a house of prayer for all people


It is generally believed that there were three different people who prophesied under the mantle of Isaiah. The first Isaiah, amidst his beautiful poetry, issued lots of threats and condemnation to the inhabitants of Jerusalem; the second Isaiah preached a message of consolation to the exiles in Babylon; this third Isaiah is preaching to the returned exiles. This part of the Book of Isaiah is marked by a kind of sadness and melancholy, but also by new visions for the future and the beginning of apocalyptic writing. Not even death will mar the new heaven and new earth created by the Lord! We heard the opening passage of the third book yesterday (Is 56:1-8), andth right away it’s almost as if the prophet is exhorting the returned exiles that their faith has to be open to the possibility of Judaism becoming universal, a world religion.

First Isaiah had looked upon foreigners as scourges; Second Isaiah saw foreigners as instruments for saving Israel, like King Cyrus was. Third Isaiah opens the temple services and priesthood to them! Up until this time foreigners living in Palestine were granted limited rights and protection, but now Third Isaiah extends full privileges even to those living outside the boundaries of the promised land––as long as they fulfill the Sabbath. There are other instances of this universalist tendency already in the Book of Ruth and Jonah, even in Deuteronomy, but Third Isaiah seems to be reaching all the way back into the earliest history of Israel to reintroduce the diverse kinds of people that God had elected: Arameans, Amorites and Hittites, mixed foreign elements and even eunuchs. Third Isaiah wants the possibility of everyone’s full admission among God’s people. ‘My house shall be a house of prayer for all peoples.’

There is a teaching from Ken Wilber that I’ve always liked. He is drawing on the language of developmental psychologists. They suggest that each human being as a child needs to start at a necessary phase of selfishness, needs to be able to scream for mother when hungry or frightened, because that child is totally dependent on outside forces for survival. But then each human being is meant to move from selfishness to care. Now they distinguish here that generally women move from selfishness to care, whereas men move from selfishness to rights, that is, care of or the rights of, first of all, one’s family, and then an ever widening extended family circle, tribe, village, perhaps ethnic group, nation, the collective of belonging. And then there is a stage beyond this as well, to move from care or rights––care of family, tribe and nation, to universal care, universal rights. So, from selfishness to care/rights to universal care/rights.

I’ve always thought that these three stages of growth correspond to the famous three stages of the spiritual life, the purgative, the illuminative and the unitive. The purgative stage is the move from selfishness to care, ethics and morality being as much as anything about how to live in a world with other people, how to belong to the world. The illuminative phase is that stage where we spend perhaps the majority of our lives, care and/or rights for family, tribe, nation of belonging, the group that gives us a sense of identity and belonging. And in some marvelous way I have come to think that the unitive stage, that ultimate stage of the spiritual life, in some way corresponds not only to union with God, but with the opening up to universal care and universal rights for all peoples.

This is also what I see going on in the three Isaiahs: first the threats and condemnation of the pre-exiles––the purgative; then the comfort of the exiles themselves, banding together and re-solidifying their sense of solidarity and care for each other; and now in that final stage opening up to universal care and rights. My house shall be a house of prayer for all people! Maybe we could see this as the burning light of prophecy in our day and age when we are so afflicted by tribalism and nationalism, xenophobia and sectarianism. Even further that perhaps it also corresponds on a broader scale with the transformation that is going on, the global consciousness that we are being called to individually and collectively in this day and age, as a church, as a nation, as a race.

I was reminded of James Carroll’s marvelous book on Jerusalem that I read in preparation for my trip to the Holy Land in 2011:

Now, to speak of the hope of peace for Jerusalem is to acknowledge the enormous varieties of religious experience . . . which in the twenty-first century face each other in the intimacy of the global village. Jerusalem is that village writ small, a living image of how all believers and nonbelievers inevitably encounter––or confront––one another as near neighbors, unable to avoid each other’s differences, and therefore unable not to be influenced by them. (Jerusalem, Jerusalem, 308-309)

May our house too––our churches, our communities, our mosques, our synagogues, our lands––always be known as houses of prayer for all people, not only for those already gathered, but to gather all the lost.

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