Friday of Week 3 of Advent – First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 56:1-3,6-8

Today’s reading comes from the first chapter of Third Isaiah, the last of the three parts into which Isaiah is divided. This third part contains a collection of oracles addressed to Judah, the southern kingdom which includes Jerusalem. They seem to indicate that the Israelites have now returned to Palestine after their exile in Babylon. The time is after 539 BC.

The subject of today’s reading is a blessing on all who observe the Sabbath. During and after the exile, observance of the sabbath became a touchstone of total fidelity to God’s law. The sabbath had originally been instituted after the Exodus from Egypt and was seen as the ongoing sign of the Israelites’ covenant with their God. To ‘keep the sabbath’ was a sign of commitment to the whole of the covenant.

What is significant is that in today’s passage the blessing is extended to those who are not ethnically Jewish. “Let no foreigner who has attached himself to the Lord say, ‘The Lord will surely exclude me from his people’.”

‘Foreign’ proselytes are being invited to join the Jewish community, on condition that they observe the covenant. This would necessarily include circumcision, which, for Jews, was the sign of adherence to the covenant. At the same time, some of the restrictions laid down in Deuteronomy are set aside. These had excluded some of the peoples who had opposed the Israelites settling in the Promised Land, especially the Moabites, and men “whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off”, that is, eunuchs. Verses 4 and 5 which are omitted from today’s reading say:

Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, ‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people’; and do not let the eunuch say, ‘I am just a dry tree’. For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.”

What is being said very clearly is that, provided a person is totally committed to the service of God, other factors, such as race or physical disabilities or previous behaviour, are of no account. Members of some ethnic groups who had been living among the Israelites had been excluded from worship for several generations as were those who lacked physical, especially sexual, integrity. People who could not produce children were seen as of no value to a society. (And, as Jesus indicates in the Gospel [Matt 19:11-12], the word ‘eunuch’ could also be applied to those who were impotent and it seems it could even include homosexuals who had no interest in developing relations with the opposite gender. They were effectively eunuchs.)

An unconditional statement is made: “All who observe the sabbath, not profaning it, and cling to my covenant – these I will bring to my holy mountain. I will make them joyful in my house of prayer. Their holocausts and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar.” The “holy mountain” refers to Mount Zion in Jerusalem, on which the Temple was built.

And the Lord’s promise concludes with words Jesus will quote later on: “My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples.”

All this is in preparation for the coming of Jesus which we are about to celebrate. In the New Covenant, in the Kingdom which Jesus came to establish there are absolutely no barriers whatever based on race, ethnicity, nationality, social class, or occupation, gender or sex or orientation, or physical disability… All that is asked that one say ‘Yes’ to the Way of Jesus, to become a co-builder of God’s Kingdom on earth.

As we prepare to celebrate Christmas. Let us, too, say an unconditional ‘Yes’ to the Lord.

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