I frequently remind my students that if God always worked in predictable ways, we wouldn’t have such a thick Bible. We’d only need a couple Xeroxed, laminated pages outlining God’s behavior patterns. When we want to know what God is going to do next, or what God expects of us in the future, we just glance at the proper section of the sheets and we’ll operate with complete certitude.
Our sacred authors laugh at such a scenario. The community problems impelling them to write often reveal a God working “against type,” involved in people and situations in which no one expected God to be involved. God’s outside the lines personality certainly plays an essential part in today’s three readings.
We must remember that Jerusalem is nothing but a pile of ruins during Third-Isaiah’s ministry. The Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar had wiped the city and its temple off the face of the earth in 586 BCE. Even after their exile ended in 530, the majority of Jewish captives refused to return to the Promised Land and rebuild the ruins. They were far better off in a foreign county than in their native land. Few were inclined to go back and face the devastation and hard work awaiting them in Israel. Most were convinced the holy city and its holier temple would never be restored.
Third-Isaiah refuses to buy into their pessimism. This unnamed prophet is convinced that one day Yahweh will offer salvation to all people through the city which now offers nothing but sweat and hard work. Yahweh is setting forth a plan of salvation which flies in the face of common wisdom. “Nations shall walk by your (Jerusalem’s) light,” God promises, “and kings by your shining radiance. Raise your eyes and look about; they all gather and come to you . . .
Our Christian biblical authors also believed non-Jews would eventually come to the true faith. But the way these Gentiles were to be converted wasn’t in the play-book of Jesus’ original followers. They were open to non-Jews becoming Christians, but they demanded they first convert to Judaism before they would talk to them about imitating Jesus of Nazareth.
Paul and a small group of “radical” evangelizers quickly blew that process to smithereens. They converted Gentiles to the faith as Gentiles, refusing, among other things, to demand they adhere to the 613 Mosaic Laws.
Paul’s disciple who wrote the letter to the Ephesians states their “ultra-liberal” belief in classic terms, referring to the acceptance of Gentiles as a “mystery. . . not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed to (God’s) holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and as partners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” No faithful follower of Yahweh could ever have predicted God working in such an unpredictable way.
Writing for a Jewish/Christian community, Matthew must deal with the unexpected situation of Gentiles beginning to outnumber Jews in many Christian churches. What prompted these “outsiders” to discover the importance of someone most Jews ignored? Because of his unique audience and their problems, he’s the only evangelist to mention the magi: pagan astrologer/magicians who should be stoned to death the instant they cross into Jewish territory. The irony of Matthew’s narrative revolves around Gentiles who follow forbidden means (a star) to discover the “new-born king of the Jews,” while Jews who employ the proper means (Scripture) aren’t even interested in checking out recent events in Bethlehem, just a few miles down the road.
The evangelist is teaching his readers that there’s no iron-clad, perfect way to discover Jesus. We follow a God who offers unlimited ways. Only we, not God, are guilty of limiting God’s behavior.