In the first reading today, Ezra has a captive audience. It is easy to understand why. The people he addresses have just returned from exile in Babylon. Not only are they tired and weary but after seventy years in exile, it’s a whole new generation that has returned and Jerusalem is uncharted territory. While many decided to stay in Babylon these faithful few returned in a ‘back to basics’ effort of renewing their covenant with the God of Israel. And so we hear that when Ezra brought the law before the assembly the ears of all the people were attentive to him. They listened to him from early morning to midday. They bowed their heads and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground.
Ezra’s task was to make some sense of their predicament and he does so by explaining the book of the law. But he does not merely read the message; he interprets it so that all who hear can understand what is said. This must have been sweet music to their ears. While under foreign domination they had not always been free to follow the precepts of their faith. Therefore, it was now necessary to be instructed anew, to have the tradition re-interpreted for this new situation.
The people weep when they hear Ezra. As the law was expounded they must have realised how far they and their ancestors strayed from God’s covenant. The burden of their sins seems to be more than they can bear. But Ezra does not want them to be weighed down by guilt. Instead he insists: “Today is holy…do not weep…rejoicing in the Lord must be your strength.” In other words, Ezra is telling them to put their trust in a merciful God who is all too willing to forgive. And because they are forgiven they can make a new start, a whole new beginning.
In the Gospel we have another beginning. We hear the beginning of Luke’s Gospel which we will be our gospel reading for the rest of the year. No more than Ezra, Luke is also into interpretation. He is aware that ‘many others have undertaken to draw up accounts of the events that have taken place, exactly as they were handed down,’ but somehow this is not enough for Luke. He wants to give a new interpretation to all these amazing events. The reason is his audience. Luke himself was a pagan who came to know the Lord and is now writing to pagans/gentiles who have recently being converted to Christianity. They know little or nothing of the Old Testament but are caught on fire with the message of Jesus. Luke feels he must write for them, explaining for them the meaning of all the amazing events that have taken place. Just like Ezra he too is writing for a captive audience knowing that there is nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come!
The passage that Jesus reads in his hometown is his mission statement. Surprisingly the text he chose doesn’t speak about organizing a more perfect religion or about implanting a worthier worship. Rather it’s about communicating liberation, hope, light and grace for the poorest and most unfortunate. God’s Spirit is in Jesus, sending him to the poor, directing his whole life toward those most in need, most oppressed, most humiliated. Paul is implying something similar today when he says if one member suffers all suffer together therefore greatest attention must be given to those most in need. We his followers need to work in this same direction. This is the orientation that God, incarnate in Jesus, wants to impress on human history. The last should be first in knowing a life that is more worthy, more free, happier; the life that God wants for all God’s sons and daughters from now on.
When Jesus puts down the scroll he says: “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” I find two meanings to this. No doubt Jesus himself is the fulfilment of these words as he set about proclaiming and liberating captives and giving new sight to the blind etc. But the words ‘fulfilled in your hearing’ can have another meaning. It is only insofar as we hear these words of Isaiah, allow them to take root in our hearts and put them into action, that the dream of Isaiah will be totally fulfilled.
The question arising from this is, ‘are we ready to hear these words?’ Have we the same hunger as those who returned from exile to Jerusalem? There is no reason why we shouldn’t. We may often pretend otherwise but we too are living in a world of exile – perhaps an even greater exile today. The ‘Hail Holy Queen’ is just as relevant today as it was when it was first composed: “To thee do we cry poor banished children of Eve, to thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this vale of tears…and after this our exile show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb Jesus.” Like the Jews in Babylon, we too are in a land of captivity, having strayed far from our true homeland with the Father. Let’s not pretend everything is ok. Remember Paul: ‘if one suffers all suffer together.’ We may try to shut ourselves out from the tragedies of this world, but as members of the Body of Christ, we cannot but agree that we are desperate, lost, bewildered and indeed hungry for the word of God’s salvation.
Would that we had the same freshness of those early gentiles who so quickly warmed themselves to Jesus! St. Augustine discovered on his conversion that while the Word of God was old, it was also very new. “Late have I loved thee, Oh beauty so ancient and so new!” All it takes is a little discipline to realise how fresh and wholesome is God’s Word. One of the servant songs of Isaiah (chapter 50) explains this so well. ‘Each morning the Lord wakes me to hear, to listen like a disciple.” If we hit the floor every morning asking what is God’s word for me today, then we cannot but discover the freshness of God’s word, the beauty of Jesus and that his grace and strength is there to help us through the day. Christianity is still a powerful idea whose time has come.
“Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” May we too hunger for God’s word today; may we be surprised by its freshness and nourishment so that today also the holy scriptures will be fulfilled in our hearing!
Sunday, January 24, 2016