[Reflections on the Old Testament Lectionary Reading for Jan 16, 2011]
The servant song of Isaiah includes the inspiring promise, “I will give you as a light to the nations” (Isa 49:6). God called God’s people to be a light to the nations. What does it mean to enlighten nations? Many people who try to faithfully fulfill that responsibility disagree with each other.
For some servants of God, enlightening the world means mining Scripture for answers to all sorts of questions. As a Methodist, I look to Scripture for all sorts of answers, but I also recognize the limits of Scripture. Scripture, for example, was not written as a scientific text.
Some Christians have dissected Isaiah’s servant song and found confirmation for their opinion that life begins at conception. This scientific “fact” is supposedly attested by Isaiah’s claim, “The LORD called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.” It’s quite a stretch, but supposedly the fact that God ordained and named Isaiah before his birth indicates somehow that Isaiah’s life began before his birth. Next the argument leaps to the assertion that life begins at conception.
Life may, in fact, begin at conception. I don’t know. But I know this: Isaiah’s servant song is not making any claim about when life begins. I am also pretty certain that God’s inspiration of this passage wasn’t intended to be a Hebrew or Christian text concerning science.
My reading of the text suggests something quite different from what Pro-lifers try to make of it. Isaiah is marveling at how God had a plan for his life before he even existed. Nothing here suggests God’s plan for Isaiah began at his conception; God’s plan existed long before that moment.
The message of Isaiah’s servant song is not about abortion or the beginning of life. The message concerns how God’s faithful are to be a blessing to the world. We are to be a light. What sort of light would God have us be? Are we to be a harsh spotlight of interrogation and judgment, or are we to be a warm light of hospitality and love? I do not believe we enlighten the world by misusing Scripture in a way it was never intended. When we do that, we diminish and discredit God’s Word. God meant for God’s servants to bring light not darkness to the world.