PRINCIPAL Service readings from the Hebrew Bible are snapshots of a whole. Sometimes, that means we lose something of the full message. Isaiah 56.1, 6-8 proclaims that God’s welcome and protection are for everyone, not just for the children of Israel. Verses 2-5 make the same proclamation, but have been left out because they use the example of “eunuchs” instead of foreigners.
There was a time when the Church interpreted the Mosaic law as meaning that persons with physical disabilities could not become priests. Deuteronomy 23.1 specifically mentions eunuchs: “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD.”
I have heard it argued that, while the commandments of the “moral law” remain binding on Christians, those of the “ritual law” are not. But, just as our rituals need to have a moral component (being rooted in ethical principle), so, too, our morals need to have a ritual one (being rooted in habitual rather than occasional behaviour). That distinction is not biblical. Such teachings still matter.
Isaiah 56.1-8 taken as a whole reveals that human categories are not God’s categories. Anyone once considered defective because their race does not conform to an approved human category has been declared welcome by God himself, speaking through the prophet. Now, the same is true of those whose bodies are not conformed to human versions of a norm.
“The Law and the Prophets” is a phrase summarising what God gives us by revelation, expressing his will. When we find law and prophet apparently at odds, as here, it is unwise to jump to the conclusion that one trumps the other. Instead, we need to consider the situations which they were addressing.
Isaiah 56 expands the category of “the chosen” by thinking inclusively. We can do the same with Paul’s teaching in Romans 11. Start with what is positive: God has welcomed gentiles within the covenant (before this lection). What is the next step, asks Paul? Is it a case of “either Jews or Gentiles”, or “both Jews and Gentiles”? Once we accept that the Gentiles are within the covenant, must we conclude that the Jewish people are now outside it? Paul’s firm answer to this is “no”. God is a “both/and” God, not an “either/or” God.
What enables Paul to take this incredible step forward for faith history is a God-breathed revelation that inclusion is better than exclusion, and that affirmation is better than condemnation.
If God’s purposes do not — cannot — alter, there are two logical options for explaining such apparent changes of attitude. Either the past could be wrong (difficult), or an earlier understanding needs to be reprocessed by rediscovering (or reframing, or rebalancing) how the earlier teaching had previously been understood.
In the Gospel, a nameless Canaanite woman becomes a hero: to her people, for not accepting that God values them less; to her daughter, whose life she saves through confronting a man so powerful that he can cast out demons; and to all Christians in every era (though perhaps women, as the supposedly “second”, “weaker”, sex, have a special claim on her) who have known themselves to be despised and rejected by the keepers of earthly versions of the heavenly Kingdom. Perhaps God even chose her to show the full humanity of Jesus through her challenging him to change his mind.
If Christianity went on to persecute Jews, it was not the fault of Paul, still less Jesus. If it went on to reject minorities, such as those with disabilities, or to exclude foreigners, it was not the fault of Isaiah. All three proclaimed the messages that God gave them. And, in each case, human beings picked the bits of the message which they found palatable, and sidelined the rest.
Our having only a partial vision and understanding is not wrong, but inescapable. How can we mortals aspire to anything else? The Church has lasted for millennia, the faith for even longer, while each of us that is born of a woman has so short a time to live that we deserve much more pity than we do blame.
The partial nature of our vision of God is not wholly culpable, because it is not wholly avoidable. Perhaps the most important way for us to absorb the message of these readings is not to be hasty in judgement (Proverbs 25.8).