Yesterday, Second Isaiah said to the exiles in Babylon: “Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God.” In today’s reading Jesus says:“Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will refresh you.” A favorite reading.
Notice Jesus speaks to the “crowds” in Matthew’s gospel, not just to the disciples who know him or to the Jewish Christian church Matthew wrote for at the end of the first century. God’s love and God’s promises reach far beyond the circle of disciples or the church. Jesus Christ reaches out to refresh the world that labors and is burdened, even if it doesn’t know him.
Who does Second Isalah speak to? Scholars say today’s readings that begin with the 40th chapter of Isaiah come, not from Isaiah the priest who spoke in Jerusalem as Assyrian armies threatened the city in 8th century BC, but from an unknown prophet speaking to Jewish exiles in Babylon centuries later. He urges them to return to Jerusalem and build it up. He uses Isaiah’s name and language, perhaps, to avoid trouble with Babylonian’s leaders for suggesting such a thing .
Not many Jews returned to Jerusalem at his call. historians say. Some did, but others were not interested in the prophet’s invitation. Taken captive to Babylon centuries before, they’re part of the place now. Babylon’s their home. They have families and jobs there; Jerusalem is far away and its future uncertain.
Yet, many remain faithful Jews in Babylon, and in Rome and other parts of the world in exile. Later, the Christian church became established in the world through them.
We need to study Judaism more fully as a template for our own church today, I think, especially the mystery of Exile. We’re now experiencing an exile in our church– in the United States for every one person who join’s us, six leave. We need to study the exile of the Jews.
Will those we lose be our way to become a more universal church?
The unknown prophet in today’s readings warns Jewish exiles not to abandon God for Babylon’s gods.
“To whom can you liken me as an equal?
says the Holy One…
Do you not know
or have you not heard?
The LORD is the eternal God,
creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint nor grow weary,
and his knowledge is beyond scrutiny.”
We have to pray for our own exiles. God still holds them in his hands, sustains and comforts them, even if they do not know him or seem to care. God’s Spirit is still within them.