9 He left that place and entered their synagogue; 10 a man was there with a withered hand, and they asked him, “Is it lawful to cure on the sabbath?” so that they might accuse him. 11 He said to them, “Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out? 12 How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath.” 13 Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and it was restored, as sound as the other.14 But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.15 When Jesus became aware of this, he departed. Many crowds[a] followed him, and he cured all of them, 16 and he ordered them not to make him known.
“HEBREW UNCERTAIN; see: A CERTAIN HEBREW”
SELECT-A-SERMON: WEEK III
Matthew 12: 9-16
The Reverend Tasha Blackburn
May 3, 2015
In 1946, two shepherds were in the middle of doing what they do best: herding sheep. A lamb had gotten itself stranded in the mouth of one of the many caves that dot the landscape of the desert area near the Dead Sea. They began tossing rocks toward the lamb to scare it into coming away from the cave when they heard a crash. Upon inspection, these two shepherds came upon perhaps the greatest archaeological discovery of the twentieth century: the ancient Dead Sea Scrolls. In that cave, experts eventually found, along with other documents, what is called the Great Isaiah scroll. It is a manuscript of the book of Isaiah older and more complete than any other we’ve ever found. That 1946 discovery changed what we know of Isaiah and the prophecies he wrote down over 2500 years before. You can see a facsimile of that scroll in the Israel Museum of Jerusalem, along with originals of many other scrolls they found in the caves. The papyrus has darkened due to its age, and its foreignness shows in every line of the scribe’s efforts that read in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek and even a language called Nabataean. “The Isaiah Scroll,” our tour guide solemnly told us, “is the Jewish people’s greatest treasure.”
When we look at our Bibles, it is easy to forget how we have received these words; the paper in our copies is new, the text readable and in our language. But sometimes even our new versions remind us of their original state. If your Bible translation notes such things, then you have seen it before. There will be a line of scripture and then a small letter or a number will let you know it has a footnote. A common footnote for the Old Testament reads “meaning of Hebrew uncertain.” This means we are not sure what word the scribe wrote here or how to best translate what they mean, or we can read it and translate it, but it doesn’t make sense the way it stands, so the translator has had to smooth it out. It really isn’t a surprise if we remember those aging scrolls with torn edges and blotch marks. Whenever this happens, translators footnote it by writing “Hebrew uncertain.” It happens in our Isaiah text we have today. There is a footnote right after “I give you as a covenant to the people” which means the translators have done the best they can to smooth it out, but the phrase is not clear: Hebrew uncertain.
The irony is thick here because we haven’t always been certain how to live out this passage either. This passage tells us that we are a chosen people, people who are to go to all nations and bring about God’s justice. There have been times in our past when we have read this as a rallying cry: if we are called by God that means we are chosen, and being chosen must mean we are entitled and being entitled means it is our right to bring justice to every land, which, sadly, has meant beating back any who do not agree or who get in our way. This entitlement has led us to everything from the Holy War of the Crusades to battles in our pews where congregations, abused by their leadership, have been forced into line, all under the heading of bring God’s justice to the land.
This uncertainty probably comes from a poor choice of music. For this passage is a song; the first of four so-called Servant Songs in Isaiah and its message comes out all wrong if you have the wrong tune. What has at times been sung as a strident march is instead more like a lullaby that a parent would sing to a child as the parent dreams of what the child might one day become. Many have been hurt over the generations because religious people instead heard the drumbeats of war in such lyrics from God. That greatest treasure of the Jewish people–the Dead Sea Isaiah scroll—you might remember I said only the facsimile can be seen. That is because its original is always kept in a bunker that can withstand a nuclear bomb. Even today, especially today, it matters what music we choose when the lyrics are about being chosen.
Fortunately, though there are uncertainties in this text, we recognize the Servant in the song. Since he walked this earth his followers have seen the prophecy’s fulfillment in him. Matthew was a writer who quoted the Old Testament all the time and, yet, this is the longest quotation of all of them, and he puts it in the middle of his gospel in order to be glaringly obvious: Jesus is the Servant in whom God is pleased and in whom his Spirit dwells. And he will bring God’s justice to the land.
These amazing words are spoken about Jesus as he retreats. He’s been besting the Pharisee’s at their own verbal swordplay and just when he could have gotten them good, he retreats. He continues healing but he tells the people to keep that quiet too. He is an outsider to the powers that be and alienated from even his own people. And that is precisely when he has fulfilled Isaiah’s Servant role: because this is a song for exiles. It was sung to people way back in the 500s BCE when they had been defeated by the Babylonians and carted off to places unknown, scattered around the region and decimated in their faith. It is to those broken and alienated people that God sings, “I, the Lord, have called you for a good reason.” The message is this: they are people who are broken but who still have a purpose. They are people who wondered if they’d lost their God but who found out he was choosing them still.
We should have known it. All the tune markers are there: that God’s kind of justice does not break a bruised reed and God’s kind of justice will not put out even the faintest of flames. The people have lost the power they once had but, because of that, now they will see the way God uses what is bruised and weak to bring his true justice. It was there all the time, the exile tune of this song. But even if we were ever uncertain, we have a certain Hebrew who not only teaches us the melody but who lived it.
“This scroll is our greatest treasure,” the tour guide said. And it is one of our greatest treasures too, these words from Isaiah. Because we know who Jesus is: he is the awaited Messiah, but this scripture tells us how he is: he is a servant whose justice looks like shielding the abused and strengthening the weak. He comes to the outsider and the exiled and gives them a purpose. This is our treasure too. For many believe we are living in an era of exile, too. Our Church has lost its former power. We feel ourselves alienated to the margins. Attendance isn’t what it used to be and former glories are in the mist of memory now. Our Christianity makes us strangers to many and outsiders to the visible powers. We well know the pain of this. We can bemoan and grieve this exile which is appropriate because it is difficult. But we can also read Isaiah and be glad. For God gives purpose to those who are exiled precisely because their power is gone. Being in exile is not easy. It can be a very uncertain place but, in exile, there are gifts too: we get to be the Church in ways God never would have asked us to be before, in ways we never could have dreamed of before. We can be a light to the nations and a covenant to the people in a way we never were before: all because now we know the right tune. Amen.