The Love of the Lord for the Lowly
Psalm 136 recalls the Lord’s mercy in the actions of the Creator and the Savior as the sacred psalmist raises a joyful acclamation of praise for the eternal goodness of God. As we listen to the voice of God, our prayer must accompany every meditative path even when we approach biblical texts that are not actually formulas prepared for liturgical recitation. The Sacred Scriptures are only respected when we reverently open our hearts in full obedience to the Word of God so that it can penetrate us deeply as a fruitful seed and transform our consciences, making them merciful. This is the fruit of prayerful listening.
In Psalm 136 the contemplation of God’s benevolent action begins with an emphasis on the greatness of the Creator’s works, starting with the immensity of the heavens (vv. 4-9); it then evokes the great epic of the Exodus where the Lord’s powerful hand brings about victory over the “mighty” kings of the earth (vv. 10-22). The psalm concludes its litany of thanksgiving remembering the gift of the “small” in the daily bread. One of the most significant elements of our biblical faith is the tension between the Lord’s infinite power – celebrated with an abundance of superlative attributes connected with his Name (“God of gods, Lord of lords” vv.2-3) – and the humble reality of his servant (v.22) on whom divine greatness is bestowed. It is the paradoxical way of our God’s revelation, stimulating our reflective attention and belief.
For Christians the event of the Incarnation – the descent of the Most High into the poverty of human flesh – is the sublime peak of this divine economy, full of humility, completely aimed at salvation and so fully expressing mercy. To welcome with greater awareness one of the central mysteries of our Creed, it is good to follow the paths that prophetically prepared its coming; it is necessary to understand that the humbling even unto death on a cross of the one who was “in the form of God” (Phil 2: 6-8) is the very fulfillment of the Lord’s plan written from time eternal.
Biblical narration is a repeated sequence of “beginnings,” of facts that are to be considered as happening “in the beginning” not just of a short cycle but of the entire historical process, configuring it according to its own precise meaning. There are many beginnings and so the story narrated by the author is complicated and full of complementary meanings. There is the absolute beginning of the world (Gen 1) and another after the flood (Gen 9); there is the beginning of the human story with the sin of Adam and the consequent curse (Gen 3), and there is also the event of Adam inaugurating the history of blessing based on faith and justice (Gen 12-15), and so on up until Christ who for us is the beginning of salvation, while Pentecost is a new starting point for the Church filled with the Spirit.
Now let us fix our attention on the beginning of the history of the people of Israel in the belief that this “original” moment will show the way the Lord acts constantly in time, in every era, revealing thereby the Lord’s own mercy. For this purpose, rather than choosing the narration of Genesis, we look to Deuteronomy since this book is a theological synthesis of the origins of the covenant between YHWH and his people and so allows for an approach that is more organic to the theme under consideration. As we shall see, the covenant and mercy are interrelated concepts; it is in the eternal bond promised by the Lord to our forefathers that the mercy of our God is revealed limpidly. Beginning with Deuteronomy we will trace briefly a line that shows how what is written of the initial event is confirmed and strengthened through the course of history, particularly when those historical changes occur that give this same history a new configuration, or – to use other words – when it is as if the human story started anew.
The Book of Deuteronomy
Let us consider two texts of great importance, both taken from chapters 5-11 where the most important theological reflection of the entire book is found. These are two similar texts where affirmations are repeated that are central for understanding the Lord: Two texts that proclaim that God loved and loves Israel in its smallness; two texts that help us to recognize better the mercy of the Lord.“Not because you are a great people” (Deut 7:6–11)
Chapter 7 of the Book of Deuteronomy develops a difficult theme; it prescribes the “extermination” of the peoples of Canaan and the total destruction of the symbols of their religious traditions (Deut 7:1-5.25-26). Such a commandment needs to be interpreted as a need to avoid any type of compromise with idolatry as a deadly trap and is justified by a marvelous passage describing the unique quality of the people of Israel, its “holiness,” which is connected with the way the Lord acts in history, namely, his love for the small and lowly.
“[Israel, you must have only one God, the Lord, so you must eliminate all that is an obstacle to this relation, for] you are a holy people, consecrated to the Lord your God” (v.6). The words of Moses addressed to the assembly gathered on the plain of Moab (about to cross the Jordan and take possession of the promised land) follow those that God had requested Moses on Mount Sinai to deliver to the people: “If you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites” (Ex 19:5-6).
