I pulled all my hair out this week in my office when reading the Hebrew Bible lection. Of all the silly things that the lectionary does, this one was the silliest. That revered committee of scholars, they called themselves the ‘task force’—there were fifteen of them, representing both protestant and Catholic churches in the U.S. and abroad—took out their pen knives and dissected the first part of Isaiah 56, carving a large swath in the text and letting the discarded words float down to the chopping block floor. Instantly, for countless lectionary based worship services across the world, it became the non-text. If you paid no attention to the verse markings in the worship program, you would have listened to the day’s reading and not even known something was missing. It would have flowed from the end of verse one to the beginning of verse 6 and no one would have thought they missed any of the oracle at all? That is the tricky kind of thing that happens when scholars take out their pen knives!
In fairness to The Task Force for the Revised Common Lectionary, a precedent was already set by earlier task forces and committees. Since the fourth century, as best we can tell, lectionaries have been in operation in parts of the Lord’s church. And every group deciding upon scripture selections for worship has, in some way, wielded the sharp blade of the pen knife to trim the fat, or prune the shrub, or hem the garment of the Word of God.
This is especially true when constructing a lectionary for common use (an interdenominational and international affair). How will a diverse collection of modern ears hear and appropriate these ancient texts? The task force was given the job of wrestling with this question, as were other committees before them, and when a reading was deemed prone to misunderstanding, or too archaic, or out of touch, it got ‘edited’ down. It was a chore of great complexity. And so there was a careful way the committees and task forces went about their trimming business—like a fine sculpture chipping away at excess marble.
It is easy to criticize decisions. I hear a lot of criticism of the lectionary, and a good part of it is unwarranted. People like to complain, and every clergy person fancies themselves a ‘one person committee of liturgical perfection’ who would rightly parse the biblical narrative so as to make worship a lovely encounter with God in the written word. This, of course, is ludicrous. Every person on that fifteen person task force was more qualified then I will ever be to determine what is good for common consumption, and the order in which it should be consumed.
But even in my needed humility, I can’t help playing Monday morning quarterback with a few decisions made for us and our worship, by people we don’t know. Like this one!—why chop verses 2-5 out of the first prophetic oracle in Isaiah 56?—and on a day like this!
The significance of the day is part of what makes this decision so suspect. This is not your average liturgical day. There are serious things going on here today—like that gospel reading, did you hear it? If you wanted to cut something, why not cut that? It stars a Syro-Phoenician woman with a sick daughter who pleads with Christ for help, only to be met at first with silence from the prince of compassion, and after with insult. Jesus calls her people dogs. Dogs! If there was any story prone to misunderstanding, or too archaic, or out of touch, this is it.
And, truth be told, it was cut. The Common Lectionary had none of it. The revisers, however, having received critiques determined the lectionary cycle needed more stories of women, here is what they say in their introduction to the RCL, “A major critique of the 1983 Common Lectionary by many men and women concerned the place of women in the readings. The task force recognized the significant, if often overlooked, role played by woman in the biblical story. As a consequence, the Revised Common Lectionary has added a number of readings that makes this more evident: for example, the promise of God to Sarah for her faithfulness, the contribution of the Hebrew midwives to the saving of the children of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt, and the encounter of the Syro-Phoenician woman with Jesus.”
So, as it turns out, today is not just a day of cuts, but a day of additions. Isaiah 56:2-5 gets cut, and Matthew 15:21-28 gets added. The addition I applaud—why not?—all scripture is ‘God breathed.’ Although you could have picked a kinder story! But the cut—why the cut?
It wouldn’t be so egregious a subtraction if it were not for the content of the texts themselves. Both texts, the Hebrew Bible lection and the gospel lection, have a common theme. The theme is inclusion. In the Isaiah passage God foretells of a time when he will bring people from every nation to God’s holy mountain, and to God’s house of prayer (i.e. the temple). This was a bold statement that comes on the heels of the Israelites release from captivity. As the Israelites sought to reestablish a national and religious identity, there was a loud counter voice to Isaiah’s inclusiveness. There were many who wanted to construct all the old dividers, and make them stronger than ever. Isaiah 56 was a risky prophetic oracle that portrayed a God who invited everyone in, and kept no one out. Isaiah 56 is well paired then with Matthew’s story of the Syro-Phoenician woman. The disciples tried to keep her at arm’s length, Jesus articulated all the assumed prejudices, and yet the woman, with her unrelenting faith, revealed the God of inclusion whose table spills over with abundance for all.
