Reflections on Isaiah 56:1-8

One of the most attractive things about Jesus is the way he welcomed both ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’.  Though his mission began with ‘the lost sheep of Israel’ (Matthew 15:24), he also proclaimed “I have other sheep who do not belong to this fold (i.e. of Israel).  I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.  So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” (John 10:16)

This isn’t just a New Testament thing – this is a thread that runs through God’s purposes and God’s heart; as we see here in Isaiah 55-56:8.  It’s no accident that Jesus – who reveals the Father to the world, draws on these passages heavily.

The invitation to be in the community of God’s people is open to all.

Isaiah 56 begins with a call that should sound a familiar thread not only through the beginning of Isaiah, but through the prophets.  What does God want of us?

To maintain justice.  – literally to oversee, to take care of – justice

To do what is right.  – (Hebrew: tsedaqa(h) – what is good, what’s right

In other words; in the actions and focus of our lives, to seek out what God defines as good and just; the right thing to do, the right response in our interactions with each other.

Micah 6:8 frames it this way: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Jesus defines this justice and righteousness in terms of love – love of God and of one another (Mark 12:29-31)

To maintain justice, to do what is right, is the calling of all humanity.

This call to embrace God’s way of being is given in light of what God is doing (second half of the verse): “for soon my salvation (Hebrew: jesuot – and yes, that’s connected to the name by which God’s son is to be called: “Jeshua”), and my deliverance be revealed.  (literally God’s righteousness – tsid-qat)

In other words – we are *all* called to respond appropriately in light of what God is doing, and there is blessing for everyone who does.  Isaiah 55:2 deliberately uses wide open words like ‘mortal’ (human being), and ‘the one’ (lit. son of Adam) instead of talking about a ‘chosen’ people.

And to emphasize this, Isaiah refers to the foreigner and the eunuch (that is, a man who has been castrated as part of serving in the courts of high officials).  As Israel had most often understood itself, these people were excluded from real participation in the community of God’s people and from the temple which represented the presence of God among the people.  There was an ‘us’ and ‘them’ which kept them from really belonging.

No more.

Notice the blessings God promises to these whom many would see as ‘outsiders’:

To the foreigner joined to the LORD – God says: “You belong.  You are part of my people. I will give you joy as you worship.”

To the eunuch who would be looked on as less than whole, traditionally unwelcome in the temple, unable to have children in a culture where this was one of the defining marks of blessing and a legacy – God promises to give a name and a legacy within the home of God.

At the same time: in what context are all people accepted?

Those who keep God’s sabbath.  (part of the covenant that grew in importance after the Exile)

Those who choose what pleases God and hold on to God’s covenant

Those who join themselves to the LORD in service and love

I know…. isn’t God’s love and acceptance the free gift that is given to all of us?  Absolutely.  God’s love meets us right now, right where we are, wherever we are.  At the same time, there’s a difference between being loved by God and experiencing the blessing of living within the community of God.  It’s not that God dangles the reward like a treat for those who jump through the right hoops, but that the kind of life where we are pursuing justice and what is good, loving God and loving our neighbor, is what the community of God is all about.

There’s an ‘already but not-yet-ness’ to this: I don’t perfectly do any of these things… yet.  Nor will I on my own steam.  Go to any church, and it will only imperfectly embody this kind of community of God, because every church is a community of people (leaders included) who don’t yet fully love God and neighbor the way God intends us to.  It is here where we talk about Jesus being both standing in our place to fulfill this, *and* the one who through the Spirit, is transforming us into the people God created us to become.

Another way to describe this is that this welcome is for everyone who desires not just what God offers (in terms of blessings), but that the blessings come for those who desire God, who are longing for the kind of world God is bringing into being, and who are leaning into that, as God forgives, heals, and transforms us.

We see this message of hope in Isaiah taken up by the ministry of Jesus; who found faith in Gentiles and Samaritans, in lepers and even Pharisees like Joseph and Nicodemus.

The Jesus who promises eternal life to whoever believes in him.  Who calls us to abide (to hold on) to him, and his command: to love one another as [he] has loved us.

The Jesus who got angry at the moneychangers in the temple, not just because they were doing business in the temple, but because of where they were doing business:  (Mark 11:15-17)

Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.”

Although it is not explicitly said in the Gospels, it’s most probable that this activity was taking place in the outer court of the temple, where women and Gentiles were permitted to be.  So instead of a place of prayer, of welcome, of inclusion, it was set up and being used for a very different purpose entirely.

One piece we can hear in this is personal: the reminder of a God who speaks to all of us, whether we feel like we’re on the inside or not — inviting us to a relationship, a life with a future, a life as part of God’s community, for everyone who makes the things of God their desire and focus.

At the same time, those of us who are used to being part of the church, who see ourselves as part of God’s community, this passage also serves as a reminder — do we embrace the heart of God who tears down the dividing walls we so easily build up?  Do we get caught up in the kinds of practices, words, and thoughts that keep others on the outside; like the Pharisees who remembered that the Sabbath was important, but not *why* it was important, or the merchants who crowded out the Gentiles and women for more market space?

How can we share the welcome, the inclusion, the hope God extends to us?  

What gets in the way?

How is this good news for us?