When we began our service this morning, we sang
Gather us in, the lost and forsaken;
Gather us in, the blind and the lame…
Our lectionary scriptures today prompt us to ask some very important questions: How far do we go in gathering people in? Where do we stop?
Isaiah 56 relates to a time when the exiles are returning from Babylon and being gathered into Jerusalem. Remember, the Temple had been demolished and Jerusalem left in ruins in 587BC, and much of the population had been taken into captivity in Babylon. Today, the once-mighty Babylon is a pile of ruins about 85km south of Baghdad.
We say the exiles ‘returned’ to Jerusalem, but most if not all of them had never been there; it was their grandparents and great-grandparents who had been taken away. They knew Babylon, it was where they were born; they’d grown up on tales of the wonders of Jerusalem, but when they were gathered back in they didn’t like what Jerusalem had become.
Jerusalem was in ruins but worse still, it was full of foreigners! (I think the irony that they’d never seen the place before would’ve been lost on them.)
How did the returnees deal with the foreigners who had occupied their houses and land? They were divided about that.
The dominant approach, the one we’re familiar with, is contained in the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah. The main strategy was to separate from foreigners, to maintain cultural purity.
That approach still affects us today. Without it, the Jewish people would most likely no longer exist. Without it, we wouldn’t have the current political mess in Israel and Gaza that we have right now.
One of the main strategies was to compel Jewish men to send away their foreign wives. The Book of Ezra details this. These women and their children were banished from Judea. We don’t know where they went, presumably back to their ancestral people. We have no idea what welcome they received when they arrived. They just disappear.
The other strategy to create cultural unity was to rebuild the Temple, and we read of that in Nehemiah and some of the prophets, for example Haggai.
The need for cultural purity and unity was the dominant narrative. This was the approach that won the day. And it created the culture that Jesus was born into.
But you know, if there’s a dominant story, there’s also another story to be told, the one that lost. And that story is also in the Bible, just as the ‘cultural purity’ story is. The writers of the books that were included in the Bible were actually at loggerheads over this. Let’s be plain: the Bible does not speak with one voice here. No one can say ‘the Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it’ here, because it says more than one thing.
So what’s the other story the Bible tells? It’s a story of inclusion, a story of gathering people together. Isaiah 56.3 tells it well:
Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, ‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people’; and do not let the eunuch say, ‘I am just a dry tree.’
Foreigners were being cut off by the leaders of the community. But the prophet who wrote Isaiah 56 disagreed forcefully. He wrote when the exiles returned, long after Isaiah of Jerusalem, but he wrote in the spirit of Isaiah. I imagine him thinking, ‘WWIS: What would Isaiah say?’
In the spirit of Isaiah, he proclaimed a message of hope to foreigners:
the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord…
… I will bring to my holy mountain,
and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt-offerings and their sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer
for all peoples.
For Isaiah, if there was one God then all people belonged to God. And God’s people could not turn anyone away.
But that was not the dominant narrative. For an example of the dominant line, look at Deuteronomy 23.3:
No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord…
‘To the tenth generation’ basically means forever. No person from Ammon or Moab could ever be part of the family of Israel.
But the scriptures also tell another story, and we can find it in the Book of Ruth. Ruth was one of those dreadful Moabites! Yet despite that, she was the great-grandmother of King David. King David himself had Moabite ancestry.
The Book of Jonah also tells this other story, this counter-narrative. Jonah tries to escape God’s call on his life because he knows that God wants to forgive the people of Nineveh and be their God. Jonah wants to stick to the dominant narrative, and let God judge the people of Nineveh for their sin. That’s why Jonah ends up depressed at God’s salvation.
So which story do we tell today? Do we tell a story that excludes others so we can be pure, or do we tell a story of including others?
Isaiah 56 also speaks about including eunuchs. It is hard to be sure just who these eunuchs were. Some of them may have lacked testicles, others may have been castrated early in life.
Whatever, they were also banned from full participation in the life of Israel. Listen to Deuteronomy 23 again, this time verse 1:
No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.
That’s pretty clear. No wiggle room there. But Isaiah tells another story, a counter-narrative:
For thus says the Lord:
To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
who choose the things that please me
and hold fast my covenant,
I will give, in my house and within my walls,
a monument and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that shall not be cut off.
In Isaiah’s counter-narrative, foreigners and eunuchs are included after all!
I hope you can see that there is an internal debate going on within the pages of the Bible. There is a dominant narrative, and a counter-narrative that is working against it.
In our day, these questions are very much alive.
How should we deal with ‘foreigners’, people like asylum seekers?
What about the ‘eunuchs’, people who don’t fit our sexual norms?
Do we reject them in order to preserve our purity? Do we include them?
What about Jesus?
Remember the words of the Nicene Creed:
We believe in the Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,…
[he] became truly human.
Jesus was truly and fully human. We must always remember that. He was formed in an age in which the dominant story was one of purity through separating from sinners, from foreigners, from anyone who didn’t ‘fit’. That’s what he was taught as he grew up. But Jesus came to reject the dominant narrative.
He said that foods didn’t make us unclean but we make ourselves unclean through what comes out of our hearts: ‘what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles’. Someone may be a good member of the church but have an unclean heart. Another may never darken the doors of the church but even so, have a pure heart.
Then Jesus comes to the Canaanite woman. Her ancestors were ancient enemies of Israel. And Jesus initially treats her according to the dominant narrative. He tries to separate himself from her.
But the Canaanite woman wins him over! Her response prompts Jesus to remember what Isaiah, Jonah and Ruth had to say. He opens his heart to her. Jesus includes the Canaanite woman.
What should we do in our day? Do we tell a story that excludes others so we can be pure, or do we tell a story of including others?
We’re going to sing a song soon that may give us direction. It’s called Spirit, open my heart and here are some of the words:
God, replace my stony heart
with a heart that’s kind and tender.
All my coldness and fear
to your grace I now surrender.
In the light of these words, let me suggest just one thing. Whatever we decide is right, it should come from a large heart, an open heart. It is the ‘evil intentions’ of our hearts that make us unclean. When we consider a Christian response to the issues of our day, we must seek to do it with a heart that is given to Jesus.
We have hard questions to face, now and in the near future. Is our country’s treatment of asylum seekers right? What should the Uniting Church say about the desire of same-gender couples to share the institution of marriage?
There are two narratives within the scriptures. The dominant one is concerned with cultural purity and exclusion. The second, the counter-narrative, is the narrative of inclusion. Which narrative will we listen to today?