Christmas in Isaiah: The Government's Welfare and the Lamb
The best we would have to look forward to, without Jesus, is a society dedicated to addressing problems and working through them.
“and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isa 9:6b)
Sometimes a certain experience sticks in your memory for reasons you aren’t entirely sure why. I don’t remember much of my first semester of Economics 101, but I do remember the professor’s opening greeting. As he walked into the room the class quieted down, he placed his pile of books on the desk and said, “Welcome to Economics 101, I’m glad you’re here, even though I know most of you aren’t as glad as me. I like to start class off with a question, so here is the first one: Should people on welfare be able to buy a steak? Discuss.”
What seemed like a simple question turned into an all-class debate. Some students argued that because welfare was intended for those in need, luxurious items like a steak should be exempt, since it was not in keeping with the spirit of the program, and because taxpayers were not paying for needy people to purchase expensive cuts of meat that they themselves didn’t eat often. But other students objected. They argued that those on welfare should not be forced to give up their dignity, and that the program was designed to help feed people and provide for needs, not to punitively make them suffer on the cheapest options that could be had at the grocery store. In the end, the professor interjected to make his point, “Economics is really a study in human nature: there are unlimited wants and limited resources. How do we best understand this aspect about ourselves and society, and what can we do about it—that’s economics.”
The question about whether a person on welfare should be able to buy a steak may seem far removed from the Messianic words uttered by the Prophet Isaiah. But if that’s the case, it’s only because the prophet’s lofty poetry can seduce us with grand visions and carefully descriptive word pictures. But the reality is, these ancient words of Isaiah have everything to do with the question of whether or not a person on welfare should (ethically) be able to buy a steak.
Isaiah’s opening words in verse two tell us that, “those who have walked in darkness have seen a great light,” adding that the light has also shone on them. This is a statement about something new, something excellent, and something intimate—intimate because it is not far off but near, shining on people, dressing them in illuminating light. This idea of light coming into darkness is famously picked up by John in the opening of his Gospel, and Jesus uses the image of light to instruct us to shine with our good works for our neighbors to receive and see. Jesus himself shines with holy light at his transfiguration. The early Fathers often spoke of this light as “dazzling,” so bright that it blinded you, so bright that you couldn’t see. That is how the Fathers often explain St. Paul’s blindness after seeing Jesus on the Damascus Road. The point is, this light is something new; it is the darkness that is our familiar friend (as Simon and Garfunkel so aptly remind us).
In verse six, this newness, the light that has come to dwell with those stuck in darkness, is revealed to be a baby. And we are told this: “And the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called, Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” All of these titles given to Jesus are foreign in the truest sense of the word, they are a vision of the Messiah’s glory and majesty, but also, the newness he brings.
The moral and ethical questions that surround whether a person on welfare can buy a steak stem from conceptions and ideas about fairness. That fairness is based in the economic problem of unlimited wants and limited resources. But this is all further complicated by the relativity of resources between the have and have nots. It raises questions about freedom and responsibility, psychological questions about entitlements and motivation, and moral questions about empathy, justice, and stewardship. In other words, it is a question that reveals that the supposedly simple act of buying a steak is caught up in a web of entangled notions of fairness, justice, kindness, responsibility, and social order. Which means that the words of Isaiah offer something that we cannot: a newness of God breaking in, of God doing what we cannot do. Psalm 40:3 instructs us to “sing a new song,” In Revelation 21:5 we hear God say, “Behold I make all things new!” The Messiah’s work is not the same-old, same-old, he is not just another great leader. He is new song, a new way, a new covenant, a new birth into grace.
Certainly, all Christians are called to think about their moral lives through their theology. In this sense, the newness of the Messiah’s work should inform our social conscience and shape our ethical thinking. But that is not the newness I am focusing on there. Yes, Christians should contribute answers to economic questions. But they should also take heart and hope in the reality that only God himself can set things right.
To say that Christ is a Wonderful Counselor and Mighty God is to say, in the very least, that he is not like us. Something new is here, and that is God himself. He will not judge and rule like we judge and rule. He will not be partisan like we are partisan. He has no sense of self-interest, he has nothing that threatens him, or could harm his ego, or could sway his heart to take a bribe. Jesus is one of us, but also, very God of very God. In his incarnation, we have something new. A counselor or wise man unlike any other, whose might is unmatched. Nothing threatens him, and death itself kneels in defeat before him; the gates of hell have unhinged themselves at his presence; the darkness of the world, and the cosmos, have taken flight at the sight of his dazzling light.
To say that the government is upon his shoulders is to say that the burden of the economic problem, and all the problems of governance, lie upon him. He will take up the burden of rulership, and he will reign without fatigue, with pure justice and with honorable care. When Isaiah says he is the Everlasting Father, he speaks of his Triune unity, and thus the Messiah’s divinity. He is not just a man, but also God himself. And to call him the Prince of Peace is to speak of the complete result of the newness he brings. For what he brings to a weary world of sin is rest. Rest in and with God because the cross has won and the Lamb has conquered.
We debate and argue over economic questions, justice, moral responsibility and how to govern. It is right to do so, as long as we are all seeking after the good. But even in our seeking, we fail to make essential change. We turn and bite one another. We form parties and factions and see our competitors as enemies. We leave people behind. We tolerate injustice for the hope of some justice. In all these things we work hard to stop corruption, address problems and improve our society. But we also are not surprised that the result is, “the same-old, same-old”.
For those who dwell in darkness, there is a great light, and it shines on them. A baby is born who is not just a baby. And the government is on his shoulders. He will take responsibility for his people. He will bring the world’s injustice to an end. He is not limited by the economic problem and so, does not require money for food, or works of righteousness for acceptance. Instead, he offers himself as the lamb who takes away the sins of the world. And that means the person on welfare gets a steak and the person who is not, also gets a steak. And the one who pays for it is the Lamb.
The best we would have to look forward to, without Jesus, is a society dedicated to addressing problems and working through them. But such a society could never offer more than a dream of true justice. But in Christ, the old is gone; behold the new has come. And the Lamb is making all things new. You and me, society, brokenness, injustice, impatience, shattered hearts, and dried up springs. He is making all things new. Truly he will reign over the first and everlasting Kingdom of Peace. For he is, for you and for me and for the whole world the Prince of peace.
Should people on welfare be able to buy a steak? How about this too: The King will put all of us on his own welfare, a system of grace, a system of equitable charity and love. Everyone will be exposed as needy, and everyone will be cared for by the Lamb. And when the banquet feast is served, it will not be only steak, chicken, or vegetal delights. The Lamb will have given his own bread, his own wine. And there we feast, poor as can be, but also rich beyond imagination. Rich and rested. Truly, he is wonderful.