A house of prayer for all peoples

A house of prayer for all peoples: A vision of inclusion

There may be pressure and reason to exclude people from our fellowship. The call to include them is more compelling.

Sigve Tonstad, M.D., Ph D., is a pastor and physician in Hvalstad, Norway.

My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples" (Isa. 56:7, italics added). Isaiah's dramatic pronouncement contains a radical vision of inclusion, reaching out to people previously left out on the periphery of the believing community. While many uncertainties with respect to Isaiah's message remain unresolved, there is no doubt that this statement sounded the beginning of a new era. The implications of this profound vision have not been exhausted even in our time.

A new community

To begin with, what are some assumptions with respect to Isaiah's original "target audience" for this vision of inclusion? The prophecy is no doubt strongly predictive, looking ahead to the restoration of the believing community after the exile. 1 The makeup of this community will help us better under stand the text.

First, it was a bruised community.2 This community faced the challenge of whether it would survive at all.

Second, the community was concerned about the preservation of its identity. Indeed, the thrust of the passage centers on the issue of identity. Who is to be included in the community? Who is to be excluded? Who may hold positions of leadership and influence?

Third, the issue of identity was framed by the fact that the community had a hallowed tradition of exclusiveness and a self-image of exclusivity. Yet the prophet advocates the inclusion of eunuchs in his community (Isa. 56:4, 5), and his word of inclusion seems to run directly against the ironclad and inspired command, "No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord" (Deut. 23:1).

The controversial nature of the new vision is easy to spot: On this point about eunuchs, will the community set aside the inspired counsel and act against the rules laid down in the "church manual" by their founding fathers?

Isaiah also advocates the inclusion of foreigners. Again, his vision of inclusion confronts explicit counsel to the contrary. Foreigners are not immediately eligible according to the inspired Word. Among the stipulations specifying who may and who may not be part of the traditional community, there is the rule that only the children of the third generation of foreigners "may be admit ted to the assembly of the Lord" (Deut. 23:8).

On the whole, the boundary lines drawn up in the past seem to be conceived in terms of exclusiveness. Eichrodt holds that the result of the heritage of Deuteronomy "did in practice set the nations outside the covenant and taught that this should be regarded as a specifically Israelite privilege." 3 How, then, will Isaiah's vision of inclusion stand a chance?

Fourth, there is no question that the prophet is envisioning a Sabbath-keeping community.4 This is borne out by the three fold mention of the Sabbath in the passage. When the prophet addresses the community as a whole, he constitutes it as a Sabbath-keeping fellowship; "Happy is the mortal [i.e., anyone] who does this, the one who holds it fast, who keeps the Sabbath, not profaning it, and refrains from doing any evil" (Isa. 56:2).

When he turns to the eunuchs, conceivably Israelites whose genitals had been mutilated by imperial service during the exile, he addresses them as "the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths" (56:4). When he looks to the foreigners, he speaks to them as "the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord ... all who keep the Sabbath" (56:6).

The configuration of the Sabbath and refraining "from doing any evil" has bothered interpreters because it seems to them to place an unimportant point the Sabbath alongside what would be a defensible ethical imperative in any context. 5 However, what modern interpreters see as an "awkward parallelism"6 was not seen in that light by the prophet. To him the Sabbath is not merely an identity marker of his community, but the expression of the unbroken and stable identity of the one God, the One who brings the community into existence.

Finally, Isaiah's prophetic community should not be tied exclusively to the conditions after the exile. His vision has a future and an eschatological ring to it. 7 The collective and national character of the Jewish religious tradition is to yield to a new era that will emphasize the individual and the personal nature of spirituality. "The chosen people has turned into the confessing community," writes Claus Westermann.8

Isaiah's vision is, therefore, appropriately read as a vision not only of the universality that came so power fully through the gospel and in the gift of the Holy Spirit to the New Testament community, but of the end time and a prescription for the community that will live to see God's ultimate solution. The entire vision is based on the conviction, expressed in the first person and on the high authority of God, "Soon my salvation will come and my deliverance be revealed" (56:1).

Vision of inclusion

Two groups are specifically singled out as beneficiaries of the new inclusion "policy": the eunuchs and the stranger.

"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" (Isa. 56:4, 5).