Israel receives its identity from the Lord; it is by listening to and obeying the words of their God that the Israelites become a special people. Israel is actually one nation among many, with no particular merits or qualities; what ennobles Israel is its covenantal relationship with the Lord; belonging to YHWH makes Israel special. Being a “holy people” does not mean having an irreproachable morality or a supreme religiosity, a sort of exceptional spiritual character or one at least better than those of other nations in the land. Being “holy” means being consecrated to the Lord and that is exclusively determined by election: “the Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession” (v.6). God does not choose what is holy; God sanctifies those he chooses. The choice that God makes is to separate a subject from the rest and to bind that subject to himself. By this union – a “covenant” or “alliance” – the subject is then transformed into the image of the Lord, the Holy One who sanctifies.
Some translations refer to a privileged people, and it is certainly a privilege to be chosen, but the Hebrew is more correctly rendered: “To be a people that becomes a particular property of the Lord,” which is comparable to God’s personal treasure. God does not sanctify by enriching with earthly goods. Certainly the covenant with God brings great advantages that are signs of the Lord’s benevolence and take the form of many, long-lasting gifts such as land, fertility and victory over one’s enemies (exemplary texts are Ezekiel 16:8-14; see also Hosea 2:10). But it is not this generous gift that makes Israel a privileged people; in ancient and recent history other nations have been richer, wiser and more famous than the people of God. What makes Israel special and unique is that it is “of the Lord”; it is considered the personal inheritance of the God of all the earth (Deut 4:28; 9:26.29; 32:9; Ps 33:12; etc). And it is this by being chosen.
“The Lord your God has chosen you” (v. 6 and v. 7). In the Book of Deuteronomy the theme of divine election is particularly developed with reference to the people of Israel (Deut 4:37; 7:6-7; 10:15; 14:2) but also to the king (Deut 17:15), to the priest (Deut 18:5; 21:5) and especially to the place of the sanctuary (Deut 12:220.127.116.11.21.26; etc). The original choice on which all others depend is that of the patriarchs; and this intrinsically brings with it the election of their descendants in perpetuity who will receive repeated and diverse preferential manifestations of the Lord’s favor. Every choice implies a selection among many; and this distinction and separation confers on the chosen people the special status of being totally tied to him who made the choice.
Among all the peoples of the land, the Lord chose Israel. This affirmation is hard. It is difficult to accept not only because of the natural jealousy of all those who feel excluded but also because it does not seem right, it does not seem worthy of a God we expect to be impartial in treating all individuals and groups with equal benevolence. The Scriptures, however, present a God who does make choices and is happy to privilege some personal relations (see Isaiah 42:1; Mt 3:17; 12:18; 17:5) and this is because such choices and only these are able to show love that is gratuitous. Let us look at this more closely.
In God choice is always an act of love; it is a revelation of the inner wellspring, the benevolent freedom from which divine action extends. Deuteronomy says that it is because the Lord “set his heart” (v. 7) with a bond of affection on Israel and because God loved Israel that the choice was made and consequently there follows the benevolent event of the liberation from Egypt, an event based on the alliance with the patriarchs and at the same time one that establishes the covenant of Sinai with the children of Israel (Ex 19:3-4; Deut 5:6; Jer 31:32). Love – the quality that defines God, indeed the quality with which God identifies (1 Jn 4:7) – is the origin of all. Love explains and justifies the election.
But why did God love and prefer Israel among all the nations of the earth? This is a delicate issue. True love, authentic love, divine love is not motivated by any external reality. It is not conditioned by or proportionate to any existing good, as if God’s action was foreseeable and a response that is due. The choice of Israel is understood only as a free, gratuitous and surprising act of God’s love that is shown to all the peoples so that all might see that God loves because God is love.
In this unfathomable mystery of the loving Origin of all things that needs to be welcomed with reverent adoration every time it manifests itself, light is cast on another matter of major spiritual importance for the way the Lord reveals his foundational benevolence in history. We could perhaps speak of the criteria within the divine choices, or perhaps of the style or way God proceeds when active in history. Speaking to Israel the elect, Deuteronomy states: God did not choose you for your greatness, given that you are the smallest among the peoples; God chose you for love.
