Our first reading this weekend is vital to us understanding all of our scriptural readings in this, the third Sunday of Ordinary Time. It comes to us from the book of Nehemiah and occurs sometime in the 5th or 6th century B.C. The Israelite people have been conquered in 587 B.C. and exiled away from Jerusalem and the Temple and the land that was given to them after Moses and Joshua let the Israelite people away from Egypt. This is also after the high point of the Israelites - with David the king. After David, things unravel pretty fast and the Kingdom eventually splits into two due to civil war. Larger empires surrounding the Holy Land see the disarray and take advantage. The Babylonians conquer the Israelites and exile them away from their home back to Babylon in an attempt to assimilate them into Babylonian culture. But before the Babylonians could accomplish this plan, the Persian empire comes to power and has a different method of conquering people. Rather than try to assimilate the conquered into their empire, they permitted the people to believe what they wanted so long as they submitted to Persian rule. And this is where our first reading comes into play. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah are written right when the exiles of the Israelite people come back to Jerusalem.
When the exiled people were sent away, two things happened -
1. The exiled people tried desperately to hold onto their faith. They developed many laws and rules in order to not fall into assimilation.
2. Other people, who were permitted to remain in Jerusalem, moved into their homes and did not have to become as strict as the exiled people had to.
These two points are very important. In our first reading today, Ezra, back from exile, stands at the water gate (which was a water source and one of the entrances into Jerusalem) and proclaims the law of the Lord to those listening - the Israelite people who did not know the law and were not in exile. They begin to weep as they hear the law of God proclaimed to them because they have not been following that law as the other Jewish people in exile had to. But sweet Ezra, rather than scold them, tells them to rejoice because now they know the law of God and can follow it. But not all Israelite people returning from Exile are as understanding as Ezra. Many Israelites returning from exile look down on the Israelites who did not have to develop the strict ways of life living according to the many laws of God.
By the time Jesus arrives on the scene hundreds of years later, this “in-fighting” amongst the Jewish people is still going on. As a whole, they are still under Roman occupation so the vast majority of the Jewish people still are practicing a very strict faith. This is the culture that Jesus comes into, and this is the culture that is going to put Jesus to death. Our Lord’s mission, which we can find in our Gospel this weekend, is reflective of Ezra’s mission of trying to compassionately bring God’s law to the Israelites:
“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.”
But Jesus’ law is a law of Spirit and love. He is not the king set to overthrow the conquerors of their homeland. Rather, the New Law is now going to be based on relationship with the Father instead of adherent to a strict set of prescribed laws. And because Jesus proclaims this and the people (with the same mentality of those Israelites coming back from exile) do not understand and what Jesus is saying threatens their adherence to the laws, they decide to have Jesus put to death.
Too much history? It is vital for us to understand the culture in which Jesus entered because it helps us to understand more and more why Jesus did and said the things He did. The more we can understand, the deeper of a relationship we can have with our Lord. And that is the point of the New Law - relationship with our God is paramount. So let us rejoice this weekend and proclaim today a day acceptable to the Lord.
May the Lord give you His peace,