“Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will refresh you,” Jesus says in today’s gospel. Notice Jesus speaks to the “crowds” in Matthew’s gospel, not just to his disciples who know him or to the Jewish Christian church Matthew wrote for at the end of the first century.
God’s love and God’s promises reach far beyond the circle of disciples or the church. Jesus Christ reaches out to refresh the world that labors and is burdened, even if it doesn’t know him.
Scholars say today’s Old Testament reading is from Second Isaiah, not from Isaiah the priest who spoke in Jerusalem as Assyrian armies threatened the city in 8th century BC. Second Isaiah is an unknown prophet speaking to Jewish exiles in Babylon centuries later, urging Jews to return to Jerusalem and build it up. He uses Isaiah’s name and language instead of his own probably to avoid trouble with Babylonian’s leaders for suggesting such a thing.
But not many Jews answered his call to return to Jerusalem. historians say. Some did, others were not interested in the invitation. Taken captive to Babylon centuries before, Babylon’s now their home. They’re part of the place; they have families and jobs there. Jerusalem is far away and its future uncertain.
Still, many remain faithful Jews in Babylon, and later as part of the dispersion in Rome and other parts of the world. Centuries afterward the Christian church became established in the world through them.
We need to study Judaism more fully as a template for our own church, especially the mystery of Exile. Today we’re experiencing an exile in our church– in the United States for every one person who join’s us, six leave. We need to study the exile of the Jews.
Will those we lose be a way to become a more universal church?
The unknown prophet in today’s readings warns Jewish exiles not to abandon God for Babylon’s gods.
“To whom can you liken me as an equal?
says the Holy One…
Do you not know
or have you not heard?
The LORD is the eternal God,
creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint nor grow weary,
and his knowledge is beyond scrutiny.” (Isaiah 40, 25-31)
We have to pray for our own exiles. God still holds them in his hands, sustains and comforts them, even if they do not know him or seem to care. God’s Spirit is still within them.