Deuteronomy expresses this with great subtlety. It does not say that the Lord chose Israel because it was small; to offer such motivations would place conditions on God’s choices. In fact, in the biblical narratives we see that some of the “greats” in the eyes of the world (such as Saul, queen Esther, Nebuchadnezzar or Cyrus) are the chosen instruments for divine mercy. It is not an exclusively sociological consideration that determines the choice; what is decisive is a particular social condition that can show the nature of the Lord through his historical actions. The choice of the small shows that the true God has no preferences – here is the paradox – and he is not conditioned by outward appearances (1 Sam 16:7), nor by what for all would be loving and appreciable and so useful for that aim. Instead God looks down on those who have no “beautiful aspect” to glorify them (Isaiah 52:13-15), on the naked child who flailed about in her blood to make her a queen (Ezek 16:6-8), on the poor and the needy to make them sit with princes (Psalm 113:7-8).
God manifests to all his mercy by making high, noble and sublime what was lowly and outcast, binding to himself – for the sake of pure love – the abandoned or rejected. In fact he affirms: “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy” (Ex 33:19) and this is said to Moses who asked to see the glory of the Lord. The glorious mystery of God then can only be contemplated by opening ourselves up to welcoming this free and generous manifestation of the goodness of the Lord who is pleased to raise up the humble and make great those who are small (1 Sam 2:4-8; Lk 1:51-54).
The text in question speaks of Israel as a small people. The adjective used in this context is the opposite of “great” and refers to a lack of quantity. Such a qualification is somewhat insulting when applied to a nation and wishes to make clear that at the time of its election that Israel was a social entity with hardly any military strength: it was vulnerable. It had few economic resources which were limited to what came from manual labor. Normally, a sparsely populated nation has no organized political and administrative structure and is focused on its own survival as it can easily be wiped out in the event of a famine, plague or time of infertility.
Now the Lord chose this weak and precarious human reality. The reason for this choice was divine. For when a small group of people, suffering from sterility, living in a land where famine is frequent, and deprived by powerful forces of the resources needed to develop, when this poor people multiplies by becoming as numerous as the stars in the sky, then it must be recognized that the blessing of their God was at work in its prodigious vitality. Or when a weak and insignificant military force gains an inexplicable victory against formidable powers (as happens with the Exodus) it will be clear to all that such a success cannot be ascribed to humans but only to a power beyond human means, the power of the God of that people who became present with his efficacious and merciful action, for victory is the triumph of the weak and oppressed. It is salvation for the victims of injustice, those who alone would never have escaped.
As we shall see, the lack of resources in the people that God chose is a “figure,” that is a sort of symbol of the way the Lord acts in history. In other words, it is one of the expressions of the smallness loved by the God of the whole world who chooses to reveal himself and show the way of salvation to all in this revelation. What is weak, poor or defenseless will always be the object of God’s mercy.
“He binds himself to you”
God’s choice of Israel could be considered only instrumental: the Lord uses this small people for his own needs, needs that are certainly noble but useful only to exalt God without transforming the world. There are in fact some biblical texts that could be interpreted in this way. These texts have the aim of diminishing the pride of the chosen one as if those extraordinary events were due to him, rather than to God (see Isaiah 10:15;29:16; 45:9; Rom 9:20-21).
Deuteronomy, however, helps us understand that God does not use Israel (a human reality) as a mere material instrument to be used at will without any need of awareness or consent. Rather, God enters into a personal relationship with his people. Indeed, God binds himself with bonds of affection to a subject who can understand and freely adhere to God. The initiative always begins with the Lord; it is he who chooses (Jn 15:16) and it is he who unites himself forever to his human partner.
To speak of this union, the author of Deuteronomy uses a fairly rare verb (?šq) that means “bind” or “tie together” one thing to another. Beyond the material meaning, the verbal root suggests an element of desire (see 1 Kgs 9:1.19; Is 21:4), particularly a sentimental bond when one person becomes attached to another through love (Gen 34:8; Deut 21:11). This affective dimension – a prelude to marriage – shows up in the two texts where God is the subject of the verb, that is in Deut 7:7 and 10:15 (on which we comment below) where the Lord expresses the juridical relationship of alliance in the explicit terminology of love.
We know that the prophetic tradition beginning with Hosea and then Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Deutero-Isaiah (with clear influence on the New Testament) will develop the notion of the alliance between YHWH and Israel in terms of bride and groom; yet this value is also written in the Torah in the texts we have just mentioned (Deut 7:7 and 10:15) and in others using the verb “attach oneself to” (dbq be) that in the foundational text of creation (Gen 2:24) defines the indissoluble matrimonial bond (“a man clings to his wife and the two become one flesh”) while in Deuteronomy it is used to qualify the bond that Israel must maintain with its God (Deut 4:4; 10:20; 11:22; 13:5; 30:20; etc).
