Good News for the Unwanted 

Exclusion, expulsion, alienation, and forsakenness—these were major themes in the ancient Jewish world.[1] The “impure” could be expelled from the community. The carcasses of sacrificed animals had to be burned outside the camp. The scapegoat was sent out “to a remote area.”[2] To be “inside” was to be pure, wanted, loved, at home, and alive. To be “outside” was to be dirty, unwanted, despised, outcast, and left to die. Unwanted babies of the ancient Near East were often left outside the city to die. Ezekiel picks up on this travesty to describe the Jews like a baby “cast out on the open field… abhorred on the day [they] were born.” But God passed by, saw them “wallowing in blood,” said to them “Live!” and brought them into his home.[3] (It is hard to imagine a more vivid image than an abandoned infant to show that God helps those who cannot help themselves).

The New Testament world also had people thrown outside cities to die.[4] Under Roman law, a father—the paterfamilias—had the final word on whether to welcome his babies into the home. If you were deemed ugly,[5] or a financial burden, or, most often, if you were a girl you could to be thrown out like garbage.[6] (As one first century husband wrote his wife in a letter, “If you are delivered before I come home, if it is a boy keep it, if a girl, discard it.”[7]) “The Exposed” as they came to be known, would often die of starvation or hypothermia, be eaten by scavenging dogs, or picked apart by birds.[8] Then (as if that weren’t gut-wrenching enough) there were predators who would often snatch these abandoned children and make them sex slaves.[9]

Ephesus had a mound outside its city gates where those whom society branded unfit for life and love were dumped. Paul opens his letter to this city with an image that would have shocked an Ephesian audience. He tells them that God the Father:

…chose us in him [Christ] before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and unblemished before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.[10]

Many of the first people to ever read those words would have been the Exposed, unwanted by their own fathers and raised as slaves in Ephesus. It’s hard to imagine them not weeping at the news that that God the Father “chose” them. Their own biological fathers considered them too ugly, too burdensome, or too female to deserve love. God the Father rescues them from the dump and calls them “holy and unblemished.”

“Among those who saved the lives of abandoned infants most were interested in exploitation more than in rescue,”[11] a fact that the Ephesians knew all too well. So Paul is quick to add that the Father’s rescue mission is carried out “in love.” They are not used and abused as slaves but adopted and cherished as sons and daughters. While parents could easily discard a biological child in Ephesus, to become an adopted child, under Roman law, meant that you could never be disowned. Adoption was an unbreakable, lifelong contract initiated by the parent. To people without a penny from their deadbeat fathers, Paul breaks the news that their real Father has “lavished the riches of his grace” on them and guaranteed them “an inheritance.”

The unwanted have become the wanted. Society’s blemished have been renamed by God as the Unblemished. The fatherless, at last, have a Father, a Father who chose them, who can never abandon them, who will spend forever lavishing gifts on them.

This adoption happens “through Jesus Christ,” and the cross is right there at the center of it all: “In him we have redemption through his blood…”[12] The broader context of the Bible shows that Jesus saves outcasts, making their adoption possible, by taking their place and becoming the Outcast. Like the Exposed, “He was despised and rejected by men.” “We esteemed him not.” He was “taken away” and “cut off out of the land of the living.” He “suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood.”[13]

To be forsaken by your own father, left to die outside of the city was a truly horrific fate.[14] “Why have you forsaken me?” could have been the tragic anthem of the Exposed. But Jesus took their (our) place and cried those lonely words so that we don’t have to. Instead, we find ourselves “crying ‘Abba! Father!’”[15] In the words of Joni Eareckson Tada:

Jesus willingly chose isolation so that you might never be alone in your hurt and sorrow. He had no real fellowship so that fellowship might be yours, this moment… You will never experience isolation or abandonment or dread of being forsaken as did your Lord. Fellowship is yours! … And you have it because He didn’t.[16]

[This article is adapted from Thaddeus Williams’ latest book, REFLECT: Becoming Yourself by Mirroring the Greatest Person in History (Weaver, 2017), which explores how Jesus can make us most fully ourselves—our most intellectual, emotional, virtuous, loving, gracious, and creative selves—in a way that no other conceivable object of worship can. To read endorsements and pick up your copy of REFLECT, visit here: https://www.amazon.com/REFLECT-Becoming-Yourself-Mirroring-Greatest-ebook/dp/B01N6RXLZD]

[1] Ephesians 3:11-20.

[2] Leviticus 16:20-22.

[3] See Ezekiel 16.

[4] According to W.V. Harris, “infants were usually, it seems, abandoned outside towns or villages” (“Child Exposure in the Roman Empire,” Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 84, 1994, 1-22: 9).

[5] According to the Twelve Tables of Roman Law: “Deformed infants shall be killed.” Soranus of Ephesus wrote a first-century guide to gynecology, obstetrics, and pediatrics with a list of physical conditions that “indicate the infant not worth rearing.”

[6] “Child Exposure in the Roman Empire,” 11-12.

[7] Cited in Naphtali Lewis, Life in Egypt Under Roman Rule, (Durham, NC: American Society of Papyrologists, 1999) 54.

[8] According to Philo, “Others carry them to a deserted place, exposing them, so they claim, to the hope of safety, but in reality to the most dreadful misfortunes, for animals and birds come to devour them (On Special Laws, iii.1 10-19). According to historian, A.R. Colón, “An infant could be abandoned without penalty or social stigma for many reasons, including an anomalous appearance, being an illegitimate child or grandchild or a child of infidelity, family poverty, parental conflict (ob discordiam parentum) or being one of too many children. Sometimes they were given to friends, but more often than not they were abandoned to the elements, and death resulted from hypoglycemia and hypothermia. Sometimes the infant was devoured by the dogs that scavenged public places. It was likely however, that the expositi were rescued from these fates and picked up by slavers” (A History of Children: A Socio-cultural Survey Across Millennia, [Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001] 104-105).

[9] Harris notes, “Enslavement was much the commonest fate of foundlings” (“Child Exposure in the Roman Empire,” 3-4, 9).

[10] See Ephesians 1:3-6.

[11] W.V. Harris, “Child Exposure in the Roman Empire,” 3-4, 9.

[12] Ephesians 1:7a.

[13] Hebrews 13:12.

[14] This is not to imply that the Trinitarian relationship was broken on the cross. It wasn’t. See also Thomas McCall, Forsaken: The Trinity and the Cross, and Why It Matters, 13-47.

[15] Galatians 4:6-7.

[16] Joni Eareckson Tada, 31 Days Toward Overcoming Adversity, (Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah, 2006) 15-16.