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God’s Law is a Cause for Rejoicing

January 27, 2019

[69] Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Neh. 8:2-4A, 5-6, 8-10 / Psalm 19:8, 9, 10, 15 / 1 Cor. 12:12-30 / Luke 1:1-4; 4:14-21

The setting for the first reading is the reconstitution of Jerusalem under the authorities from Persia that have released the Jewish people. Ezra and Nehemiah are leaders in the Judean community.  They have been sent to provide both spiritual and political governance for the struggling group of returnees in Jerusalem.  Ezra is described as a learned scribe and as a priest.  He will teach them the commandments.  Later he will criticize their mingling and intermarriage with foreigners.  Many of these associations will later be broken to the lament of his people.  This disassociation with foreigners is the opposite of the gospel mandate that would make disciples of all nations.  Instead of the temple, the selection here has them gathering at the Water Gate.  This is a place where all approach so as to benefit from the natural water source on the eastern side of the city.  It is a familiar gathering place.  The Torah or the law is read with commentary by Ezra, illustrating his authority from God to give directives.  The pattern is one that will be revisited in the synagogue service where the Scriptures are read and explained.  Later it will be the same pattern for the Church where the Word of God is proclaimed and a homily is given by the priest.

God restores them to his holy city.  The people weep because they are cognizant of their infidelity to the commandments.  They fear the wrath of God.  Ezra tells them to rejoice instead because this is not a day of condemnation but one of restoration.  God is good and merciful.  The day is festive and holy, not one for fasting but rather for joyful feasting.  They are summoned to acknowledge their dependence upon the Lord.  While they are called to be faithful, salvation comes not through human arms or earning divine favor but because God is merciful and is their true strength.  God’s goodness is shown both in his creation and in his law; for having made the human race, he now establishes a renewed relationship with them and shows his people how to live.  This pattern is followed again in Christ where he would have the children of Israel rejoice in the law of God—the law of love— and not to suffer from the burden of the law as imposed by the Pharisees and elders.

The psalm response “Your words, Lord, are Spirit and life,” is the affirmation in the Gospel of John to the extended Bread of Life discourse where our Lord tells his listeners that we must eat his flesh and drink his blood if we are to have a share in his life. It is a colloquialism, not denying the real presence as certain non-Catholic exegetes attempt to do, but rather stamping his words as truthful, no matter how many might mumble and walk away.  The Spirit cannot deceive.  What seems absurd can be made real by the power of God.  We, as Catholics, appreciate that the Holy Spirit comes upon the gifts of bread and wine and makes possible their transformation into the risen Christ— the food that feeds the soul and grants us a share in eternal life.

Just as the giving of the law establishes a people for God; the giving of the Eucharist would institute a new covenant and people in Christ.  The Decalogue finds its true meaning with the two-fold commandment of Christ to love God and to love our neighbor.  It is this law that brings us to wisdom, putting on the mind of the Lord.  It is this law that moves us to a loving response to God— bringing healing, “refreshing the soul.”  The promise given to the ancient Hebrews will be echoed to all who believe in Christ, “Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people.”  The psalm gives us the acclamation, “O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.”  Jesus is the true Redeemer and the foundation stone for his Church.  He labels Simon as “rock” or Peter, because he will be the keeper of the keys for this new kingdom.  Jesus extends something of himself and his authority to his apostles, his first bishops and priests.

Paul speaks of the mystical body of Christ.  While there is a profound unity, the body has many parts, each with its own role and nobility.  The Gospel proclamation is given not to any one people but to all who would believe and follow Christ.  This appreciation is utterly revolutionary; indeed, it becomes a factor in the persecution of the Church by the Roman Empire.  The allegiance to Christ and his Church did not respect national boundaries or ethnicities.  Indeed, it calls into question many of the presuppositions of both pagan and secular culture and civilization.  There is also a seed planted that in time would acknowledge the right to life of the child, extend true dignity to women and a genuine emancipation to those who would be slaves.  How can one keep his brother in bondage?  If there is an equality of grace in Christ, then all life is sacred and all persons have an immeasurable dignity.  Many centuries and several millennia would pass for this seed to blossom and grow.  It is still growing.  Such is the hallmark of the Gospel, and the law of God, not as a stagnant message but one ever dynamic and alive.  It is as our Alleluia verse proclaims:  “The Lord sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor, and to proclaim liberty to captives.”  The law of God does not bring bondage but liberty.  We are called to joyful freedom in Christ.

Addressed to Theophilus (a name meaning “loved of God”), Luke gives us his narrative or gospel on the life of Christ.  It is said that Luke wrote in Greek for the Gentile world.  Theophilus is evidently a person of high rank, perhaps even a military officer.  The parallel we have with the first reading and today’s Gospel selection is with Jesus speaking in the synagogue of Nazareth. He opens a scroll from Isaiah and reads:  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.”  Akin to a church homily, he sits down and teaches:  “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.”  He is the fulfillment of the law and the prophets.  He is the good news of the Gospel.  The law of God is made real because God has the power and he has intervened in human history.  It is with Jesus that the face of God will be revealed.  He is forever and always the God of mercy and joy.  He reaches out to the poor, the oppressed and the hurting and he will make all things new.  Even the foreigner is embraced as a friend so as to become a member of the family of faith.  Unlike the first reading, it is not merely a holy day but a “year acceptable to the Lord.”  In other words, more than a calendar year, it is the season of salvation.

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