This subtle and important spousal aspect serves to clarify the loving nature rather than the instrumental nature of God’s choice for Israel. And it is also important for revealing the Lord’s faithfulness to this indissoluble relationship. A tool is abandoned when it is no longer needed. But Israel is never abandoned by her Lord-spouse, for the loving choice is an eternal bond and the relationship is one the Lord vowed with an eternal bond (Deut 7:8) that he can never deny. The alliance with the small (Israel) is identified – in Dt 7:9 and 7:12 – with ?esed (celebrated as eternal in Psalm 136) that has a twofold character: merciful for it is toward the needy; and everlasting for it is founded on the originating love of the Lord.
Our passage says that God keeps his covenant (vv.9 and 12), that it is God who maintains his oath (v.8): what was written in the originating act is forever as God does not regret the good he has done, does not betray, does not abandon. We read in Isaiah: “Has the wife of a man’s youth been cast off? says the Lord. For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with great compassion
I will gather you” (Isaiah 54:6-7). And St. Paul echoes this when he writes “Has God rejected his people? By no means!” (Rom 11:1)And for the small (Israel) this certainty is source of hope and joy: God is clinging to us and no one can break this bond. Who can separate us from the love of the Lord? (Rom 8:35).
The response of the elect
What response does this consoling declaration of love receive? It is Israel that hears these texts of Deuteronomy. Israel is not simply being used materially but is called to respond, to receive freely this offer of love and reflect it by living in a way that is somehow symmetric. We read at the conclusion of the Deuteronomic code (Deut 12-26): “Today you have obtained the Lord’s agreement: to be your God; and for you to walk in his ways, to keep his statutes, his commandments, and his ordinances, and to obey him. Today the Lord has obtained your agreement: to be his treasured people, as he promised you, and to keep his commandments” (Deut 26:17-18).
In this text we find that divine election – what makes Israel a special people – establishes a reciprocal relationship, so that the two subjects are defined as being in relation with each other: the Lord is the God of Israel, and Israel is the people of the Lord. But this alliance in words becomes real only if both partners keep their word, if they maintain the intrinsic essence of the bond, which is love. So the Lord invites recognition that God is faithful and maintains covenant loyalty and mercy to a thousand generations, but this benevolence is for those who love him and keep his commandments (see Deut 7:9).
There is a need to clarify these affirmations. Certain biblical expressions could erroneously lead one to think that the Lord’s merciful love is aimed at someone on the condition that this person responds with a similar stance (see Deut 5:10: Psalm 103:17-18). Actually, the word of God seeks to affirm that the Lord’s mercy is constant historically only if the people or the individual Israelite in turn stays within love, that is stays in the condition of receiving mercy. Now this receiving (of mercy) is seen when the chosen become merciful. This dynamic is clearly expressed in Deut 10:14-22.
Love for the stranger (Deut 10:14–22)
We can summarize this passage by saying that Israel is placed under a twofold obligation: love God (Deut 10:12-13 – the beginning of the passage) and love of stranger (Deut 10:19 – the end of the passage). This double demand is rooted in the originating action of the Lord’s mercy toward Israel (Deut 10:14ff – the middle of the passage). In other words, the covenant comes into being when the love of God renders the people loving.
The central point of chapter 7 is repeated here: God is “tied to the fathers” and “has chosen them” together with their descendants for “love” (v.15). The new element is given by the insistence on the greatness (see Deut 4:32.34.37-38) of the Lord God to whom “heaven and the heaven of heavens belong, the earth with all that is in it” (v.14). Rather than recalling the creative act – it remains implied – the author of Deuteronomy underlines the dominion of the Lord over all of creation (see Ps 46:11; 47:3.8-9; 99:1-3) in continuity with what God had affirmed at Sinai: “If you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine” (Ex 19:5).
This is the sovereign power that makes the election extremely significant; the sublime nature of YHWH is repeated in verse 17 with the titles that recall the divine praise of Psalm 136:2-3: “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome.” So God who chose Israel is not a minor local divinity with powers limited to a land, nor the patron of a small ethnic group that enjoys an exclusive preference in exchange for due homage. Rather, the Lord “is impartial.” The Lord does not choose because he is conditioned by something beyond his free will, he “takes no bribe,” he is not corruptible, he does not act for payment. So – and here is the important point – the Lord YHWH is not the God of Israel to the exclusion of other peoples; he has chosen “only” the patriarchs not because he is not looking after the rest of humanity (of which he is the only sovereign) but because he provides “justice for the orphan and the widow, and loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing” (v.18). The orphans and the strangers will be chosen by the Lord and will know his mercy always.
