Jan 27, 2019: 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

1st Reading – Nehemiah 8:2-4a, 5-6, 8-10

Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly,
which consisted of men, women,
and those children old enough to understand.
Standing at one end of the open place that was before the Water Gate,
he read out of the book from daybreak till midday,
in the presence of the men, the women,
and those children old enough to understand;
and all the people listened attentively to the book of the law.
Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden platform
that had been made for the occasion.
He opened the scroll
so that all the people might see it
— for he was standing higher up than any of the people —;
and, as he opened it, all the people rose.
Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God,
and all the people, their hands raised high, answered,
“Amen, amen!”
Then they bowed down and prostrated themselves before the LORD,
their faces to the ground.
Ezra read plainly from the book of the law of God,
interpreting it so that all could understand what was read.
Then Nehemiah, that is, His Excellency, and Ezra the priest-scribe
and the Levites who were instructing the people
said to all the people:
“Today is holy to the LORD your God.
Do not be sad, and do not weep”—
for all the people were weeping as they heard the words of the law.
He said further: “Go, eat rich foods and drink sweet drinks,
and allot portions to those who had nothing prepared;
for today is holy to our LORD.
Do not be saddened this day,
for rejoicing in the LORD must be your strength!”

The book of Nehemiah is one of the historical books of the Bible and continues the story of the Jewish people. At the conclusion of the books of Kings and Chronicles, Jerusalem and the temple are a heap of ruins, and the people of Judah are exiles and captives in Babylon (587 B.C.). 48 years later, in 539 B.C., Cyrus II, King of Persia, conquered Babylon.

Flavius Josephus, the 1st century A.D. historian, recounts how the Jews showed Cyrus the text of the prophecy of Isaiah where Cyrus’ name appears (Isaiah 44:28; 45:1):

“This was known to Cyrus by his reading the book which Isaiah left behind him of his prophesies; for this prophet said that God has spoken thus to him in a secret vision: – ‘My will is, that Cyrus, whom I have appointed to be king over many and great nations, send back my people to their own land, and build my temple.’ This was foretold by Isaiah one hundred and forty years before the temple was demolished. Accordingly, when Cyrus read this, and admired the divine power, an earnest desire and ambition seized upon him to fulfill what was to written; so he called for the most eminent Jews that were in Babylon, and said to them, that he gave them leave to go back to their own country, and to rebuild their city Jerusalem, and the temple of God, for that he would be their assistant, and that he would write the rulers and governors that were in the neighborhood of their country of Judea, that they should contribute to them gold and silver for the building of the temple, and, beside that, beasts for their sacrifices.” [Antiquities of the Jews 11,1,2(5-7)]

Cyrus was so impressed that in 538 B.C. he issued an edict permitting those who wished to
do so to return to Jerusalem.

Ezra was the priest who acted as religious leader of the post-Exile Jewish community in Jerusalem.  Nehemiah was the one who had led the people back and then supervised the rebuilding of the walls of the city.  Both men were authorized by the Persian authorities.

Today’s reading describes an official religious assembly led by Ezra, wherein the people (re)commit themselves to the law.

Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly, which consisted of men, women, and those children old enough to understand.

The law is the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. It contains the early history of the
Jewish people and the blessings and curses associated with their covenant with God.

The assembly (qāhāl) is unusually inclusive, embracing not only the men but the women and children as well.

Standing at one end of the open place that was before the Water Gate,

The ritual takes place in an open square in front of the northeastern part of the city wall known as the Water Gate, so called because it was opposite the Gihon Spring.

he read out of the book from daybreak till midday, in the presence of the men, the women, and those children old enough to understand; and all the people listened attentively to the book of the law.

Women and children are again mentioned, underscoring the importance for all the people, regardless of age or gender, to understand the gravity of the occasion.  This is not merely a communal gathering: all those who participate take upon themselves the serious obligation of observance of the law.

Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden platform that had been made for the occasion. Ezra opened the scroll so that all the people might see it — for he was standing higher up than any of the people —; and, as he opened it, all the people rose.

The people stand out of respect for the words they are about to hear.

Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God, and all the people, their hands raised high, answered, “Amen, amen!” Then they bowed down and prostrated themselves before the LORD, their faces to the ground.

The people respond to Ezra’s blessing with a solemn affirmation (Amen, amen!), and then they prostrate themselves in reverence.  All of this is in preparation for the reading.

