Neh 8:2-4a, 5-6, 8-10
Ps 19:8, 9, 10, 15
1 Cor 12:12-30 or 12:12-14, 27
Lk 1:1-4; 4:14-21
The books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell the story of the restoration of the Jews to the promised land following the Babylonian exile (c. 587-538 B.C.). The many years spent by the dislocated people of God in Babylon had a profound effect on the attitude and identity of the Jewish people. It is estimated that of the two to three million Jews given permission to return home, less than 50,000 took up the offer.
As Peter Kreeft notes in his book, You Can Understand the Bible, “We usually prefer comfort to freedom. Life in Babylon had been comparatively easy, but the trek to Jerusalem was 900 miles long … Not only that, but once they arrived, they faced a ruined land, city, and temple, along with the formidable task of rebuilding” (Ignatius Press, 2005; p. 68).
As today’s reading from Nehemiah describes, it was not just a physical rebuilding; in fact, the heart of the restoration was spiritual, religious, and liturgical. The people had to hear anew the book of the law and relearn the meaning and purpose of the law. The law shaped and defined the Jewish people, for it oriented them toward God and showed who they were in relation to him. Hearing the words read by the prophet Ezra, the people gave their assent and praise: “‘Amen, amen!’ Then they bowed down and prostrated themselves before the LORD.”
Fast forward a few hundred years to a small synagogue in Nazareth. The setting was significant The exact origin of the synagogue (meaning “house of assembly”) as a regular place of Jewish gathering is unknown, but some scholars believe it can be located in the Babylonian exile, when synagogues were needed as places of worship for Jews so far removed from the Jerusalem temple. During the time of Christ, the synagogue was an established place for reading and teaching the law and the prophets.
St. Luke describes, in today’s Gospel, how Jesus “went according to his custom into the synagogue on the sabbath day.” The young man appeared to be just one of many ordinary, devout Jews. To those who heard Jesus read from the prophet Isaiah, he was simply the son of a carpenter (Lk. 4: 22). But he was not long removed from being baptized in the Jordan and being tested in the desert; he was ready to embark upon his public ministry. And that ministry began and was marked throughout by the proclamation of God’s word—after all, every utterance of Jesus was a proclamation of that word by the Word, the Incarnate logos.
Like Ezra, he was a priest and he spoke as a prophet. Like Ezra, he unrolled the scroll and he read from the law and the prophets. Yet, whatever the similarities, the essential differences are summed up in his concluding words: “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” Ezra, Isaiah, and all of the other prophets told the people to worship, love, and obey God; Jesus said the same, but also made it known that he was God (cf. Jn. 8:54-59). His priesthood was singular; his words were uniquely authoritative. The passage from Isaiah was fulfilled because the word of God had gone forth—not merely from the mouth of a human prophet, but into the world as the word who had assumed human nature: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth…” (Jn 1:14).
The ministry of Christ—the anointed one—was to proclaim glad tidings to the poor, grant liberty to captives, give sight to the blind, and free the oppressed. This is true restoration from the ancient exile of both Jews and Gentiles in the land of sin and darkness. Every man is invited by the Messiah to leave the land of sin and enter the promised rest. “He set the captives free,” wrote Cyril of Jerusalem, “having overthrown the tyrant Satan, he shed the divine and spiritual light on those whose heart was darkened.”
(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the January 24, 20120, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)