How can a message that was intended for people who lived thousands of years ago have any meaning for us today? Some of the stories in the Bible certainly make exciting action movies, but are we expected to live like that? To think as they did? To cherish the same aspirations? Isn’t the newspaper more relevant to our lives than the Bible? These are valid questions. The readings for today provide answers to them.
Both the first reading and the Gospel passage depict liturgical settings. In the first, Ezra reads “plainly from the book of the law of God.” But he does not merely read; he interprets the message so that all who heard can understand what was read. And to whom is he reading? “Men, women and those children old enough to understand.” A similar situation is depicted in the Gospel. Jesus reads from one of the sacred scrolls and then offers an interpretation. In each case the contemporary meaning of an earlier message is carefully explained. These settings resemble our own liturgical assemblies, for it is there that we hear the word of God and have it interpreted for us.
The people who heard Ezra wept when they realized the implications of what he was saying. The burden of their sinfulness and the sinfulness of their ancestors was more than they could bear. But neither Ezra nor the Levites who assisted him in the instruction of the people intended that they be overcome by their guilt. They insisted: “Today is holy...do not weep...rejoicing in the Lord must be your strength!” In other words, “Learn from your mistakes. But learn too that God is merciful.”
The Gospel reading depicts Jesus returning to the town where he grew up. As an adult man, he was invited to read from the scroll and to comment on the message. This he did, but probably not as the other worshipers expected. The reading describes a kind of messianic figure, and Jesus identifies himself as that figure. Those of us who know this Gospel story are aware of how it ends. But as the reading is offered to us today, we do not hear how the people of Nazareth responded. And that is good for us, for then we can see ourselves in that assembly, and we can decide how Jesus’ interpretation will be heard.
The message of God’s word is meant for us. How do we hear it? Do we take it to heart? Or do we think its challenging message is intended for someone else? And for those of us involved in biblical ministry: How do we break open that word for others.