Homily for 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time 2007
Do you remember filling in that long survey last year? It took up to 30 minutes to do. It was the National Church Life Survey. On the notice board there is a small poster illustrating one small aspect of the survey results. It shows how we saw our strengths and weaknesses in terms of nine key aspects of Church life. This year I hope the Pastoral Council will take an in depth look at the survey results which we will publish in various ways. Such surveys do help us to focus our attention on areas of our community life that needs addressing and also helps to clarify our vision for the future.
The Liturgy of the Word this weekend gives us just such a visionary picture for us from three sources: the Old Testament, St Paul and Jesus.
It is probably every preacher's dream to have the kind of response that Ezra received in the episode described in the first reading today. All the people responded with a great "Amen" to Ezra's proclamation of the Law of Moses. They renewed their covenant with God. They wept because they had forgotten it. They were overjoyed that they had found it.
Ancient Israel was captured by the Babylonian empire 586 years before Christ. They took Jerusalem itself. They demolished the great temple built by Solomon centuries before. They deported the majority of productive citizens to Babylon, leaving peasants to run the city if they could.
After fifty years or so, Cyrus the Great, king of Persia (now Iran), came into possession of Babylon and he let the captives go. Many had switched their faith by this time in favour of foreign gods and customs, but the remainder, perhaps 5000, made ready to return. A lot of them had never even seen Jerusalem, since they were born in captivity.
Their society had to be rebuilt. The Persians appointed Nehemiah as their governor in Judah. The Persians were doing a similar kind of thing to what is happening in Iraq today. A foreign power is trying to rebuild a country and its institutions. This passage represents the beginning of what we would call Judaism today. Still subject to the Persians, Ezra (428BC) was entrusted with re-establishing the Jewish religion. Ezra bought back with him from Babylon what we now call the Pentateuch or the Torah the book of the law. This is the first five books of the Old Testament. It is from this that Ezra read to the people assembled. He presented a vision for the people which moved them to repent and commit themselves to the covenant.
Also in a liturgical setting Jesus proclaimed the Word. He gave it, however, with himself as its fulfilment. A large claim which led to astonishment in his hearers. They were impressed at his gracious interpretation. But it did not lead to an immediate change in the hearts of the hearers. They began to question his identity. This is Joseph's son surely!
The Gospel today consists of two separate sections. The first is the opening verse of the gospel and the main part is from chapter four. The lectionary skips over the Christmas story that we have already heard to the beginning of Jesus public ministry in chapter 4. The lectionary in this way tries to summarise the vision of the whole gospel from which we read in this Year C.
These days we are very sceptical of anyone who has a grand vision for the country or the world. We have seen too many such grand ideas descend into chaos. Yet we do need people who can spell out for us a direction that will motivate us.
Jesus does it of course from a perspective where he leaves everyone free. There is no coercion or manipulation or bribery. He offers a vision of life that while it does embrace the political dimension of life does not depend on it for its fulfilment. It depends on God.
St Paul also presents us with a splendid vision of what a Christian community should look like. He spells it out in great length using the image of the body and its many different parts. We need to remember this ideal as we set about a new year of activity in our parish.
Both Luke and Ezra remind us that there is a necessary interpretation to be made of the scriptures if they are to speak to people today. Luke recalls that many others have given and account of the events of Jesus. He feels a need to give an orderly account from his own perspective. So too Ezra gave an interpretation of the Law of Moses so they could understand it. It illustrates something of how the scriptures developed until they reached their final form that we know.
Jesus puts his mission before the people in the synagogue not as the rebuilding of a city or a temple but the rebuilding of people's hearts. Will they accept what he offers? Will our response be "Amen?" May our "Amen" to the Eucharist today be a reaffirmation of our commitment to God in our Church.