The Bible tells us that after the people of Israel had returned from the exile in Babylon in 515 BC, they faced the daunting challenge of rebuilding their country and Jewish society. This required a political reform, but even more, a religious revival. Our first reading takes us back to this period of reconstruction in the history of Israel. It’s a long story, occupying much of the Old Testament.
Ezra and Nehemiah were the two Jewish leaders that led the effort and played a crucial role in the very beginning of the campaign of reconstruction.
Today Ezra stands before the people to declare the reestablishment of the Jewish law in the land. It’s a great moment in Jewish history, for the identity of the nation is intertwined with the observance of the Law of the Lord, which had disappeared during the exile. The reconstituted law is the base on which the new Israel has to be built. Note the highly emotionally charged response of the people to this proclamation. As Ezra reads the script, Nehemiah directs the people to express their joyful recognition of this triumphal moment.
In the Lectionary, this reading was obviously chosen as an Old Testament precedent for Jesus’ action in the gospel. The setting for Jesus is far more humble—just a small gathering of people in the local synagogue—but the profound effect on the people hearing the proclamation is the same—at least in the beginning of the encounter. Especially striking is Jesus’ bold declaration that what Isaiah foretold is right now being realized in their midst. All this is recounted in Chapter Four of Luke. But the lectionary includes as well the opening verses at the very beginning of Luke’s gospel. This is the highly stylized and formal introduction to Luke’s Gospel that Luke wrote in imitation of the literary style of his day.
On a different topic, our second reading is Paul’s brilliant comparison between the physical workings of our bodies and the way the community of God’s people is to join together in a unified purpose. There is a constant need for us to work against all the divisive forces that have plagued the church and society in every age.
—Walter Modrys SJ
This week’s readings can be found on the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ website.