Below is the video and the show notes from the Girardian Virtual Bible Study, Epiphany 3, year C.
Nehemiah 8:1-3; 5-6; 8-10
Ezra and Nehemiah were originally one book. Nehemiah rarely shows up in the lectionary, so if you are going to preach on it, it might be worth highlighting certain aspects of the Ezra-Nehemiah story.
Ezra and Nehemiah tell the story of the return from the Babylonian exile. Previously, the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple and sent the political, economic, and religious elite throughout the empire. The Babylonians left the poor in the land – they became known as “people of the land.” The Babylonians had a strategy where they would send people from one conquered land into another in order to encourage inter-cultural marriages. This meant that many men who stayed in the land married foreign wives.
The exiles always felt they were the true people of God. The looked down upon the people of the land. When the exiles returned after the Persian Empire defeated the Babylonians, Ezra and Nehemiah were put in charge of rebuilding the city.
They were really interested in purity. Despite Leviticus 19 that says to treat foreigners in the land as if they are native born, they interpreted the law in a way that led them to believe that foreigners were impure and must be exiled from the land. The last chapter of Ezra tells the horrific story of family separation – women and their children were forced to leave the land. Whereas the Babylonian Empire exiled people from the land, now those who returned mimicked Babylon and exiled foreigners in a policy of family separation.
The story says it rained that day. An interesting detail.
Another interesting aspect of this story is that Third Isaiah, which we read from last week, was written during this time. Third Isaiah claims that when the exiles returned to the land, things did not go according to plan. Indeed, there were rivalries about how to rebuild the city. But Isaiah’s main vision is that the nations will come to Jerusalem! Isaiah’s vision was being fulfilled, but then Ezra and Nehemiah worked against it by separating families.
Separating families! What a disastrous policy…
When we come to our passage for today, we find that all the people are gathered together and Ezra reads from the Law for hours! The people praise God. Ezra and other scribes “helped the people to understand the law” and “read from the book, the law of God, with interpretation.”
This matters because many people today think that you don’t need to interpret the Bible or the Law. In fact, many state that the Bible clearly just says what the Bible says and if you interpret the bible you get into trouble. When you interpret the Bible you confuse the clear meaning of the text.
But as good Jews, Ezra and Nehemiah knew that the Bible needs to be interpreted. Every reading of the Bible is an interpretation. And so Ezra and Nehemiah interpreted the Law. The passage ends with Ezra telling the people not to weep or mourn, because the “the joy of the Lord is your strength.” But one must wonder how much joy there could be when the Law was used to tear families apart!
This passage comes after Jesus baptism and his 40 days in the wilderness. He was full of the Holy Spirit when he went into the wilderness and now he is full of the power of the Spirit when her returns to Galilee. What is the “power of the Spirit”?
As a good Jew, Jesus interpreted his scripture from within his tradition. He entered a synagogue and someone gave him the scroll of Isaiah. He opened it and read this passage, which could be called his mission statement:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to bring good news
to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
After reading that passage, Jesus said, “Today the scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Jesus made an interesting interpretive move with this text in Isaiah. The quote is very similar to Isaiah, but Jesus leaves out the next verse in Isaiah, which is, “and the day of vengeance of our God.”
Jesus leaves out divine vengeance.
Repeatedly over the Gospels, Jesus leaves out God’s vengeance. He reveals that God’s movement in the world is nonviolent. God works for justice, and does so without violence.
If Jesus were alive today, many Christians would accuse him of picking and choosing! After all, Jesus said the whole point of the law and the prophets boiled down to love God and love your neighbor. This love involves working for justice. Like Isaiah, it involves bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, letting the oppressed go free, and proclaiming the jubilee of the year of the Lord’ favor – which is the forgiveness of all financial debts!
But for Jesus, all of this justice is to be done without violence. Of course, Jesus upends the status quo, so those who benefit from the status quo might feel like something violent is happening to them. Herod didn’t like what Jesus was preaching, and neither did the other powers and principalities.
But the good news reaches out to those on the margins with love. Quite often we want God to come to our rescue with divine violence to defeat our enemies. But that’s not how the God revealed in Jesus works.
Last week we celebrated the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. King revealed how to work for justice with nonviolence. He continues to be a great modern example of Jesus mission statement.
Question from the Audience
Kevin Paris affirmed the need to interpret texts, but for so long it has been interpreted in mean and punitive ways. Then Kevin asked, “…should we maybe look for some other sources that have a lot more clarity to reestablish our moral foundations?”
Adam responded that this is a great question. Fortunately, as a rabbi and teacher of scripture, Jesus was very clear about the meaning behind the text – he stated that it all boiled down to love God and love your neighbor. Unfortunately, we are all very good at finding ways to not love. Adam also affirmed that if we find this principle of love in other texts – whether religious or secular – we should be grateful they are there. Jesus would not be in rivalry with those texts. Anything that helps us love at a deeper level should be affirmed.
Paul Nuechterlein’s Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary
Michael Hardin’s The Jesus Driven Life
Brian McLaren’s Everything Must Change