Well, almost all. Almost, but not quite—at least that was the opinion of the Task Force for the Revised Common Lectionary. Yes, the nations of Isaiah 56 are fine—let them in. And the woman of Matthew 15 is fine—let her in also, but we might have to draw the line at the physically emasculated. The who? The physically emasculated (I am being polite)—you know—the eunuch.
So here is what got the ‘chop’ in our Isaiah oracle–“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.”
Well that wasn’t so bad! What’s the fuss about? Well, don’t you see? The kids might ask us what a eunuch is, and that will make us very uncomfortable. It is too archaic, too out of touch, it is prone to misunderstanding. Why would anyone do that to themselves? It isn’t right. We can’t even read Deuteronomy 23:1 in church—we can’t, honest. Look it up. I’m not going to read it.
But there it is, clear as day—anyone emasculated by crushing or cutting (I am being polite again) is excluded from the assembly of the LORD. You could also read about it in Leviticus 21:18-20, but who wants to read the same gross things twice. Bring on the task force; it’s time to do a little pruning to this Isaiah text. I guess one big chop deserves another.
And besides that, what if they ask us not only what a eunuch is, but then they ask us to make sense of it all. Can the eunuch go to the house of the Lord or can’t he/she/it? We have the word of the Lord, plain as day, in that rated ‘R’ Deuteronomy text. Absolutely not! No eunuch is allowed in the assembly! The Lord is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Isn’t that right? Then why does Isaiah invite them on in? Why does Isaiah’s God whose word once banished the eunuchs say, ‘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 or daughters…and they shall not be cut off.” I bet Isaiah got kicked out of the church. You can’t do that. Who does he think he is?
“You have heard that it was said…but I say to you.” Who gets away with that kind of talk? Who has that kind of authority? Doesn’t that kind of language just promote chaos? Where will we draw the lines if we start thinking in these ways?
Do you think I know? I haven’t a clue. One thing I do know, this new life giving word from God, while different, is not an abandonment of all that God said. The text makes it clear that the eunuch and the foreigner must obey the Sabbath, and practice Torah. They must offer sacrifice. This is not a new faith. It is the same faith. Yet something is different, God has done something new.
That is God’s prerogative of course. God is sovereign, and he can always do something new. And God has always been doing something new, in that regard God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. When the exile happened the miracle God had to work was to gather the outcasts. Suddenly the symbolic world changed, and the experience of God, being recorded by the people in soon to be sacred texts, was quite different. The God of conquest, the God of exclusive promise, the God of transcendent holiness and purity, was now also the God who gathers the outcast. The brilliant prophet of our text, giving oracles in the tradition of the prophet Isaiah, received this revelation and declared in the power of God’s Spirit, “God will gather others, besides those already gathered.”
And so Jesus healed the daughter of the Syro-Phoenician woman—the people who were once known as dogs—and the nations were invited into the walled city of Jerusalem, and into God’s house of prayer, and the eunuch, even the eunuch, the sexually different, was given an everlasting name.
Unless you are on the task force!—if you are on the task force suddenly the eunuch becomes the non-text, the one we ignore. Eunuchs make us uncomfortable. The task force plays the role of the disciples in our gospel lection, who see the Syro-Phoenician woman and say to Jesus, “Send her away.” It is such a damning a thing to do. How do you think the Eunuch can keep the Sabbath, if he/she/it is not invited into the place of worship? He cannot. If they send him away—if they cut him out with their pen knives—he is an outcast, wandering indefinitely by the rivers of Babylon in exile. He is a dog. And you do not take the children’s food and give it to the dogs.
But what happens, when with unrelenting faith, we hear the eunuch’s reply, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table—even the dry tree is given nourishment.” At that point, will we not remember that we were all sinners in exile, and that we at one time were gathered, and that God will gather others, besides those already gathered. And sometimes it will fly against what was already said, as we come to know more about the one whose revelation we desire.
This is the wild grace of God. It is not because the eunuch earned it that he is now invited into the house of the Lord. God gives the eunuch an everlasting name. And there is one thing I know; there is no way for a eunuch to accomplish an everlasting name. It is not possible. Only God can do that. God gives the eunuch the one thing the eunuch can never achieve on his own—a name that descends through the generations.
And then, on the Sunday of inclusion, we cut it out. It is the non-text. And the eunuch sits outside the house of prayer, and profanes the Sabbath, and we are complicit—because the children might ask what a eunuch is, and that is a hardship. Of all the silly things! So, I am sending this sermon to the task force, it is my complaint. The God who gathers outcasts uses no pen knife.
And today the non-text is given life again, and it begs us to answer: Who do we send away from God’s house of prayer, and thus profane the Sabbath? Is there a new revelation from God, given all that we have come to know and experience? God has gathered us—praise the LORD—could it be there are more to gather?