Brief synopsis of the readings: We begin in the book of Nehemiah where Ezra gathered the entire community (“men, women, and children old enough to understand”) and read the entire Book of the Law. After he was done Nehemiah told them: “Go, eat the fat, drink the sweet wine, and send a portion to the man who has nothing prepared ready.” Our Gospel begins at the beginning of the Gospel of Luke. Here Jesus returned to Galilee and (with the power of the Spirit within him) taught in the synagogues. Coming to where he grew up he went to the synagogue on the sabbath and read from the Old Testament Prophet Isaiah. It foretold the coming of the Messiah. After finishing the reading he rolled up the scroll and said: “This text is being fulfilled today even as you listen.”
I get most of my news here in San Diego from our local National Public Radio station KPBS. Every year on the 4th of July NPR brings in celebrities and have them read portions of the the Declaration of Independence. All Americans, and even the majority of people all over the globe, recognize the importance of the Declaration of Independence. But I’m struck as I recognize that precious few people in the 21st Century have actually read it.
That’s too bad. It was written, in large part, by a 33 year old gentleman farmer from Virginia who learned a great deal from philosophers from the Enlightenment, particularly John Locke (1632-1704). That man was Thomas Jefferson (1743-1823).
I write this in respect to Thomas Jefferson but also to Ezra and Nehemiah. Our first reading comes to us after Israel was restored to their home. We all know about their best days, during the reign of King David and many of us know about their worst days when they were defeated and exiled by the Babylonians. They were restored and allowed to return to Jerusalem after the Babylonians were themselves defeated by Cyrus of Persia.
When they returned they faced a crisis: were they exiled because God was defeated by the Babylonian God? Were they exiled because of their unfaithfulness? And if so, were they restored because they had learned their lesson?
It’s easy, thousands of years later, to ponder on these issues, but for us it’s an intellectual discussion. For the people gathered around Ezra it was an existential issue: what do we do now?
I think Ezra gathered all of the men, women, and children old enough to understand to give them a path forward. And I think he read to them from the Law (the first five books of the Bible that Jews call the Torah and we Christians call the Pentateuch) because he wanted them to remember who they were. When I was a seminarian one of my professors often spoke about how we need to remember “who we are and whose we are.” He did this to remind us that whoever we are, at a basic level we are all disciples of God.
And I also think that we can look at today’s Gospel through the same lens. When we think of Luke many of us think of Jesus’ birth narrative, if only because it was made famous from A Charlie Brown Christmas when Linus proclaimed it on stage.
But Luke doesn’t begin with Jesus’ birth, he begins with this reading. It begins with Jesus as an adult returning to his home town and reading from Isaiah. Those gathered read Isaiah and other Old Testament prophets believing that someday in the future a Messiah would come.
Jesus said “This text is being fulfilled today even as you listen” to tell them that he, Jesus, was the Messiah.
We hearken back to old documents not just for nostalgia. We do this because it gives us a path forward; it gives us direction. In our first reading we don’t end with just reading from the Law. After Ezra finished reading to “the men, the women, and the children old enough to understand” he and Nehemiah instructed them to “eat the fat, drink the sweet wine, and send a portion to the man who has nothing prepared ready.”
We don’t know why “the man who has nothing prepared ready” has nothing, and many voices today tell us that we owe him nothing because his poverty is self inflicted and he has only himself to blame. But I think these readings call us to something else. Those who returned to Jerusalem after exile, and those who gathered around Jesus under Roman rule could easily have thought themselves abandoned by God.
But they weren’t. They were called to recognize that the Messiah wasn’t only in their midst, the Messiah was in them. As Christians we aren’t called to wait for someone to bring good new to the poor or proclaim liberty to the captives. We aren’t called to hope for the day when the blind get new sight and the downtrodden are free.
We are called to make that happen. We are called to read old documents like Ezra, Luke, and the Declaration of Independence with eyes looking forward. As I write this we are faced with refugees who are fleeing genocide or poverty and are told that nothing can be done. As I write this thousands of Americans are furloughed or forced to work without pay and are told that nothing can be done.
Something can be done. Nehemiah, Luke, and Thomas Jefferson remind us that human suffering is not beyond our ability to heal because the Messiah is within all of us.