturgical official who did something similar to Sunday's first reading comes face to face with Deutero-Isaiah (Is 49: 3, 5-6). By censoring verse four, he completely changed the meaning of the prophet's second Song of the Suffering Servant of Yahweh.

Failing

Deutero-Isaiah is baring his soul to his followers, reflecting both on his ministry and his relation with Yahweh. Neither is pretty. Yet his reflection surfaces something all of us experience in our following of God: failure.

After the liturgical reading's first verse ("Yahweh said...my glory"), insert the poignant words of verse four: "Though I thought I had toiled in vain, and for nothing, uselessly, spent my strength. Yet my reward is with Yahweh, my recompense is with my God." This verse determines how we hear the remaining verses.

Our other two readings describe Paul and John the Baptist as never doubting their ministry or their relation with God. Deutero-Isaiah isn't so fortunate. He'd love to have John's certainty about where his divine call has taken him (Jn 1: 29-34).

The Baptist always seems to know what to do and when to do it. He's convinced Jesus is the "Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world....I have seen and testified that He's the Son of God." According to the Evan-gelist, John's ministry was worked out by God to the last detail.

No one who reads the Gospels critically believes John actually had it so together. If he had, why, in Matthew's Gospel, does he send his disciples to ask Jesus, "Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?"

Scholars tell us that the person Christians eventually believed was Jesus' precursor faced his own death convinced he had failed in the mission God gave him. Like Deutero-Isaiah, John didn't find success where he thought it should be.

For the prophet of the Exile, success reached beyond his proclamation to his fellow Jews, "I will make you a light to the nations (Gentiles)," Yahweh promises, "that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth." God's will is not limited by the range of our sight.

Assurance

Paralleling the Gospel picture of John, Paul seems assured of both his own and his community's mission (I Cor 1: 1-3). He writes, "Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God,...to you who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be holy, with all those everywhere who call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ...."

Yet, if we read further, we see that rarely is Paul or his community certain about what it means to be an apostle or a holy people. Failure is always possible. Paul never could have predicted his place in today's Christianity.

By returning Deutero-Isaiah's verse four to his song, we're not just being faithful to his experience, we're also being faithful to our own. No one who follows God has escaped failure - not even Jesus.

I trust our entry into the pearly gates will provide us not only with Deutero-Isaiah's real name, but also with a chance to thank him for helping us face our own failures. Meanwhile, if any of you know whom to write to get that crucial verse reinstated into our liturgical passage, please let me know. I'd like to start a petition drive - even if it fails.

(1/13/05)