There can be no grander or more important text for our days than this beauty from that third part of Isaiah, a writer we cannot know but may still bask in the glow of his crucial reflections on a topic that continues to confound and confuse many of us now: what do we do with those who are not like us? I need not tell you that our modern USA is a riven one. Hatred leads some to attack and kill others merely because of skin color, ideological differences, place of origins, sexual orientation. Texas, a state in which I lived for over forty years, is still in 2017 attempting to pass a law that states that no transgender person may use the bathroom of her/his gender, a law based solely in ignorance of sexuality and refusal to imagine persons who do not conform to the majority view of human sexuality. In Charlottesville, VA, a group of far-right knuckleheads claim that the “white race” (a completely fabricated concept) has been downtrodden by those who are non-white, and their stupidity leads to murder. In city after city, black lives appear not to matter, as racial profiling and fear leads too often to killing by police and by citizens who cannot conceive of persons different from themselves.
In post-exilic Israel (fifth century BCE), where survival was uppermost on many minds, where “foreigners” were feared and excluded from community worship and communal life, where those who were different from the majority who set the rules for accepted behaviors, a prophet was needed to call some of these exclusionary beliefs and practices into serious question. The author of Is.56 was just that prophet. We need to hear him again today. When the president of our country has a difficult time naming the evil of overt racism, even after its angry manifestation leads to the death of an innocent person, we need a prophet to speak in our time, since apparently this president cannot seem to muster the truthful energy and moral clarity to play the role of spokesperson for the aggrieved for us, as we have expected past presidents to do.
“Guard justice and perform righteousness, because my salvation draws near, and my own righteousness is about to be revealed” (Is.56:1). The prophet begins his oracle by announcing that the actions of YHWH’s followers should precisely mirror the past, present, and future actions of YHWH, actions that are always characterized by justice and righteousness. “Happy (or “blessed,” the word means both) is the person who does this, the mortal who grabs hold of it, who guards the Sabbath, not profaning it, who stops his hand from doing any evil thing” (Is.56:2). So far, the prophetic words are standard fare: do justice, avoid evil. But the closer definition of what these common commands now mean offers to us what we need in our time.No foreigner should ever be heard to say that YHWH will separate me from God’s people, Israel, because she is a foreigner (Is. 56:3). No eunuch, a male without testicles, however he became such through war or mutilation at birth, or simply born that way, should ever say, “I am only a dry tree,” and is thus excluded from Israel. No, says, YHWH! Despite earlier words from Deuteronomy that expressly forbade any maimed person from full involvement in the life and worship of Israel, Isaiah directly repudiates such words and opens a place for all into the life of the community for those formerly excluded. Even more than that, the prophet announces that YHWH will “give in my house (the temple), within my walls, a monument and a name better than Israelite sons and daughters “that shall not be cut off” (Is.56:5). Not only will eunuchs find their place among the chosen, their place will be special, recognized as eternal, held up as better than those who are born to be among the elect.
In like manner, foreigners are welcome, too; they will be “joyful in the house of prayer,” their offerings accepted on my altars, precisely because “my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Is.56:7). Is it not telling that this line from Isaiah is remembered as a line that Jesus of Nazareth quoted during his confrontation with the temple in his own day (Matthew 21:12)? Though the quote often is remembered as a rebuke of those religious authorities who have turned the temple into a place of commerce, rather than a place of prayer, could it not be that Jesus is also adding to the radical inclusiveness of his ministry by quoting a passage that extolls the openness of the temple for all people?
We are in desperate need of such language in our day. We need to be reminded that God is not in the business of providing commandments to us that can never be altered or changed. Because our ancestors held slaves, and used the Bible as “proof” of that practice, should we hold slaves now? Because our ancestors thought of women as second-class citizens, not worthy of voice or vote, and used the Bible to “prove” the practice, should we treat women that way now? Because our ancestors rejected homosexual persons as somehow depraved or sinful, and used the Bible to “prove” that as truth, should we now reject homosexual persons when we see that the Bible in fact does not reject such modern realities, and since we now know faithful and loving homosexual persons? Just as eunuchs are not to be excluded from our worship and our community, neither are homosexual persons to be so excluded.
We need an Isaiah now who can remind us that past errors are not forever fixed in our practice, but that the revelation of God is ongoing, subject to new insight, ever redolent of loving inclusion. May Isaiah come again—and soon—and speak to our exclusive bigotry and hatreds, opening us to new truths and new duties.