This assures the heretofore stigmatized group full, unqualified membership and unlimited access. The eunuchs are not assigned second-class status. Instead, this group, once excluded from the community, is given the stupendous privilege of a perpetual memorial a hall of fame in spiritual terms.

The strangers are also welcome. "And the foreigners who join them selves 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 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" (Isa. 56:6, 7).

Later, the foreigners and here Isaiah is at pains to describe people who have been the furthest away from the community of faith are inducted into and ordained to priestly ministry, a function previously the exclusive preserve of Jews of Levitic descent. "And I will also take some of them as priests and as Levites, says the Lord" (Isa. 66:21).

Emmerson points out the novelty of this opening of the doors to the priesthood. "Still more surprising is the final chapter where it is envisaged that some of foreign birth may share even in the service of the sanctuary as priests and Levites."9

Inclusion and identity

The basis for the radical and transforming vision of inclusion is not left in doubt in our passage. God is redrawing the boundary lines to the specifications of His own character, saying to those previously stigmatized, excluded, or dispossessed, I welcome you. 10

Nevertheless, obstacles to the reconfiguration of the community must not be minimized despite the initiative and authority of the One who insists that it be done. We should not expect the community to be transformed without discussion or even conflict. Indeed, the rhetoric of the passage implies that we are witnessing this discussion in progress.

When the prophet comforts, "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' " (Isa. 56:3), we hear the voices of the opposing side from the other side of the table. They advocate exclusion, perhaps even quoting Scripture in support of their conviction, chapter and verse, as if to prove that the exclusion policy rests on a solid and sound theological foundation. But this is just what God is redrawing.

This is not surprising. Redrawing community boundaries affects one's sense of identity. History is replete with examples of groups struggling to come to grips with the demand for inclusion across established traditions and entrenched divisions that are based upon nationality, pedigree, color, caste, tribe, and gender.

Isaiah's vision belongs in such a context. It is all the more remarkable since it moves the very limits that appear to be laid down by inspiration and that are as authoritative as his own, exactly because it comes to a group that is conscious of the traditional basis for its identity. Moreover, the prophet's vision of inclusion violates human notions of religion and the defective pastoral instinct of the human agent. Where Isaiah's vision is inspired by God as the great includer, the human disposition, manifested time and again in the history of institutionalized religion, tends predictably toward exclusion.

Implementing the vision

Reading Isaiah's vision today should not lead to the conclusion that the work of drawing new boundaries is done and that the all the necessary specifics were covered in Isaiah's time, or even in the times of the first-century Christian church.

"The community of Judaism is to be a community that remembers, cherishes, and preserves the name and identity of those otherwise nullified in an uncaring world," says Brueggemann. 11 What is thus applied to "the community of Judaism" concerns the church of the end time even more. New specifics are presenting themselves to spur the Sabbath- keeping community in the direction of implementing the prophetic vision; that is, to include the many who have been left on the outside of the fellowship, and to harness the calling of those previously thought to be excluded from the full-fledged ministry of the church.

If the vision of inclusion stalls on the illusion that it has been fulfilled, or if it founders on the notion that we can go no further, the word of the prophet raises the stakes another notch: "Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered" (56:8).

This is the God of inclusion speaking, God as the insistent and persistent gatherer, so much so that it can be said that the verb denoting gathering "is Yahweh's most defining verb, Yahweh's most characteristic activity."12 "For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples," says the God of inclusion (Isa. 56:7, italics added. See also Matt 21:13).

Aren't the implications of Isaiah's prophecy and its New Testament application clear and challenging enough for us to implement in our own congregations and communities?

1 John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah Chapter 40-66 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 4.

2 Oswalt, 11.

3 Walther Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament, col. I, trans. John Baker (London: SCM Press, 1961) 55.

4 Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66 (London SCM Press, 1969), 310; Joseph Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 56-66 (New York: Doubleday, 2003), 135.

5 Ibid., 310; Blenkinsopp.

6 Westermann, 310.

7 Oswalt, 451, 452.

8 Westermann, 313.

9 Grace L. Emmerson, Isaiah 56-66 (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1992), 55.

10 Walter Bruggemann, Isaiah 40-66 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 165.

11 Ibid., 171.

12 Ibid., 173.

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Sigve Tonstad, M.D., Ph D., is a pastor and physician in Hvalstad, Norway.

May 2005

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