Though we often read Scripture for consolation, most of the Bible's authors were more concerned with challenging their readers' faith than in holding their hands. Even the prophet we most associate with consolation, Deutero-Isaiah, constantly confronts his community's narrow faith.
Our sacred writers almost always challenge us to go beyond the restrictions which organized religions impose on God's actions in our lives.
Deutero-Isaiah's successor, Third Isaiah, continues to confront his people in Sunday's first reading (Is 60: 1-6). Prophesying after the return of some of the exiled Israelites, he tries to talk the remainder into leaving Babylon. He invites them to come back and rebuild Jerusalem.
Safe and secure
Those who chose to remain in Babylon did so for security's sake. Though these misplaced Jews had originally pined for Jerusalem, they realized how good they had it in Babylon after the first Jewish "scouts" returned from the Holy City and informed them of its condition. Those courageous enough to leave Babylon were committing themselves to a lifetime of rebuilding and tearing down: rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem and tearing down the walls of Judaism.
Isaiah is convinced these returned Israelites won't be reconstructing just a copy of the past; they'll be building for a future quite different from anything Judaism had experienced before. What had once been a city and a temple for Jews alone, will now be a source of salvation even for Gentiles.
"Nations (Gentiles) shall walk by your light," the prophet proclaims, "and kings by your shining radiance." If these rebuilding Jews live their faith in Yahweh correctly, they'll be a light for all people, not just for their fellow Jews.
Five centuries later, Paul, a Jew born and raised in a Gentile environment, discovers how Gentiles can take part in the salvation Yahweh offers: by imitating Jesus' death and resurrection (Eph 3: 2-3, 5-6). This is "the mystery made known...by revelation...: the Gentiles are co-heirs, members of the same body, and co-partners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel."
The Gospel -- the good news of Jesus' death and resurrection -- breaks through the limits of all religions, even Christian religions. We're saved not by following rules and regulations, or by adhering to a specific set of rituals, or by constructing a special authority structure, but by giving ourselves completely over to Jesus. We imitate His death so we can receive His life.
Paul the Jew
Paul believes anyone can do this, no matter their ethnic or religious background. Scholars agree that had Paul been obliged to state his religion on a jail form the night before his martyrdom, he would have declared himself a Jew, not a Christian! He personally discovered the importance of Jesus through his practice of Judaism. Others would discover His value in other ways. No two roads are identical.
No road is more "different" from that followed by Matthew's magi (Mt 2: 1-12). They represent the antithesis of Judaism. They fly in the face of all Jewish tradition. In a Gospel written for Jewish-Christians, they're star-following idolaters who travel a long way to find a newborn king of the Jews, while Jews living just a few miles from Bethlehem ignore their own Scriptures and miss an event they were anticipating for centuries.
The challenge is clear. Following the insights of our scriptural ancestors, we're being called to experience a God who constantly breaks through the limits and restrictions which our specific religions place on Him. If, on this Feast of the Epiphany, we refuse to discover the acknowledge the different roads people take to find God, we probably don't appreciate and understand the salvation God offers us through Jesus.