Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted. – Isaiah 7:12-16
I recently saw a PBS video discussing the possibility of infant morality. It presented the findings of a team of Yale psychologists who conducted research with a group of 3-month olds. Their experiment consisted of three puppet shows. In the first, a duck was shown struggling to open a box containing a toy. A green dog and a pink dog stood behind the duck; the green dog came to the rescue of the struggling duck, while the pink dog spitefully slammed the box lid shut. Then, in the second puppet show, the green dog was shown playing with a ball. It passed it to a blue cat, who kindly returned it back. Then the green dog passed the ball to an orange cat, who took it and disappeared. The infants were asked to decide which cat puppet, the blue or the orange one, they preferred. They invariably chose the blue cat over the orange cat, revealing an innate capacity to recognize compassionate behavior.
In the third puppet show, however, the pink dog took center stage. Like the green dog, the pink dog played with a ball and passed it to the blue cat, who kindly returned it. Then it passed the ball to the orange cat, who ran away with it. The infant was then asked which cat, the blue or the orange one, they preferred. The researchers found that, in this case, infants tended to prefer the mean orange cat instead of the nice blue cat. It was a fascinating finding, one that unmistakably suggested that infants possess a sense of retributive justice–they know that those who do good should be favored, while those who do wrong should be punished.
This conception of justice conceives of kindness not as a right, but as a contingency. We are kind to others in the hopes that others will be kind toward us. If that expectation is broken, we have the right to repay them in kind. Scripture certainly gives credence toward such a notion of right and wrong. Moses, for example, is told on Mount Sinai that “…you must require a life for a life—eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, and stripe for stripe.” (Deuteronomy 15:23-25). The Lord demands to Moses that a karmatic notion of right and wrong be instated among the people of Israel, in which every injury is repaid with injury and every act of sin is met with a proportionate degree of condemnation.
Today’s Advent reading tells us that Christ came to refuse the evil and choose the good as a young child. But even at that age, his conception of right and wrong was shaped in a manner starkly different from our own. This is evident when he later urges his disciples, “‘You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.’” (Matthew 5:38-40) Christ demands unconditional love and unwavering mercy in the face of personal injury. His calling goes against our innate desire for retributive justice, and beckons us toward a life of radical patience and compassion. Christ commands us to love others, regardless of who they are or what they have done to us, since he has loved us first–and not only that, he commands us to love them just as He loves them. His demand is, in short, an impossible one to meet.
But Christ knew this reality better than any of us. Today’s message tells us that He, too, had to confront the choice between right and wrong, compassion and pride, love and enmity. Fully God and fully human, faced with hatred and vitriol and isolation, Christ intimately knew the difficulty, indeed the impossibility, of choosing the good and refusing the evil. Yet he tells his disciples, “With men this is impossible–but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). We do not have the right to expect compassion from others, least of all from the Maker whom we have slandered and wronged. But in Christ, who revealed to us the unmerited compassion of our Father, He promises us the strength, the power, and the endurance to love others as if they had every right to deserve the compassion that the Father showed toward us.
Nonetheless, in order to rely on Christ–in order to choose the good–we must first learn to hope in Him. Advent, after all, is the season of hope. We hope for the coming of Jesus, as Mary hoped for the birth of her Son and as Creation hoped for redemption from human brokenness. We hope, because without hope, we cannot have the power to love. We hope, because without hope in someone far greater than ourselves, we rely on our own marred ability to strive for justice and set wrongs aright. The apostle Paul tells us that we, as Christians, are in the race of faith to win–but what motivation is there to win, if there is no hope in what lies ahead? Therefore, let us pray that the Spirit of hope would fill us this season; that this same Spirit would lead us to thank the Father for the grace we know we can surely expect from Him in the coming year; and that this Hope, in turn, would give us the courage to love others, the humility to trust in the Lord, and the wisdom to walk faithfully with our God.
Daniel Shin ’22 is a sophomore in Quincy House studying Philosophy and Math.