Inclusive – but not too much!
This is clearly a passage about inclusion, and why the lectionary editors felt the need to fillet out verses 2-5 I just don’t understand, hence my dealing with the whole section. This chapter marks the start of what has been called ‘Trito Isaiah’ – the third section of our one book, dating from after 316BC when the Jewish exiles began to return from Babylon to rebuild the Temple. It is the story of a great gathering, where those who have been scattered with be gathered to offer prayer and worship to God. The Israelites had felt themselves to have been ‘scattered’ when they left Jerusalem for the exile, losing their sense of home and nationhood, but as far as the author is concerned that has been dealt with in the return from Babylon.
But God wants more, a message which came to the exiles via an earlier prophet in Is 49:6. So this gathering is not just about ‘the tribes of Jacob’: it is a gathering of those who for various reasons have previously been excluded from God’s people. There are two groups of people: foreigners and eunuchs. The former term is self-explanatory, but note that it would include many of those who for centuries have been the bane of Israel’s life: Philistines, Amorites and all the other ‘ites’ who have been the enemies of God’s people in the past. The latter symbolise those who, while being racially Jewish, have been excluded from the worshipping community by some defect. Leviticus 21-23 provide further details!
So this chapter provides a vision of an enormous gathering to whom all are welcome, and especially those who previously could not have got in even if they had wanted to. As such it is an attractive vision for a fragmented and bloodthirsty world, and v 1 provides encouragement for those who have become cynical about God ever actually doing something about the state of the world and its injustice, And tempted simply to join in with the greed and evil all around. ‘Hang on in there, and keep the faith’ says the prophet, ‘because the divine denouement is coming soon!’
But as always in the pages of Scripture this utopian gathering allows the possibility of exclusion as well as inclusion. The Hebrew word ‘ger’, often translated ‘alien’ refers throughout the OT to someone not racially Jewish but who has become at least partly a member of the community, and it is used widely in today’s society to tell us that we must welcome all immigration and give equal rights to illegal immigrants. In fact this is far from the truth: the ‘ger’ was first and foremost someone who had bought into the Jewish religious system and was obeying the law. To use the term to encourage us for form an LEP with the local gurdwara is a gross misuse of the concept, and this passage is equally clear that those who will be included in this gathering are not just those who happen to be foreign or otherwise outcast, but those who are already living for God. It is striking that this commitment to God is evidenced by three things: keeping the Sabbath, binding themselves to God, and worshipping him. This further evidences itself in refraining from doing evil (v 2), making godly choices (v4), and remaining faithful (v 4, 6). In other words, God’s inclusivity has limits, and this passage is most certainly not an argument for the universalist position.
It behoves us in the church to avoid the twin dangers of prejudice and exclusion of those who are not ‘PLU’ (people like us) on the one hand, and on the other of becoming more inclusive than God is himself.