So here we have another description of those who receive the Lord’s love. It is a love aimed at the small. This category might indicate a “not numerous people” (see v.22), but it is particularly identified with the disadvantaged who lack the help of a family (such as orphans and widows) or are unable to obtain political protection (such as the stranger). Smallness is seen by Deuteronomy in the figure of the weak, the have-nots and the undefended, all those who are not looked after; and it is the Lord God who takes care of these little ones, giving them life and honor for God loves with a compassionate love.
This revelation of a great God who gives justice to the poor because he recognizes the rights of those who have no rights is embraced by Israel as its own originating constitution. The immigrant is a privileged figure in whom divine mercy is manifest. Today, it is the way a people recognizes itself in the stranger – identifies itself with those who are without land, the abused, the downtrodden when no longer useful, and those put to death because they are considered dangerous – only when Israel lives this condition spiritually does it recognize the God of grace who chose Israel, the God of her originating liberation.
Only in this way does Israel live the covenant with the Lord. The recognition of YHWH certainly comes through the act of thanksgiving and the hymn of praise, for as Deuteronomy 10:21 says, “He is your praise; he is your God.” But this verbal declaration would be a lie or even blasphemous if it were not accompanied by Israel behaving in the same way as God, becoming holy like God is holy, merciful as the Father of heaven (Lk 6:36), obeying the imperative to “love the stranger.” This is what it means to keep a covenant.
It is interesting to reflect on the motivation for the command-ment that has just been recalled. Deut 10:19 says: “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” At one level we have a source of the commandment in the memory of Israel’s own experience of suffering at the time of Egyptian slavery, following the indication of Exodus 23:9: “You shall not oppress a stranger; you know the heart of a stranger, for you were outsiders in the land of Egypt.” This memory of her own origins should serve Israel as a stimulus to be compassionate. So too in our days when waves of refugees are arriving on our shores, our own migratory history can be remembered so as to open up a cordial stance towards those needing a welcome.
While this aspect is significant, the mention of slavery in Egypt needs to be completed with the memory of the liberation (explicitly mentioned in verse 21), recognized as a sign of love and a seal of the covenant between YHWH and Israel. The covenant Deuteronomy spoke about continuously has its origins and permanent meaning in the divine choice for the immigrant in a foreign land, be this Abraham who left Ur of the Chaldeans, or Jacob the “wandering Aramean” (Deut 26:5), or Israel who had emigrated into Egypt. Now, being loved by the Lord (and living out this benevolent election) means recognizing in the stranger the place where God’s action unfolds in history. And this is because God “loves the stranger” (v.18). In summary, it is only recognizing and loving the stranger as the Lord has done and continues to do that Israel recognizes and loves her God. This is the only way to keep the covenant.
The alliance is maintained because it is observed (in Hebrew the two concepts are expressed with the same verb šmr). The love of the Lord toward the patriarchs was not an isolated action of grace; it is said that the covenantal bond begins with the election of the patriarchs but is kept by their descendants (v.15) in an indefinite history because God’s faithfulness is without defect (Deut 7:9). The children of Israel are called on to remain steadfast to the Lord (v.20) for the covenant is as a matrimonial bond: those in communion with God cannot have other feelings or engage in actions that lead elsewhere without breaking the very covenant. If, however, Israel loves the stranger then the covenant is not only kept but made complete, for it reveals that in history God is love; that God is the one who – in loving Israel – renders her loving and so through human merciful activity the God of all the earth comes to the aid of those needing compassion. By loving the stranger Israel becomes for all people the incarnation of the God of love.
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By way of conclusion we offer some short remarks on the motif of the election of the lowly that recurs in some key moments of the history of Israel as new alliances are formed.
Biblical scholars have long noted a structural similarity between the pact sworn by the Lord to Abraham and that to David. There is an entirely free promise offered by the “father” to his descendants, so it is perennial and not conditioned by human behavior. David represents a new beginning marked by the guarantee of an eternal kingdom. This parallel confirms that what is said in the founding narrative is valid for all subsequent history. We wish, however, to emphasize that in the figure of the founding king of the Davidic dynasty we see again the choice of the Lord for the small. David is not only the last child of Jesse (1 Sam 16:11) who as such seems less worthy of consideration, but he appears especially incapable of taking up the task of freeing Israel from the oppression of the Philistines.
