August 17, 2014
Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 56:1, 6-7
No one likes to be an outsider. When a group of people seem to be enjoying themselves, conversing, building friendships, even sharing pain, it can be hard to watch without being part of the in-group. Everyone wants a sense of belonging, of being part of something bigger than ourselves, of having people who care about us, need us. God likes to turn things on their heads, and here in this Sunday’s reading from Isaiah, he sets about turning outsiders to insiders. Fortunately, each of us gets an invitation to the party.
This passage falls toward the end of the Book of Isaiah, where it speaks of God having mercy on his people, restoring them to the Promised Land and fulfilling the oaths he swore to their ancestors. This particular passage points to the restoration of God’s relationship with his people and the expansion of his people to include those who were previously excluded. God is about gathering his people and expanding his people. God’s kingdom is a growth industry. In Isaiah 56, the emphasis is on covenant fidelity. Anyone, even “foreigners,” will be welcomed to join God’s people, provided they faithfully live out their covenantal responsibilities. Even eunuchs, who were previously excluded from Temple worship because of their physical imperfection (Deut 23:1), will be welcomed to worship and even given a place of honor (56:4-5). Those who were outsiders—the non-Israelites and the physically deformed—will now be gathered inside the fold and “join themselves to the Lord” (56:6 RSV).
Relating to God
Joining oneself to God is a tough concept. How exactly do you do that? It sounds like something in between joining his team and becoming one with him. In fact, that might not be a bad way to think about it, but Isaiah gives us a few tips on how the previously excluded foreigners will come and worship God. He says they will minister, love and serve him, while keeping the Sabbath and the covenant. In addition, he mentions the burnt offerings and sacrifices they will offer. Let’s unpack these ideas.
First, “ministering” to God sounds upside down. Usually the more powerful person in the relationship “ministers” to the less powerful, but think of a servant ministering to the needs of his master or even a nurse helping a patient by her “ministrations.” We minister to God by serving him, doing his will, and worshipping him in prayer. Isaiah also focuses on the love (ahav) and service (avad) which are at the heart of covenant fidelity. God doesn’t want mere externalities, but he wants our hearts. True service and true faithfulness come from true love. Keeping the Sabbath and holding fast to the covenant—the Hebrew word behind “holding fast” is chazaq, to grip or seize—are expressions of an inner attitude of the heart. God wants worshippers who hold on tightly to his covenant promises and live their lives authentically, from the heart, in fidelity to him.
House of Prayer
Isaiah says that God will welcome these faithful foreigners to the “holy mountain,” which is Zion, a metonymy for Jerusalem, the Temple, the place where God dwells. They will join the Chosen People in joyfully offering sacrifices in the Temple, which God accepts. Some sacrifices are unacceptable to God because they are insincere or performed wrongly, but here he receives the foreigners’ offerings, which signals his favor. In ancient Israel, only priests could enter the sanctuary; only Israelite men could get close (in the Court of Israel), and the Israelite women could come just a little less close (in the Court of the Women). Everyone else was confined to the Court of the Gentiles, which surrounded these inner parts of the Temple. In fact, in the time of Jesus, they had signs up warning non-Jews to stay out of the restricted areas on pain of death. (Archaeologists have dug up one of these signs, which you can see on Wikipedia.) The point is the separation between Israel and the nations, Jew and Gentile, was a grave divide. For Isaiah to forecast that the foreigners would be welcomed in would be radical, but not altogether surprising.
We could point back to God’s promise to Abraham to use him to bless all the families of the earth (see Gen 12:3), but there is something even more specific. King Solomon, at the dedication of the first Temple, prays as follows:
“Likewise when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a distant land because of your name—for they shall hear of your great name, your mighty hand, and your outstretched arm—when a foreigner comes and prays toward this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and so that they may know that your name has been invoked on this house that I have built. (1 Kings 8:41-43 NRSV)
So Isaiah’s prophecy points to the answer to Solomon’s prayer. In his prayer, the Temple itself becomes a kind of evangelistic tool, where foreigners come to believe in the one true God after receiving answers to their prayers, prayed at his Temple. The welcoming of the Gentiles to Temple worship exemplifies the final stage in God’s plan of salvation, the working out of all of his promises to bring salvation “to the ends of the earth.”
Ultimately, the trajectory of Salvation History brings us to a new covenant. Jesus dies on the cross at Jerusalem, at Zion, at the Temple. Jesus even quotes this passage about the Temple being a “house of prayer” when he chases out the money-changers (Matt 21:13). His death and resurrection set stage for the proclamation of good news to the Gentiles, to announce the time of favor, when foreigners will be welcomed to worship the true God. The destiny that Isaiah sees in living color, unfolds in a spiritual way. The Gentiles who receive the good news don’t literally come and offer sacrifices in physical Jerusalem, but they do joyfully offer sacrifice to God.
All the parts of covenant fidelity—keeping the commandments, loving and serving God—come to fulfillment and fruition in the one sacrifice of the New Covenant, offered daily on every altar, the sacrifice of Jesus, the sacrifice of the Mass. In Eucharistic worship, we have the opportunity to join the pilgrim foreigners Isaiah mentions, and come to the altar of the heavenly Jerusalem to offer acceptable sacrifice to God. We who were outsiders in our sins are welcomed to enter through the forgiveness of our sins to worship the Lord in spirit and truth (John 4:24).