Lessons from an Axe

Last Updated on August 29, 2022 by GMC

Assyrian Relief Attack on Enemy Town from Kalhu (Nimrud) Central Palace during the reign of Tiglath-Pileser III (British Museum). Licensed by Allan Gluck under CC-BY-4.0

15th Week in Ordinary Time, Wednesday (Year II)

Isaiah 10:5-7, 13b-16; Matthew 11:25-27

Thus says the LORD: Woe to Assyria! My rod in anger, my staff in wrath. Against an impious nation I send him, and against a people under my wrath I order him To seize plunder, carry off loot, and tread them down like the mud of the streets. But this is not what he intends, nor does he have this in mind; Rather, it is in his heart to destroy, to make an end of nations not a few.

These are troubling passages for modern ears. Does God play off the nations like pieces on a chess board? Assyria was described by Isaiah as a “rod” and “staff” in the hand of God to deal justice to the nations. As with Pharaoh, Herod, Caiaphas, Pilate and others, egotistical and private ends reached their finality in a higher, divine purpose: to call nations and persons back to their divine origin and unity.

With great drama and flourish, Isaiah painted a portrait of the imperious ego:

For he says: “By my own power I have done it, and by my wisdom, for I am shrewd. I have moved the boundaries of peoples, their treasures I have pillaged, and, like a giant, I have put down the enthroned. My hand has seized like a nest the riches of nations; As one takes eggs left alone, so I took in all the earth; No one fluttered a wing, or opened a mouth, or chirped!”

When the whole world revolves around the “I,” the ego loses all sense of proportion and balance. Pride distorts inner vision and creates the illusion of power and control. 

Will the axe boast against him who hews with it? Will the saw exalt itself above him who wields it? As if a rod could sway him who lifts it, or a staff him who is not wood! Therefore the Lord, the LORD of hosts, will send among his fat ones leanness, And instead of his glory there will be kindling like the kindling of fire.

St. Paul, steeped in the Hebrew Scriptural tradition, similarly used the image of a Potter and clay to describe the Creator-creature relation (Romans 9:20-22). 

What about human freedom? Where does that come into play? 

Authentic freedom is found only by walking in accordance with divine truth, goodness and beauty. Egotism cages the “I” within itself by a voluntary imprisonment. Enslaved to the passions, the egotist is preeminently unfree. Prideful individuals wreak havoc within and without by failing to align themselves with the laws of reality. Every pull away from the Source is its own punishment. Clashing egos, such as the warring nations in Isaiah, punish one another as the natural consequence of living in illusion.

Those who are moved by the Spirit are free persons walking in sync with divine grace. In the hands of the Potter, one may even derive benefit from the “rods” and “axes” that oppress: “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). Heroes like Joseph, the son of Jacob who turned his brothers’ treachery into profit for the entire world, is one of the greatest examples in Scripture. 

With the simplicity of the dove and the wisdom of the serpent, may we learn how to transform calamities into blessings for others and ourselves.

“I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike.”

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