The eighth chapter of Nehemiah recalls a pivotal moment in the history of God’s Word. After several generations of captivity in Babylon, Ezra has led some of the captive back home to a Jerusalem that lies in ruins. Nehemiah leads the rebuilding of the city walls and the Temple. They gather the community before the Water Gate as Ezra opens a scroll of The Law of Moses. For six hours he reads and others interpret the text “so that the people understood the reading.” [Nehemiah 8:8]
It is perhaps the first recorded instance of the birth of the Sermon. The text tells us the people who stood there and listened for six hours wept. Perhaps just the sound of the words in the air evoked such deep emotion. Perhaps it was for the first time in generations that they were standing back in their home, newly rebuilt after years of devastation, years of captivity, years of yearning, years of hoping for release. Perhaps they weep as they hear a renewed rendering of what it means to be God’s people – that just as Cyrus of Persia, a gentile, a righteous gentile, had secured their freedom to return, so they too were to dedicate their lives to serving and securing release for all others who have suffered as they had.
Ezra and the priests urge them to stop their weeping and to, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
“Send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared.” This is the essence of the Law of Moses they heard that day. That, and that “the joy of the Lord is your strength.” And what makes the Lord joyful is when we reach out beyond our little community and take care of those for whom “nothing is prepared.”
There can be little doubt that Jesus in Luke chapter 4 has similar things in mind as he visits his hometown synagogue in Nazareth. Synagogues had been born six hundred years before while his ancestors were in captivity in Babylon, having been separated from the central location of their worship, the Jerusalem temple. Since there was no place to present the appointed sacrifices, they would gather in synagogue communities to reflect on other aspects of the Law of Moses – such as the commandment to love God and love your neighbor – neighbor understood to include widows, orphans, the poor, those aliens traveling in and through the land; i.e those for whom nothing is prepared.
Jesus stands to read from a scroll handed to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."
This text he reads comes from portions of Isaiah 58 and 61, and seems also to refer to The Jubilee Year (the year of the Lord’s favor) as outlined in Leviticus 25. To people who have been held captive in their own homeland first by the Greeks and now by Rome, this no doubt not only sounded like good news, but astoundingly amazing good news. And to those first reading or listening to Luke being read, there may be some sense of irony given the fact that just before this episode, the word is out that John the Baptist has been imprisoned – for announcing similar “good news.”
The year of the Lord’s Favor, or Jubilee Year, was prescribed to occur every fifty years. All debts were to be forgiven. So it is that Jesus would teach them to pray, “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” [Matthew 6:12] It is all to be part of God’s shrewd economic plan for God’s people, a kind of hard reset for the nation’s economy. It was to be one way to take care of those for whom nothing has been prepared.
“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Really? Rome will decamp and leave the land today? Taking their tax collectors with them? John will be released along with thousands of others Herod and Pilate and others have imprisoned across the land? Today?
Like the moment in front of the Water Gate in Nehemiah, hearing all of this ought to have made them weep. Hearing it just now ought to make us weep – at first, weep with joy that our hopes and prayers may actually come to pass. Or, weep as we realize just what is being asked of us to forgive debts and release captives, and help those whose vision is poor to non-existent to see, to really truly see what God’s Word means for us to be doing.
As a dear friend used to teach, the Good News often sounds like Bad News because of the very real demands God’s Good News makes upon us all. But that Bad News becomes Good News to those who try it; those who live into it; those who forgive others, those who prepare portions for those who have no one to provide for them. Good News/Bad News/Good News.
“Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” In your hearing. In our hearing. Do we hear it at all? Or, do we piously mouth, “The Word of the Lord…Thanks be to God,” and move on to the next thing? Do we hear it at all?
Where is Ezra and all the priests and Jesus to interpret this for us today, here and now, so that in our hearing this Good News for all people begins to be fulfilled? “Send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared.” It’s not that complicated. As Bob Dylan once sang, “And remember when you're out there / Tryin' to heal the sick / That you must always first forgive them.” Not much need for interpretation there.
This whole religion thing is not about belief. A core dimension of all religion, as Huston Smith outlined it years ago, is to discern what, if anything, we ought to be doing. It is about hearing and doing. Forgive, heal, and send help to those in need. It shouldn’t take six hours to get that across, let alone some 2,600 hundred years. “Do you hear what I hear? / A song, a song/High above the trees / With a voice as big as the sea – With a voice as big as the sea.”