As we continue our discussion of what safe-for-everyone interpretations and practices might be characterized by, let’s consider a few passages from the Hebrew prophets.
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(Read this series from its beginning here.)
These passages give us a clue toward understanding what these believers could have been wrestling with now that Jerusalem and their temple were gone:
“I will restore your leaders as in days of old,
your rulers as at the beginning.
Afterward you will be called
the City of Righteousness,
the Faithful City.” (Isaiah 1:26)
“In that day this song will be sung in the land of Judah:
We have a strong city;
God makes salvation
its walls and ramparts.” (Isaiah 26:1)
“Look on Zion, the city of our festivals;
your eyes will see Jerusalem,
a peaceful abode, a tent that will not be moved;
its stakes will never be pulled up,
nor any of its ropes broken.” (Isaiah 33:20)
“The children of your oppressors will come bowing before you;
all who despise you will bow down at your feet
and will call you the City of the LORD,
Zion of the Holy One of Israel.” (Isaiah 60:14)
“They will be called the Holy People,
the Redeemed of the LORD;
and you will be called Sought After,
the City No Longer Deserted.” (Isaiah 62:12)
“In the last days
the mountain of the LORD’S temple will be established
as the highest of the mountains;
it will be exalted above the hills,
and all nations will stream to it.”
“Many peoples will come and say,
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the temple of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways,
so that we may walk in his paths.”
The law will go out from Zion,
the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.” (Isaiah 2:2-3)
“These I will bring to my holy mountain
and give them joy in my house of prayer.
Their burnt offerings and sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;
for my house will be called
a house of prayer for all nations.” (Isaiah 56:7)
It’s important to note that Matthew’s gospel refers to the community of Jewish Jesus followers as a city on hill because this encouragement to them to let their light shine could be the very beginning roots of the supersessionism or replacement theology we now live with today. Supersessionism is the teaching that the Christian Church has replaced the Jewish people as God’s chosen, covenantpeople.
Two things about this teaching should give us pause. First, Christian supersessionism has a long history of harming the Jewish community, and its replacement seeds can be traced all the way to the atrocities of the 20th Century Holocaust in Europe. Supersessionism is still dangerous and harmful today.
Second, it is exceptionalist to imagine replacing someone else as God’s chosen. This Christian belief sits at the heart of America’s history as well. America has referred to itself as a “city on a hill.” This rhetoric from our Christian theology that has its roots in our passage this week.
By all means, we should let the light of love and justice shine, but not at the expense of someone else. We don’t have to demonize others to let our own light shine. We are all God’s children, each of us. In all our beautiful diversity, we bear the image of the sacred Divine. Rather than dividing a world where some are “chosen” and others are not, history has shown us that it is much more life-giving to see us each as deeply connected members of the same human family. Our salvation, liberation, and thriving is deeply connected to and dependent on others’ salvation, liberation, and thriving. If there is such a thing as salvation, none of us are saved till all of us are saved.
I don’t believe the author of Matthew intended their words in this week’s passage to set in motion any harm. I can see in my mind’s eye their intention being to simply encourage a community whose temple and city lay in ruins. But making the Christian church the new “city on a hill” has nonetheless done immense harm through the centuries. Today, given that history, we can do better.
Toward the end of this passage, Jesus speaks of not doing away with the law and the prophets.
We’ll unpack that a bit, next.
(Read Part 2)