Ezra read plainly from the book of the law of God, interpreting it so that all could understand what was read.

As mentioned in previous verses, the reading takes about six or seven hours, from daybreak to midday.  What was read is not specified, but the manner in which it was read is described.

Interpretation was provided because this generation, which had been living in exile, may not have understood the Hebrew in which the law was written.  The instruction may have also modernized the requirements of traditions that had originated in the past.

Then Nehemiah, that is, His Excellency, and Ezra the priest-scribe and the Levites who were instructing the people said to all the people: “Today is holy to the LORD your God. Do not be sad, and do not weep” — for all the people were weeping as they heard the words of the law.

The assembly was intended to be a joyful, but the people respond with weeping.  Perhaps they did so out of remorse for their previous infidelity, or perhaps they were overwhelmed by the grandeur of the sacred event.

He said further: “Go, eat rich foods and drink sweet drinks, and allot portions to those who had nothing prepared; for today is holy to our LORD. Do not be saddened this day, for rejoicing in the LORD must be your strength!”

The people are told not to weep, but to rejoice and participate in a festive common meal.

The command to eat rich foods and drink sweet drinks suggests that the community has the means and access to such delicacies.  This may not be historically accurate, but rather intended as a liturgical guide for future generations who will read this account and as part of their own commitment (or re-commitment) to the law.

2nd Reading – 1 Corinthians 12:12-30

Brothers and sisters:
As a body is one though it has many parts,
and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body,
so also Christ.
For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body,
whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons,
and we were all given to drink of one Spirit.

Now the body is not a single part, but many.
If a foot should say,
“Because I am not a hand I do not belong to the body,”
it does not for this reason belong any less to the body.
Or if an ear should say,
“Because I am not an eye I do not belong to the body,”
it does not for this reason belong any less to the body.
If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be?
If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?
But as it is, God placed the parts,
each one of them, in the body as he intended.
If they were all one part, where would the body be?
But as it is, there are many parts, yet one body.
The eye cannot say to the hand, “I do not need you,”
nor again the head to the feet, “I do not need you.”
Indeed, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker
are all the more necessary,
and those parts of the body that we consider less honorable
we surround with greater honor,
and our less presentable parts are treated with greater propriety,
whereas our more presentable parts do not need this.
But God has so constructed the body
as to give greater honor to a part that is without it,
so that there may be no division in the body,
but that the parts may have the same concern for one another.
If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it;
if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy.

Now you are Christ’s body, and individually parts of it.
Some people God has designated in the church
to be, first, apostles; second, prophets; third, teachers;
then, mighty deeds;
then gifts of healing, assistance, administration,
and varieties of tongues.
Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers?
Do all work mighty deeds? Do all have gifts of healing?
Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?

Today we continue Paul’s instruction on the diversity found within the Christian community by his use of the analogy of the body.

Brothers and sisters: As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ.

This analogy was probably borrowed from Stoicism, but the way he uses it is reminiscent of the Jewish concept of corporate personality, where members of a family are somehow identified with the actions of the head of that family.  In the body, each part has its own unique function, but all parts work for the good of the whole.

This concept characterizes three aspects of the ideal Christian community: 1) unity in diversity, a unity that is far from uniformity, 2) absence of competition among members, and 3) interdependence between members.

“Paul is pointing out that just as the body has many members, some of which are more important than others, so it is with the Church also. But every member is necessary and useful.” [Saint Theodoret of Cyr (ca. A.D. 453), Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians 246]

For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body,

Their unity is based on a common baptism.

whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, and we were all given to drink of one Spirit.

Cultural and gender differences remain, but they do not determine one’s membership within the community.  All drink of the same Spirit, so all live by the same life in that Spirit.

“There is one work because there is one mystery, there is one baptism because there was one death for the world. There is a unity of outlook which cannot be separated.” [Saint Ambrose of Milan (A.D. 381). The Holy Spirit 1,3,45]

Now the body is not a single part, but many.

This is the key phrase to the whole reading: Just as the human body needs different
members, so the Church needs a diversity of spiritual gifts, and each one makes a specific contribution to the common good.

If a foot should say, “Because I am not a hand I do not belong to the body,” it does not for this reason belong any less to the body. Or if an ear should say, “Because I am not an eye I do not belong to the body,” it does not for this reason belong any less to the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God placed the parts, each one of them, in the body as he intended. If they were all one part, where would the body be? But as it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I do not need you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I do not need you.”

