Gathering the exiles – Eighth Sunday after Trinity 2011

 

Thus says the Lord GOD, who gathers the outcasts of Israel

(Isaiah 56:8)      

 

In the Bible God reveals his nature, what he is like, by what he does. In the central prayer of the Jewish synagogue service, the Amidah, each little paragraph ends with the formula, “Blessed are you, O Lord, who does such and such”, and this is one of them: Blessed are you, O Lord, who gathers the dispersed of his people Israel.

When the Jews were allowed return from their exile to rebuild Jerusalem and start again in their promised land, the prophet saw the hand of God at work. If the dispersal of the people was also God’s work, nonetheless it was more that God let the people have the consequences of their poor choices; but in the return from exile, here is something much more to God’s liking. Bringing back the scattered pieces of the community is about repairing, restoring, making new, making better. And it’s not just about where people physically live; it’s about spiritual home, it’s about repentance and returning, about reconciliation and reinstatement.

We don’t quite know whether this prayer formed part of the Jewish service in Jesus’ time, but it’s tempting to think he might have prayed it daily – for certainly in his own work he felt a vocation to this very thing: to gather the outcasts, to seek out the lost sheep of the house of Israel, and to renew their connection with God.

 

The words that describe God as the one who gathers the outcasts are part of a passage that considers some of the problems of return. Restoration nearly always involves some element of difference, of change. The restoration of the Jewish community posed some problems. You may have noticed that the set passage left out certain verses – these refer to those who had been unfortunate enough to be made eunuchs while in exile. The Law said that such could not be part of the congregation. Further, an important part of Jewish communal belonging is to have descendants – but that is no longer a possibility for these men. The prophet announces their inclusion in the community, because they remain loyal to the covenant, and an everlasting “name and memorial” that will be better than any amount of children.

 

The other group mentioned are the foreigners who have become attached to the Jewish community. One of the effects of exile was to develop Jewish religion, and to bring it to the attention of Gentiles, and some desired to “join themselves to the Lord, to serve him, and to love the name of the Lord”. What about these? Some of the returning exiles advocated a strict demarcation between Israel and the foreigners; but this prophet at any rate welcomes the convert with open arms: “I will bring them to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer, their burnt offerings and sacrifices shall be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples”. In restoring Israel, in gathering the dispersed, God acts with unexpected grace and generosity, welcoming the foreigners to his friendship: “I will gather others to him, besides those of him already gathered”.

 

In today’s gospel we meet Jesus in the largely gentile area around the cities of Tyre and Sidon. Presumably he has gone into somewhat alien territory to seek out the Jews who are living in a sort of exile, surrounded by non-Jews. And again it proves impossible to ignore the non-Jews: this pagan woman shows no interest in becoming Jewish, but every interest in seeking the help of the Jewish Messiah. Her daughter is ill; need knows no barriers; and she believes that God is generous and that Jesus can help. The disciples are uncomfortable; they are outside the familiar, they are being accosted by a loud woman – how improper! – who uses the rather provocative term “Son of David”. Jesus appears to be torn; he knows his primary mission is the gathering of the lost sheep of Israel, yet… how can one refuse need? He is deliberately rude to her: “It is not right to give the children’s dinner to the dogs”. Fortunately she has a good sense of humour: “Ah sure I’m not looking for the dinner, just the leftovers”. She goes away with much more than crumbs; all she asked for, and Jesus’ commendation: “Woman, great is your faith”. You can’t put a limit to God’s generosity, and the woman is praised for believing that to be true.

 

It is a perpetual temptation to make outcasts; through fear of the unknown and the different to try to place a limit on God’s generosity. Jesus found he couldn’t do that; and neither should we.

Blessed are you, O Lord, who gathers the dispersed of his people Israel – and not just of Israel.

 

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