Lesson: Isaiah 56:1, 6-8
1 Thus says the LORD: Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come,
and my deliverance be revealed.
6 And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant —
7 these 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.
8 Thus says the LORD GOD, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.
The Book of Isaiah is a composite of writings from three distinct periods in Ancient Israel’s history. The writings were compiled from about 700 BCE to about 300 BCE.
Chapters 1-39 are called “First Isaiah” and are the words of a prophet (one who speaks for YHWH – translated as “LORD” in all capital letters in the NRSV) who called for Jerusalem to repent in the 30 years before Jerusalem came under siege by the Assyrians in 701 BCE. “Second Isaiah” is Chapters 40 to 55. In these chapters, a prophet brought hope to the Judeans during the Exile in Babylon (587 to 539 BCE) by telling them they had suffered enough and would return to Jerusalem. “Third Isaiah” is Chapters 56 to 66 in which a prophet gave encouragement to the Judeans who had returned to Jerusalem (which was largely destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BCE) after the Exile had ended.
Today’s reading is part of Third Isaiah and is inclusive in tone. Speaking for YHWH, Isaiah affirmed that foreigners (Gentiles) who join themselves to YHWH and keep the sabbath will be joyful in the Temple, YHWH’s house (v.7). In the omitted verses, Isaiah spoke for YHWH in giving eunuchs (sexually mutilated persons) who observe the sabbath access to the Temple (v.4-5). These verses contradict the prohibitions in Lev. 21:18 and Deut. 23:1.
In the period after the Exile, there was a tension between those who sought to keep Judaism only for Jews and those who were open to including Gentiles. Ezra and Nehemiah (who wrote around 450 BCE) were exclusivists who sought to keep Judeans “pure” by excluding foreigners, including the foreign wives some Jews who remained in Jerusalem had married during the Exile (Ezra 10). An inclusivist position was taken by the authors of 3rd Isaiah, and the Books of Jonah and Ruth.
This disagreement continued into the First Century of the Common Era. In opposition to the exclusivist Sadducees, Jesus of Nazareth is clearly presented in the Gospels as an inclusivist. As shown in Acts of the Apostles and in the reading today from Romans, Paul saw the Jesus Follower Movement (which remained a Jewish sect for most of the First Century), as inclusive and welcoming to Gentiles.
Epistle: Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
1 I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. 2a God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew.
29 For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. 30 Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience, 31 so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy. 32 For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.
Paul’s letter to the Romans was his longest, last and most complex letter. It was written in the late 50s or early 60s (CE) – about ten years before the first Gospel (Mark) was written – to a Jesus Follower community that Paul did not establish. Among other messages in the letter, Paul sought to encourage respectful and supportive relationships between the Gentile Jesus Followers and the Jewish Jesus Followers in Rome.
The “backstory” is that the Roman Emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome in 49 CE. His successor, Nero (54-68 CE), allowed Jews (including Jewish Jesus Followers) to return to Rome, and this created tensions about leadership and worship within the Jesus Follower Community.
Paul was a Jew all his life, and the Temple in Jerusalem was active all during Paul’s life. (Paul died in 63 and the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE.) In today’s reading, Paul reaffirmed that he is an “Israelite” (v.1) and warned against arrogance by Gentile Jesus Followers (v.31-32).
For Paul, the Jesus Follower Movement was a part of a reformed and expansive Judaism, one that was also open to uncircumcised Gentiles. Paul’s view was consistent with the inclusivism of Jesus in the Gospels and the inclusivism in 3rd Isaiah in today’s reading.
Gospel: Matthew 15: 21-28
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.