Paul ridicules the concept of ranking the various gifts within the community.  If only the eyes or ears or head is important, what would the body be like if it consisted only of an eye, ear, or head?  Likewise, not all in the community are apostles or prophets or teachers.

“If everyone in the Church were equal, there would be no body, because a body is governed according to the difference in the functions of its members. The diversity in the members of the body unites for the purpose of ensuring that the body fulfills its potential.” [The Ambrosiaster (between A.D. 366-384), Commentaries on Thirteen Pauline Epistles]

Indeed, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are all the more necessary, and those parts of the body that we consider less honorable we surround with greater honor, and our less presentable parts are treated with greater propriety, whereas our more presentable parts do not need this.

Commentators have long wondered about which parts of the body Paul is referring to here, but that isn’t the point of the analogy.  The point is Christian interdependence.  Just as we give more attention and care to parts of the body that are considered more vulnerable, so should we be particularly considerate of members of the community that are in need of care.

But God has so constructed the body as to give greater honor to a part that is without it, so that there may be no division in the body, but that the parts may have the same concern for one another. If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy.

The solidarity that should flourish within the church is poignantly characterized: if one part suffers, all suffer.  If one part is honored, all are honored.  There is no room for competition or resentment.

Now you are Christ’s body, and individually parts of it. Some people God has designated in the church to be, first, apostles; second, prophets; third, teachers; then, mighty deeds; then, gifts of healing, assistance, administration, and varieties of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work mighty deeds? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?

“Paul has placed the apostles at the head of the church. They may be identified with
bishops, as Peter said of Judas: ‘Let another take his bishopric’ (Acts 1:20, RSV). There are two types of prophets, those who predict the future and those who interpret the Scriptures. The apostles are also prophets, because the top rank has all the others subordinated to it. Even a wicked man like Caiaphas uttered prophecies on the strength of his rank, not for any virtues he might have possessed (John 11:49-51). Teachers are those who instructed boys in the synagogue, a practice which has come down to us as well.” [The Ambrosiaster (between A.D. 366-384), Commentaries on Thirteen Pauline Epistles]

Gospel – Luke 1:1-4, 4:14-21

Since many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events
that have been fulfilled among us,
just as those who were eyewitnesses from the beginning
and ministers of the word have handed them down to us,
I too have decided,
after investigating everything accurately anew,
to write it down in an orderly sequence for you,
most excellent Theophilus,
so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings
you have received.

Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit,
and news of him spread throughout the whole region.
He taught in their synagogues and was praised by all.

He came to Nazareth, where he had grown up,
and went according to his custom
into the synagogue on the sabbath day.
He stood up to read and was handed a scroll of the prophet Isaiah.
He unrolled the scroll and found the passage where it was written:
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.

Rolling up the scroll, he handed it back to the attendant and sat down,
and the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him.
He said to them,
“Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Today’s gospel reading includes the prologue of Luke’s gospel (which is the only of the four to have such a preface) and an account of the bold revelation Jesus made in the temple about his own identity.

Saint Luke, a Syrian from Antioch, was a physician by profession.  He was a man of culture with perfect Greek, and a disciple of Saint Paul.

Since many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us,

Several accounts of the events in the life of Jesus were already in existence when Luke began his version.  Mark’s gospel had already been written, as well as the Aramaic original of Matthew’s gospel.

just as those who were eyewitnesses from the beginning and ministers of the word have handed them down to us,

Luke explicitly states that he is not an eyewitness to the events in his gospel.  The word for “handing down” is parádosis, a technical term for passing on authoritative tradition: confirmation that the gospel was preached long before it was written down.

Among the most outstanding of these eyewitnesses was the Blessed Virgin Mary.  It must have been she who provided most of the information Luke gives in the first chapters of his gospel (the annunciation and infancy narratives).

I too have decided, after investigating everything accurately anew, to write it down in an orderly sequence for you,

Luke establishes that his account will be an interpretation of what has been handed down by others, and it will follow an orderly, presumably chronological, sequence.

most excellent Theophilus,

The identity of Theophilus, whose means “beloved of God,” is unknown.   The name is mentioned in the Bible only here and in the first verse of Acts, also by Luke.  It is possible that he was a patron who sponsored the publication of Luke’s writings.  Other commentators suggest that Theophilus could be a generic name for all Christians.

so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received.

