Thinking Anew – Bringing good news to the oppressed
Isaiah takes a universalist view: God’s covenant with Israel is inclusive of all nations and peoples.
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat is a musical with lyrics by Tim Rice and music by Andrew Lloyd Webber based on the “coat of many colours” story about Joseph in the Bible. Some will dismiss such ancient stories as irrelevant in today’s world but if we look more deeply we will discover there are treasures to be found and lessons learnt.
One of the burning issues of our time – immigration – has been a source of political instability and social unrest in many countries. We may see it as a recent phenomenon, but peoples have been on the move since the beginning of human history, usually because of war or economic necessity.
We know this from our own 19th-century history, when famine forced hundreds of thousands of desperate people to flee starvation as countless others died.
According to the Bible, the semi-nomadic tribe or family of Jacob, Joseph’s father, settled as immigrants in Egypt, in the land of Goshen, a fertile area in the eastern part of the Nile Delta because their traditional homelands could no longer sustain them.
We know from records of the period that Egypt with its strong economy and substantial food reserves was generous to such people.
A frontier official, for example, about 1350 BC informed the pharaoh that some nomads “who knew not how they should live have come begging a home in the domain of pharaoh”.
Later, under a new regime the welcome was replaced by slave labour thus setting the stage for the Exodus led by Moses, an event that has inspired freedom movements ever since, notably in 20th-century America and South Africa.
Tomorrow’s Old Testament reading is from that part of the Book of Isaiah dating from the return of the Israelites from another exile.
It reads: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.”
There are racial and religious undertones in these words because the returning exiles did not return to an empty land.
Many of their own people, mostly the poor who were spared exile, had integrated with other races or tribes and adopted their beliefs and customs.
As a result, the priest Ezra called for the break-up of interracial and interreligious marriages in order to restore Hebrew purity laws.
Isaiah takes a different, universalist view: God’s covenant with Israel is inclusive of all nations and peoples.
The same concerns about religion and culture are expressed in Europe and America today by those opposed to immigration from Africa and elsewhere.
Identity and culture are real issues. These are complex and sensitive matters but Christians have been given clear guidance by Jesus in word and action.
When he was invited to read in the synagogue he chose this passage from Isaiah, and so made Isaiah’s inclusive language his own.
In his book Hope and Suffering, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, writing with the Exodus, in mind said this: “God showed himself there as a saving God, as a doing, an active kind of God, not one who was fond of delivering eloquent speeches, but as a gracious God (they did not deserve to be saved, they could not merit being saved); and he showed himself to be a God of liberation, the great Exodus God, who took the side of the oppressed, the exploited ones, the downtrodden, the marginalised ones. He was no fence-sitter. He took sides against the powerful on behalf of the widow, the orphan and the alien – classes of people who were often at the back of the queue, at the bottom of the pile. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our Fathers, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ was known then first as the God of the Exodus, the Liberator God, and the theme of setting free, of rescuing captives or those who have been kidnapped, is one that runs through the Bible as the golden thread.”