Body Building

The church is a body of believers, and each part is essential for the overall health of the body. According to St. Paul, each individual person is vital for the body to thrive. All three of the readings for the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time place us in the context of the body of believers. Two of these three passages situate us among the Jewish covenant people. In the first, Ezra reads from the book of the law to the people assembled outside Jerusalem; in the Gospel, Jesus reads from the prophets to the people of the synagogue.

Though questions swirl around the historical figure of Ezra, we know that he returned under Persian rule to the land of Judah after the Babylonian destruction and exile to find a people without the word of God. Before the gathered people enter Jerusalem, they ask Ezra to read them the law (Neh 7:1<\a>5). When Ezra proclaims the Torah to the people, he not only reads it; he also interprets it. His special task is to bring the word of God to the people, but their task is to hear and accept. They accept the Torah with tears and mourning, but again Ezra acts as their interpreter, telling them to eat, drink and celebrate “for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”


This same communal joy permeates Jesus’ reading in Luke 4. Jesus is in his hometown synagogue, an institution whose origin as “village assembly” was in the Persian period. Indeed, Anders Runesson, a specialist on the New Testament and early Judaism, links Luke 4 with Nehemiah 8 because the reforms implemented by Ezra and Nehemiah focused on the same unique and defining feature of the synagogue: the “public reading” of the Torah. Luke, unlike Mark and Matthew, has placed Jesus’ reading at the synagogue as the moment in which he begins his ministry, with a spirit-filled public proclamation to his people. But when Jesus reads the Isaian prophecy, a prophecy drenched with good news for the poor and the oppressed, he not only speaks of the promises of God but of his own fulfillment of them. Luke says that “the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him,” a description that evokes the people’s initial response of wonder: How will Jesus’ fulfillment of the word be enacted?

The word was enacted in the church, the body of believers in the Messiah Jesus, who themselves are a part of the mystical body of Christ. In practice, it emerged as a type of synagogue structure, a voluntary association based upon the word and person of Jesus. St. Paul speaks of the “one Spirit” by which “we were all baptized into one body.” And yet division seems to suffuse the church in Corinth. Paul insists, amid a world that valued superiority and hierarchy, that every part had its crucial role in the body of Christ. Paul’s desire is that there 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.” Paul does not deny spiritual gifts or differences among gifts but insists that all are necessary for the body.

All of these passages speak to the need of the people of God to hear and accept the word of God and then to respond to that word with the joy inherent in it, just as Ezra spoke to the people of Jerusalem and Jesus spoke to his neighbors in Nazareth. This is not a passive task, for God’s people must go beyond reception of the word to enact the word through the gifts by which each member of the body is graced. “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many.” Whatever the role of an individual person within the church, the body of Christ, each person participates in the priestly, prophetic and kingly offices of Jesus Christ. In these readings we see the participation of the people of Christ in the prophetic office particularly, called to hear the word as witnesses but also to recognize joyfully our gifts for the evangelization of the world.

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