Very, very late, for which I apologize. Things got out of hand over the weekend and then at work. But I am determined to do this! The first and third readings again are closely linked, at least for me. A lot of commentaries expressed puzzlement that the reading from Nehemiah was paired with this gospel. Also on Saturday(!) as I was sketching an outline, I realized that I could tie the reading from Paul in as well.
In today’s gospel, we continue to hear about the early public ministry of Jesus. Two weeks ago, Luke described its very beginning when Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, and last week John recounted the first public sign of Jesus, the miracle at Cana. Today, Luke tells us that Jesus returned to Galilee, where he “taught in their synagogues and was praised by all.” Luke also says that news of Jesus “had spread through the whole region,” so it is safe to assume that these stories had preceded him home. It is therefore no surprise that when he went to the synagogue, the elders would ask him to take one of the readings. His neighbors wanted to hear his teaching for themselves.
What Jesus did that day can be best understood by looking at it in the light of the first reading from Nehemiah. This book describes the restoration of Jerusalem after the end of the Babylonian exile. Nehemiah, acting as governor for the Persians, worked to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. But after years of exile, the community of Israel lay in ruins as well, and the priest Ezra wanted to restore its identity as a people chosen by God. He did so by bringing them together to read and explain the Law of Moses to them. The Law was not simply a record of what had happened: it was also what was supposed to be now. It was the covenant between God and Israel. The people were not simply to listen to it passively. Rather, they were to accept it, embrace it, make it the foundation of their lives both as individuals and as a community. The charge was overwhelming: the people listening began to weep as they rediscovered what it meant to be part of God’s people. But they also found joy in their new understanding of who they really were.
Traditionally, the reading of the Law by Ezra was the foundation of the reading of the Law and Prophets each week in the synagogue. The purpose was the same: to remind the listeners of their covenant with God, and to help them understand how they were to carry out their obligations. When Jesus took up the scroll to read in Nazareth, he wanted his townsfolk to understand that they were entering into a new era, a time when the promises of the prophets would be fulfilled. He was calling on them to see in him the long awaited messiah, the anointed one who would truly restore Israel. “The Lord has anointed me
to bring glad tidings to the poor…to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free.”
In listening to this passage today, we, like the Israelites listening to Ezra, need to hear in it more than a story of what happened long ago in the synagogue in Nazareth. We are God’s people now, and in the gospel we should try to discern what this means for us today, as individuals and as a community. In baptism, we were joined into the body of Christ; as part of his body we share in the Kingship of Christ. His mission has become our mission. So if Jesus in his public ministry fulfilled the words of the prophet Isaiah, then it is our task today to continue to fulfill them. We must reach out to the poor, the prisoner, the oppressed. They are all around us: the homeless, the working poor, the refugee, the immigrant, the runaway teen. And in reaching out we cannot simply tell them that God loves them in some distant, abstract way. We must make God’s love real and present by loving them in tangible and concrete ways. We need to build up the walls of the kingdom of God, just as Nehemiah rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem. We need to work together to create a world that respects the dignity of every human being. We need, as Dorothy Day put it, to build up a world where it is easier be good.
There is no one way to carry out this mission today. There are many threats to the dignity of the poor and marginalized: abortion, the death penalty, poverty, racism, war, climate change. We live in a culture warped by violence and consumerism that needs to be transformed. Confronted by this we may feel overwhelmed, and be tempted to despair, to throw ourselves down and weep. But as Ezra reminded the people, “rejoicing in the Lord must be your strength.” God will provide the grace we need to fulfill his mission. His sacraments are there to sustain us in our work.
There is much to be done but we are not called to do everything. As St. Paul reminds us in the second reading, within the Body of Christ there are many gifts and many roles. Each of us has something we can, and must, contribute. We need to look around us–at work, at school, where we shop, in our civic life, here in our church community–and find what we can do. No particular cause is privileged, and each of us has an equally important role to play. So today, let us pray for the grace to know and act upon God’s will in our own lives. Let us pray for one another and work together to fulfill Christ’s mission in the world today.