At that time Saul was the only man capable of being a warrior king. He was “a handsome young man. There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he; he stood head and shoulders above everyone else” (1 Sam 9:2). How could a little boy sent to be a shepherd (1 Sam 16:11) who was more used to handling a lyre (1 Sam 16:23) than a sword be capable of standing up to the immense power of the enemy represented by Goliath (1 Sam 17:33)? Yet it is this very “small boy” that the Lord has chosen;” what counts for God is not what seems most suitable in the eyes of men. God chooses him because he sees his heart (1 Sam 16:7) and judges positively his interior disposition. This boy does not count on his own strengths but trusts in the Name of the Lord of Hosts. His victory over the enemy ensures that “all the earth will know that there is a God in Israel” (1 Sam 17:46).
Connected to the figure of David we have the choice of Zion, the small hill where the temple will be built and the Lord will place his home for ever (2 Kings 21:7). Little David’s throne is everlasting as is the dwelling place of YHWH on the small hill of Judah. “Why do you look with envy, O many-peaked mountain, at the mount that God desired for his abode, where the Lord will reside for ever?” (Psalm 68:16; see also Psalm 78:68; 132:13). What God loves becomes the object of choice. Once again – this time for the dwelling of the Lord – smallness appears as a criterion for revealing God in history; when the threatening waves of enemies break through against the humble rock of Zion (Psalm 46:2-8; 76:2-10), the Lord will be known and adored throughout all the earth.
David is the recipient of an eternal covenant, as is the priestly body that officiates in the Temple of Jerusalem. But God’s commitment to the king and the Levites, these “two families” the Lord has chosen (Jer 33:24), seems to be denied in history. However, the truth of the divine promise is not realized in the material perpetuity of a “figure” but in a spiritual fulfilment, in the realization of the meaning traced out in that figure. With the exile, the end of the Davidic monarchy (Jer 22:30) and the destruction of the sanctuary at Jerusalem what was old will disappear leaving space for a new beginning, a new alliance that perfectly completes the original promises, revealing again that God chooses the small out of love.
The change with exile and a new covenant
Nebuchadnezzar knocked down the walls of Jerusalem, burnt down the temple and deported the royal family to Babylon. Thus, the prophecy of the end came to pass (Ezek 7:1-9). The holy city is emptied of its people, the desperate people loses its hope of survival (Isaiah 40:27; Ezek 37:11); the prayerful lament: “in our day we have no ruler, or prophet, or leader, no burnt-offering, or sacrifice, or oblation, or incense, no place to make an offering before you and to find mercy” (Dan 3:38; see also Hosea 3:4; Lam 2:9).
Yet in this historical moment, the Word of God speaks of election and satisfaction (Isaiah 42:1) to this people reduced to a miserable number, to this Israel compared by Isaiah to a worm and an insect (Isaiah 41:14): “Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you” (Isaiah 43:4). The figure of the “servant of the Lord,” spurned and put to death as an evildoer, is the most significant emblem of divine election of the “small.” He is the precursor to all the “poor of YHWH” (Zeph 3:12; see Isaiah 61:1) who are the recipients of a new and eternal alliance.
Once again and definitively we have the mystery of the infinite power of God who looks on the poor as the merciful one. We read at the end of the Book of Isaiah: “Thus says the Lord: Heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool … All these things my hand has made, and so all these things are mine, says the Lord. But this is the one to whom I will look, to the humble and contrite in spirit, who trembles at my word (Isaiah 66:1-2; see also 61:1).” The new alliance is concluded with the poor “remnant of Israel,” with a humiliated people (see Psalm 136:23), with those who have become the new “small”, the stranger and harmless as Israel was in the beginning.
The New Testament (the new alliance in Christ)
The motif of the small, the poor, and the meek is a recurring theme throughout the New Testament. We have a new beginning and once again it is the love of the Lord for the small that emerges. We see it in the figure of Mary, the humble handmaid of the Lord (Lk 1:48) and it is perfectly fulfilled in the Incarnation of the Word of God, humbled even unto death on a cross (Phil 2:6-8), and becomes the history of salvation of the Christian community. St. Paul wrote: “Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God” (1 Cor 1:26-29).
We recall that Jesus chose a child to explain who would be the first in the Kingdom of heaven (Mt 18:1-4). But will the small be able to remain so? And will the man full of pride humble himself to become as small as a child so that the Lord can actuate his saving mercy? This is what God asks of us to activate his grace among us.