Readings:Nehemiah 8:2-6, 10Psalms 19:8-10, 151 Corinthians 12:12-30Luke 1:1-4; 4:14-21

It is difficult for us to appreciate the passions involved in our first reading from the Book of Nehemiah. Ezra, the priest, and Nehemiah, the governor of Judah, are extraordinarily important people for the “Restoration” of the Israelites in the period after the Babylonian Exile. It is said that the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah was responsible for stirring up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, who then issues a proclamation that the God of the Israelites, now his God, has charged Cyrus to build [restore] a house for God in Jerusalem. Cyrus frees up God’s people to return to their homeland to build the “house of the Lord the God of Israel,” and their non-Jewish neighbors are encouraged to give the Israelites whatever help they need (livestock, goods, precious gifts). So magnanimous is Cyrus that he orders that the original golden vessels, taken by King Nebuchadnezzar when the Temple was destroyed, be brought forth and placed “in the house of his God.”
Ezra, the priest, was the great religious reformer who succeeded in establishing the Torah as the constitution of the newly returned community. Had there not been men like Ezra and Nehemiah, Judaism might have been absorbed into the Hellenism which would come to dominate the known world. It was the Torah that gave the returning Jews their identity. It was the Torah which was the basic rule of life for all Jews, and it is what knit the diverse group of Jews from all parts of the Persian kingdom into a single people.
It is this background which helps us to understand the emotions described in our first reading. As a distinct people the Israelites could once again hear the Law proclaimed by the priest, and they could recognize, as the psalmist tells us, that “the law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul… the ordinances of the Lord are true, all of them just.” So overwhelmed were the Jews to be back in Jerusalem, hearing the Law being proclaimed to them, that they prostrated themselves and wept tears of joy.
As overwhelming as all of this was for the Jews, it was not a time to be sad, not a time to weep. The Law’s wisdom, and guidance, and direction was something to be rejoiced over. Indeed, “rejoicing in the Lord must be your strength,” for as our psalm refrain tells us, “your words, Lord, are Spirit and life.”
In the liturgy, the first and third (gospel) readings frequently have a connection, and so our gospel from Luke is meant to be proclaimed in light of the first reading from Nehemiah. Luke will be our primary gospel for the liturgical year. The New Testament’s ‘historian’ Luke begins with his assertion that “many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us,” a clear indication that he knew of other accounts of the Jesus story, but he was going to investigate “everything accurately anew.” The most uniquely new part, his contribution to the infancy narratives recently proclaimed during the Christmas season, is omitted in today’s gospel. Also omitted here is Jesus’ baptism, a lengthy genealogy (not unexpected from a historian), and the story of Jesus’ temptation by Satan.
Today’s gospel serves as a counterpoint to last week’s gospel from John where Jesus’ public ministry is rushed by the simple request of His mother, Mary, at Cana. Today, Jesus’ public ministry begins in Galilee, where He has returned “in the power of the Spirit,” that same Spirit that prompted Cyrus to allow the Jews to return to Jerusalem. While Luke recounts very little preaching up to this point in time, the news of Jesus “spread throughout the whole region,” and Jesus “taught in their synagogues and was praised by all” [spoiler alert: the continuation of today’s gospel next week will prove not “all” praised Jesus].
Today’s gospel is meant to share in the overwhelming excitement exhibited by the Jews during the Restoration. While a great deal of time had elapsed, and people had become complacent about the Temple in their midst (even though by the time Luke put pen to paper the Temple would be destroyed again), people still longed for a Messiah who would deliver the Jews from Roman oppression. But Jesus, at the very beginning of His public ministry in Luke, begins to make it clear that the Messiah that is coming will be unlike the Messiah most wanted. The Spirit has, indeed, anointed Jesus at His baptism, but that Spirit is less worried about putting the Jews back on top, and more worried about bringing “glad tidings to the poor, proclaiming liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, letting the oppressed go free, and proclaiming a year acceptable to the Lord.”
Jesus will be more than anyone expected. It is no wonder when He told the synagogue crowd, “today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing,” that “the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at Him.” For the next nearly three years, Jesus will bring out the best and the worst in people around Him. He will heal them, support them, encourage them, and He will give them a glimpse of the God they have been worshipping for centuries. The public ministry of Jesus will be a time when sadness is out of the question. It will be a time of rejoicing, for the very word of God, the word of God that is at the center of the Jewish people’s identity, will be in their midst, walking among them, if only they have the eyes of faith to see.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s