43:16 Thus says the LORD, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters,
43:17 who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:
43:18 Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.
43:19 I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.
43:20 The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people,
43:21 the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.
Everyone knows that Jews are called “The Chosen People.” This text provides one witness as to why. In ordinary venues, absent Jews, that reputation, “chosen,” has been treated, in my hearing at least, with annoyance, as in “Who do they think they are?!” Envy is part of it. Because Gentiles tend to invest being chosen with all kinds of benefits. Jews probably do too. After all, isn’t that the guarantee to God’s favorites? Seated at the right hand at the great banquet feast. The richest portion in this life too.
When this theme is sounded, my mind goes immediately to Tevye, the poor milk herder of “Fiddler on a Roof.” I sang a solo on “If I Were a Rich Man” at a spring concert forty years ago in church in Brooklyn, and for my debut was presented by a congregant with a jewelry box which, when opened, played the tune to “If I were a biddy biddy rich,Yidle-diddle-didle-didle man. If I were a biddy biddy rich,Yidle-diddle-didle-didle man.” (Picture me, if you dare!) The tune stopped, but the memory hasn’t. In Tevye’s monologue with his donkey and God, the milkhiker prays about Israel’s election with a telling: “I know, I know. We are Your chosen people. But, once in a while, can’t You choose someone else.?”
And there’s the rub: what one is chosen for.
Isaiah states it plainly, the Lord (Yahweh) to the Israelites: “the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.” It’s a mission as old as the Psalms and as current as contemporary services in modern Protestantism; in the latter, no less than the former, there is a surplus of “Praise the Lord’s.” The first, appropriately, category in a music database I compiled for worship was, you guessed it, Adoration. Just like the first of ten commandments, according to Moses, and the shorter version of two by Jesus: giving God the glory has priority over ever other faithful duty.
Tevye, what’s the problem?
The rest of us, that’s the problem. The envy, though we would not likely admit it. The Bible tells many a story of a favored son who for his favoritism gets hated: Abel, the shepherd boy whose sacrifice to God was found acceptable, and his brother Cain’s was not; twin Jacob, momma’s boy, a conniver, who tricks dad into giving him his blessing, leaving twin Esau out of the will and in a passion to kill his brother; Joseph, the smart-aleck, another younger brother sold into slavery in Egypt by his envious siblings; David, little David, great King David, whom the Lord chose to lead Israel to its premier moment of glory, who first earns his brothers’ wrath before King Saul turns on him with murderous intent; the prodigal son, still another younger brother, a wastrel, who finally swaps pigs’ corn cobs for his Father’s fatted calf and his elder brother’s jealousy; and, in non-canonical literature, consider the hellish consequences, according to Milton’s Paradise Lost, when Lucifer is passed over by the Almighty in favor of a lesser light. Speaking of whom (the lesser light), I haven’t gotten to Jesus yet, God’s own Beloved Son: look what happened to him. More later.
The green-eyed monster would seem to be the chosen’s big problem. But should it be, considering the historical record of The Chosen? Why would anyone begrudge Israel the discipline the Lord imposes on the Chosen People, the dietary restrictions being just a small part of it (even though I cannot imagine being deprived of quahaugs and salami)? Why would anyone want to swap histories with them, considering the European ghettoes and their culmination in the Holocaust, a catastrophe some nations in the world would visit again on this generation of the chosen people, promising to sweep Israel into the sea?
Tevye, there may be something to your complaint.
Maybe it is as the Solomonic proverb claims: that “the Lord reproves the one he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.” Maybe it’s the rule my homiletics professor Paul Scherer posited, that God rewards us for a good job by giving us more to do. Election is to be used for God’s sake. To be a light to the nations, according to Isaiah… in another passage, Chap. 42 to be precise. To be the salt of the earth, according to one of the Jewish lesser prophets you know by another name. To be, in other words, a pointer in this world to transcendence, not just any kind, to the kind of God the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus is. And to what such transcendence requires of us in the horizontal: justice, compassion, a peaceable spirit, and all of the other good things you can find in the Law and the Prophets, and the Sermon on the Mount.
Tevye, it’s a burden, true, but it’s also an honor, the greatest this mortal life has to offer.
Said again in the shadow of a cross, which looms before us closer than before, with the one on it at whose baptism a voice from heaven was heard: “You are my Son, the Beloved with you I am well pleased.” Election narrows to a single soul at Calvary, chosen for you and me to die, yes, for our sakes, but more, to infuse the human race with a fresh possibility for justice and love, joy and peace.
Talk about being useful! That, Tevye, is better than being rich.