21 Feb 2014

Refuse That Won't Be Refused

A number of modern day artists are transforming common, everyday trash into notable works of art. Sayaka Ganz hopes to reduce waste through creative use of discarded objects. Paul Villinski collects discarded beer cans from New York streets and transforms them into cross-cultural symbols of rebirth. Ann P. Smith creates animal works of art from broken electronics and machine parts. However, the concept that lies behind all these artists' work is nothing new. Jesus has been practicing the exact same kind of artistry for thousands of years.

During one of his Sabbath-day synagogue visits, the Pharisees confronted Jesus with a man with a withered hand and challenged him about whether it was acceptable to heal such a man on the Sabbath. For Jesus the answer was painfully obvious:

He said to them, “Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out? Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And the man stretched it out, and it was restored, healthy like the other. Matthew 12:11-12

Like a modern-day upcycling artist, Jesus restored this man's useless, withered hand to make it productive and healthy. However, such healings are only one form of Jesus' artistic work. While the events concerning this crippled man are recorded by Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Matthew connects them with Old Testament prophecies concerning the long-promised Messiah.

This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah:
“Behold, my servant whom I have chosen,
my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased.
I will put my Spirit upon him,
and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles.
He will not quarrel or cry aloud,
nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not quench,
until he brings justice to victory;
and in his name the Gentiles will hope.”
Matthew 12:17-21

The same Greek word translated "reed" is found in several other passages in the New Testament. The soldiers who beat Jesus prior to his crucifixion used a "reed" to strike him on the head (Mt. 27:30). While Jesus was dying on the cross, they used a "reed" to lift wine for him to drink (Mt. 27:48). A "reed" could be used as a pen for writing (3 Jn. 13), and "reed" could refer to a measuring rod (Rev. 11:1; 21:15-16). A reed was a strong, rigid instrument, useful for many things, but a bruised reed would be weak, compromised, and relatively worthless. However, even though it may be useless and unreliable, the Messiah would never destroy such an item.

As for wicks, they were a consumable resource found in lamps. When they produced smoke rather than light, the annoyance of the smoke would cause someone to simply snuff them out, discard the wick, and replace it with a new one. It would be as natural and expected as replacing batteries in a flashlight when the bulb grows dim. However, the Messiah would be recognized as someone who would not snuff out a smoldering wick even though its useful life had seemingly passed.

Much like Paul's question in 1 Corinthians 9:9, we should ask, "Is it for reeds and wicks that Jesus is concerned?" No, not at all. Matthew is not giving us a lesson in wasteful consumption and our need to creatively recycle our garbage. Rather, much like the entire nation of Israel, the man with the withered hand was like a bruised reed or a smoldering wick. What usefulness did he have with a hand that didn't work? What meaningful contribution might he make to society? Jesus implies that the Pharisees had less concern for this man's welfare than they would have for a sheep in distress, yet the Messiah comes showing kindness, compassion, justice, and mercy to all men, especially the weak and helpless. Even the despised Gentiles experience true justice in his presence (Mt. 12:18, 21). In meekness and humility, the Messiah goes about his mission (Mt. 12:19), quietly redeeming lost and helpless mankind, and restoring them to fruitfulness (Mt. 12:13).

For those familiar with the Old Testament, this comes as no surprise. Whether it is calling out to a fugitive hiding in the desert (Ex. 2:15; 3:1-8), elevating a despised shepherd boy to king of a nation (1 Sam. 16:10-13), or using a widow in despair to provide for a prophet (1 Ki. 17:8-16), God is in the habit of taking men and women of little account and using their lives in magnificent ways. He continues this same pattern in the New Testament, calling uneducated and disrespected men to represent him to the nations (Lk. 5:27, Ac. 4:13). And the message his ambassadors proclaim targets men and women of little account.

For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly 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, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are.
1 Corinthians 1:26-28

In fact, not only were the Corinthian believers men and women of little worldly account, some of them were involved in significant sin before believing in Jesus.

Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you.
1 Corinthians 6:9-11

However, Jesus had taken these withered lives and redeemed them. Lives that might have been discarded had been elevated to the point where they would one day judge angels (1 Cor. 6:3). This is the endless mercy and extravagant grace of God at work in the world. There is no life that Jesus writes off as worthless, no individual that he will cast aside, no one that is beyond the Messiah's firm grasp. In his hands, the last become first and the ordinary become extraordinary, as every follower of Jesus is transformed into a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17).

Beautiful Things
Gungor (2010)

Still today, Jesus shows the same compassion he displayed to the crippled man in the synagogue. Lives that are broken can be restored; despair can be conquered by hope. The single mother, the elderly neighbor, the unborn child, the drug addict, the stressed out student, the convicted felon, the sexually confused - not one of them will be turned away by Jesus. None will be discarded as worthless. Jesus is always quick to reach down and rescue any sheep from any pit.

Sayaka Ganz expresses one of the goals behind her artwork, "I believe the best way for artists to help reduce waste is to show how beautiful these materials can be, and what can be done with these mundane objects and materials. When we think of these things as beautiful, we value them. If we value our resources we will waste less." Though she connects her artistic themes to the Japanese Shinto beliefs of her childhood, her passion is in many ways a reflection of the image of God that continues to indwell all of human creation. Her desire to elevate discarded resources to beautiful works of art is to be commended. When we encounter her works, we should be reminded that Jesus seeks to accomplish the exact same purpose, but with far more valuable resources and far more glorious results.

Related Posts:
Paul's Self Portrait
Baptism as New Creation