Theophilus is assured of the authenticity of the instruction, or catechesis (from katēchéō) that he has received.

This phrase is also translated as: so that you may realize the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed.  Luke liked to get order and chronology right, not just to satisfy his own or anyone else’s curiosity but to pass on to others precisely what the Lord wanted him to write.

Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news of him spread throughout the whole region.

The actual story of the reading begins here.  This is the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, just after his baptism (Luke 3:21-22) and temptation in the desert (Luke 4:1-13).

He taught in their synagogues and was praised by all. He came to Nazareth, where he had grown up, and went according to his custom into the synagogue on the Sabbath day.

Jesus has taught in the synagogues of Galilee and has been “praised by all.”  He now returns to his hometown and attends the synagogue service there.

He stood up to read and was handed a scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the passage where it was written:

The synagogue service includes a Scripture reading, which Jesus reads.  He is handed the Isaian scroll and seems to choose the passage, which is Isaiah 61:1-2.

“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,

In the Isaiah verses, we see a prophet endowed with the Spirit, having been anointed by the Lord for various socially based duties.  The poor and the oppressed are not just material and physical conditions, but spiritual conditions as well: poor in faith, oppressed and blinded by sin.

and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.”

The principal function of the prophet is proclamation.  He has announced liberty, release, and healing — and here he proclaims a year acceptable to the Lord, which calls to mind the Jubilee year in Leviticus (Chapter 25).  During the Jubilee, debts were forgiven and forfeited land was returned to its original owners, a greatly anticipated time of deliverance for those where were dispossessed and impoverished.

The idea of a Jubilee year, which was instituted through God’s favor and not the goodwill of men, became a powerful metaphor for general emancipation and eschatological fulfillment.

Rolling up the scroll, he handed it back to the attendant and sat down, and the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him. He said to them, “Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.”

With the “eyes of all in the synagogue” fixed on him, Jesus makes a bold claim: he is the spirit-filled prophet who Isaiah describes.  He is the one who inaugurates the year of deliverance; he has launched the era of eschatological fulfillment.

Not only is he a prophet, but indeed the long-awaited Messiah, who would redeem his people from every kind of affliction.

Connections and Themes

The word proclaimed. Both the first reading and the gospel passage show the dynamic power of the word of God as it is proclaimed, which reminds the hearers of their identity as the People of God.  It situates them within the long and glorious stream of covenanted people, and it calls them to faithfully live out the implications of that identity.

There is something unique about the hearing the word of God, realizing that it is fulfilled in our hearing, as Jesus states in today’s gospel reading.  The ear is considered by many to be the threshold through which words penetrate the consciousness of the person.  Thus, the fundamental summons of the people of Israel was, “Hear, O Israel!”  “Hear” means “take into yourself,” allow it to penetrate the deepest resources of your being. Hear the word of God proclaimed and allow it to take root, like the seed that is sown by the sower.

The word is fulfilled.  The word of God elicits various responses from those who hear it.  In the first reading, the people who heard Ezra cried out in response: “Amen, amen!,” meaning “So be it!” and “We will obey!”  Today’s gospel reading does not tell us how those who heard Jesus’ interpretation reacted to it, but we do know that they were listening intently.  The people of Ezra’s time were at a turning point in their history, and they knew it — the people in the synagogue in Nazareth were also at a turning point, but were likely unaware of the importance of that moment.

We too are at a turning point, when the liturgical year shifts from the frantic excitement of Christmas to the routine of Ordinary Time.  Will the excitement of the new year and the promise of the Nativity celebrations endure?  Has hearing the word proclaimed made any difference in our lives, or are our ears closed to the power of the word of God?

Liturgical assembly.  Both Ezra and Jesus proclaimed the word of God within the context of a liturgical celebration, a setting similar to the ones in which most people today hear God’s word proclaimed.  The Liturgy of the Word is an essential part of our celebration of the Mass.  With the people of Ezra we are invited to respond: Amen, amen! Thanks be to God!

It is also within the liturgical assembly that we see how different the members of the body of Christ are, as Paul explains in today’s second reading.  Some who hear the word do so from the circumstances of poverty, others from positions of power.  Both men and women hear, as do peoples of every ethnic group and nationality.  Christians of various denominations hear the same word and respond in ways shaped by their respective religious tradition.  All are open to the word, and it takes root in them as seed that is sown.  It enjoys various yields because it takes root in various types of soil.  This diversity need not separate us; it can enrich us!