He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear… (Isaiah 11:3)
A common tool in the storyteller’s art, whether in comedy or drama, is to rely on misunderstanding to advance the plot. One only has to think of stories such as Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, in which the drama is often driven by misunderstanding or deception.
I’m sure all of us could think of any number of instances where a fragment of conversation, or a glimpse of activity out of context have been the basis for severe judgments and accusations. But while these things may be just the thing for the storyteller, they can be very damaging in everyday life.
The fact of the matter is that we have a tendency to see what we want to see, or what we fear to see. The human mind does not like the unexplained, and failing a clear explanation, we will often insert our own. This happens in basic and complex ways. For example, some of you may have seen those spelling games or chain emails where people intentionally misspell words and get people to read them in order to demonstrate that spelling is optional. Well, of course, spelling is not optional, but placing things in a context primes the brain to see what it expects to see. For example, just this week a friend of mine posted a comment on Facebook and made a reference to several different Dioceses/regions of the Episcopal Church, including Eastern Oregon. In a comment after his initial post, he corrected himself writing that he, of course, meant “easterN” Oregon, emphasizing the N that he had left out of his initial post. Of course, I myself read “eastern” and not “easter” as did others. A simple example of our brain seeing what it wants to see, of inserting something to help something “make sense.”
This desire to fit things into categories has a great affect on our memories. Our memories are central to who we are and our self understanding. St. Augustine wrote at length about it, describing it:
“Great is this power of memory, exceeding great, O my God,–an inner chamber large and boundless! Who has plumbed the depths thereof? Yet it is a power of mine, and appertains unto my nature; nor do I myself grasp all that I am. Therefore is the mind too narrow to contain itself” (Confessions, 174).
The power of memory helps to hold us together, connecting the past to the future, providing a sense of continuity. But memory is also malleable, and subject to the failings of human nature. Rather than being set and unchanging, we now know that our memories are constructed on the fly. This construction is what accounts for the variance in the way two people can recall the same events. Even with something as simply as color, for example, studies have shown that our brains often run what we see through a sort of mental “photoshop,” seeing what we expect. This type of process is is the foundation for the unreliability of eye-witness testimony, for example, despite our necessary reliance on it in our legal system.
And here we get to the point of what misperception and the malleability of memory have to do with us in this second week of Advent. It has to do with the understanding of what exactly we are waiting for.
As I reflected on the scriptures for this week I was struck by some of the distinguishing characteristics the Prophet Isaiah assigns the Messiah, the Son of Man:
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; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. (Isaiah 11:3-4)
It’s intriguing that the Prophet sets up a dichotomy between judging by what the eye sees or the ear hears and judging with righteousness. But perhaps this distinction makes sense when we consider the role of the prophetic tradition in Israel.
In ancient Israel, the prophets, unlike the monarchy or the priests, were not given authority by virtue of position or institutional structures. The prophets were the wild cards–they were the people who heard directly from God and who, as part of their responsibility, challenged those in power to remember the commands they had been given by God–not only the letter, but the spirit. As such, they would speak God’s judgment on Kings and the ruling classes. Many times they ended up as martyrs for their efforts. Remember Jesus’ prayer, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets…” (Luke 13:34).
Given this tradition, it’s unsurprising that Isaiah would oppose judgment based upon what is perceived with judgment that is based in righteousness. In that time–and perhaps more than is comfortable to admit, in ours–the poor and the meek did not have justice to look forward to. Those with the authority to judge them may very well have been basing their judgments on “objective” facts. On what they saw or heard. But Isaiah and the other prophets knew the truth that it has taken a few thousand years to support scientifically: people see what they want, even when they don’t do so consciously, and because of this, the only hope for true justice is in the future, with the coming of the one who will judge the poor with righteousness and the meek with equity.
This is not meant to say that the poor and the meek are the only ones to be judged righteously, but to emphasize that, unlike those with more power and authority, or even those that are more visible to society, they need to hear the truth that God is on their side, because no one else is.
Today, we can celebrate the ways in which we have achieved a closer approximation of justice, while striving to do even better, but as Christians we have to recognize that in the end, there is only one righteous judge. This judge is the one Isaiah prophesied, and the one of whom John warned the Pharisees and Sadducees:
Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:9-12).
In this season of Advent, as we approach Christmas and the celebration of our savior’s birth, it can be easy to loose sight of what exactly we’re waiting on. As we wait, we proclaim that the one who can judge the hearts of men and women has indeed come, and exercised his judgment and mercy from the throne of the cross. We testify also, that he will come again, and that finally, we will no longer have to trust in the frail abilities of human magistrates. The lesson to whole onto is twofold: to make sure we are bear fruit worthy of repentance being prepared for a righteous judge; and to remind ourselves that good fruit is the result of receiving the mercy and forgiveness of the God who loved us too much to leave us to our own devices, and who instead came to us all those years ago in a humble village, offering us forgiveness of sins and the hope of everlasting life. Amen.