This reflection on today’s readings is from Bill Thornton.
In Charles Dickens “A Christmas Carol,” two “gentlemen” come to Scrooge’s office to ask for a donation for the poor, and this conversation ensues:
“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.
“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.
“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”
“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.”
Scrooge was asking why the gentlemen were collecting money for the poor since the state had made “accommodations” for the poor, by throwing the debtors into jail and their families into workhouses where they could get subsistence food and shelter in return for work. The wages charged for the work would go to the local official in charge of the workhouse.
In today’s world, government in developed countries usually have some sort of “safety net” provisions so that most of the poor will not die in the streets. Depending on the government, these provisions have greater or lesser actual benefits for the poor, and depending on the agency that administers the provisions a greater or lesser amount of dignity and compassion.
In ancient Israel, government was not involved in these problems. Society was an agriculturally-based economy and after the takeover of the Promised Land the land was divided and distributed among the tribes, among the families within the tribes, and finally among individuals. Thus families and male heirs took on a great importance. Property could be sold to people outside the family – actually, a man could sell himself and his family into slavery for a time to pay off a debt. But if that happened, there were “strings attached,” and situations where the property would have to be reconveyed to the original owner and the slaves released. Within tribes and families there were people who, by law, were the go’el with respect to the situation and had either the privilege or duty (depending on the circumstances) to buy back the land or free the slaves for the benefit of the family and the tribe.
The Hebrew word go’el is often translated into English as “redeemer,” as it is in the passage from the first reading in today’s Mass:
“Do not fear, you worm Jacob,
you maggot Israel; I will help you—oracle of the LORD;
the Holy One of Israel is your redeemer.” Isa. 41:14
We have seen the word “redeemer” so much in the Christian context, that we tend to forget that the word had a meaning for the Jews who read Isaiah long before it was applied to Jesus. It is often revealing to take a closer look at words and word histories especially when you are reading poetical writings like Isaiah. With that in mind, let us look at this verse from today’s Mass.
The prophet does not start out insulting the people of Israel. The Lord (since this is His oracle) uses the terms “worm” and “maggot” to express the sad state of affairs in Israel. It is not accusatory, but rather compassionate. “I will help you,” He says. “I, the Holy One of Israel,” “I, Who brought you out of slavery in Egypt,” “I, Who led your armies to conquer and subdue the land that I promised you,” I will help you because I am your go’el, your redeemer.
See how the word fits exactly! The Lord says, “I gave you lands on which to raise your children and support your family. Now that land is gone. It is my job as go’el to bring that land back into the tribe and family and return it to you. I will help you.” He also says, “I gave you freedom from the oppression of the Egyptians. Now you have lost that freedom again. It is my job as go’el to set you free once more. I will help you.”
In the context of ancient Israel, the go’el had responsibilities both with respect to personal freedom of the individual, and also with respect to economic well-being of not only the individual, but also the family, the tribe and the nation. When this verse is applied to Jesus, we immediately think of the ransom of the individual from sin. This is a great gift, and the aspect of redemption that we have been most frequently taught. But there is another aspect highlighted by the use of the word go’el. This is that the redemption of the individual has a consequence to the family, the tribe and the nation – that is to say the Church. When an individual is saved, the Church as a whole and the persons (in ever-increasin concentric circles) around the newly-saved sinners experience God’s grace in a new way. They see the face of God as a new “selfie.” They get to read the Gospel according to a new apostle.
One more idea occurs to me as I consider the use of the word go’el. This person is not a judge or a bureaucrat. This person is a member of the family. When the go’el redeems me, He does it with love and compassion because He is my father, my mother, my brother, my sister, my flesh and blood. Finally, this brings to mind a favorite line of poetry from Robert Frost’s poem “Death of the Hired Man.” He wrote:
In our context, the Lord in home. When we have to go there because we have no other place to go, God has to take us in. By the way, He loves doing it. Cf. Prodigal Son