Deportation of the Jews to the Babylonian captivity by Eduard Bendemann

God's Word on Sunday: A new beginning starts with God’s gift

  • January 26, 2019

Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Jan. 27 (Year C) Nehemiah 8:2-4a, 5-6, 8-10; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 12:12-30; Luke 1:1-4; 4:14-21

How do you recreate a world and an experience that no longer exists? How can one recall a history that has become dim and fuzzy with the passage of time? 

Fifty years — almost three generations — had passed since the temple and city of Jerusalem were destroyed in 586 BC. The people had been captive exiles in Babylon, far from Judah. Many had become accustomed to life in Babylon and remained there even after Cyrus allowed the captives to go home. For the others, it had been difficult to maintain their collective identity for such a long time. 

Scholars, priests and prophets had worked hard to keep awareness and observance of God’s laws and Judean customs alive. It was during this time that they began to collect the various theological and biblical traditions of the people. The result was the Old Testament. 

After they returned to Judea, they wanted to create the political structures and religious life that existed before the exile. They had become convinced that the cause of their disaster was their failure to obey God’s law, so now they wanted to get it right. 

Levites, together with Ezra the priest and scribe, read and interpreted the law to the people from morning until night. Overcome with emotion, they began to weep, but were comforted by the assurance that this was a new day and they were being given another chance. 

The fact that it had to be interpreted and explained indicates how much both their religious consciousness and their language had changed in 50 years in an alien environment. They were attempting to do what many even in our own time struggle to accomplish: Bring the past back to life. 

They wanted to go back to the “wonderful” time before the exile, forgetting much of its darkness and pain. Usually the result is a mere approximation of the past, overlaid with many contemporary issues and ideas. Many people wistfully turn their gaze to the political, cultural or religious past. They fool themselves into thinking that it was a time of simple answers, harmony, peace and “goodness.” 

In fact, there has never been such a time. Each age brings its own challenges and struggles, and we have to live in the one in which our feet are planted. It is far better to learn from the past, but to look eagerly towards the future with a willingness to strike out in new directions and to expand one’s intellectual, cultural and religious horizons.

Paul reminds our broken, fractious and polarized world of something very important: We are all part of one another. We fool ourselves into believing that we are autonomous islands, separate from one another and from God, and from this illusion flows most of our ills. 

Paul urged his community to live as a body, no part more important than another and each with a vital role to play. If one hurt, all hurt; if one rejoiced, all shared this joy. 

When humanity has remembered and practised this principle, even imperfectly, it has thrived and been reasonable happy. But when this has been forgotten or ignored, misery and disaster have not been far behind. Regaining an appreciation and understanding of the common good would bring us much healing.

Jesus also brought a new beginning. Filled with the Spirit, He read from Isaiah 61 and then proclaimed that He was the fulfillment of the prophecy. What sort of prophecy was it? It was a promise that God would give sight to the blind, good news to the poor, release to captives and freedom for the oppressed. 

This was a gift from God, not something earned — a year of the Lord’s favour. In what sense have these promises been fulfilled, seeing that we still have oppression, poverty and blindness with us? He was not waving a magic wand over the world’s ills, but declaring the kindness, compassion and fidelity of God. 

It expressed the will and hope of God, for most of the ills that we experience are the result of human deeds and choices. Whenever humans harmonize their thoughts, words and deeds with God, healing, wholeness and liberation occurs. 

Every year is one of the Lord’s favour if we choose to make it so.

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