The 3rd Sunday after Epiphany (Year C)

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
Psalm 19
I Corinthians 12:12-31a
Luke 4:14-21

The reading of the scriptures gathers God’s people while the Anointed One has good news for the poor.

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10.

The readings from the Hebrew scriptures for the next few Sundays will lift up the calls and messages of Israel’s prophets. (In the same period the Gospel readings present the early ministry of Jesus in Galilee.) However, before the Prophets there was the Law, and the first of these readings from the Hebrew scriptures, the one for this Sunday, presents the reading of the Law as the foundation for the body of God’s people.

The work of Ezra and Nehemiah was to re-create a community of Israel after the great watershed of the Exile. (It is the time of the Persian Empire, the fifth century before the Christian Era.) For hundreds of years, the Israelite people had experienced prosperity and disaster while they lived as kingdoms among the nations, and finally, through their failure to heed the prophetic demands, their independent political life was ended and they were called to carry “a light to the nations” in other than political forms. Finding new forms for this mission in service of the One God of all peoples was the challenge of the age of Ezra and Nehemiah. In the passage from Nehemiah 8, we behold the emergence of the Great Synagogue, the gathering of the worshipping community founded by the hearing of God’s word, the Law and the Prophets.

In the reading the people have the initiative: “All the people” assembled in the city and called upon Ezra the scribe to read to them from the scroll of the law of Moses. For a gathering reported in the Hebrew scriptures, this is a very inclusive group: “both men and women and all who could hear with understanding”(verse 2, NRSV), probably meaning that young people were included who had reached the age of discretion, later known as the time of their bar mitzvah or bath mitzvah (son or daughter of the Commandment).

The reading is a solemn affair: “Ezra opened the scroll in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people; as he opened it, all the people stood up” (verse 5, in the New Jewish Publication Society translation, to avoid the term “book” used in the NRSV). And as in all subsequent worship services in Judaism and Christianity, the service begins by blessing the Lord. “Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, ‘Amen, Amen,’ with hands upraised” (verse 6, NJPS version).

The passage emphasizes that care was taken that the people understand the scripture reading. “They read from the scroll of the Teaching [Torah] of God, translating it and giving the sense; so they understood the reading” (verse 8, NJPSV). And after the reading, the leaders proclaimed, “This day is holy to the Lord your God… Do not be sad [remembering old days of glory], for your rejoicing in the Lord is the source of your strength” (verses 9-10).

The essentials of later worship in synagogues and churches are presented here. The people are gathered around the scriptures. And to be noted here, the service of the word is conducted by people meeting out in one of the city plazas rather than at the place of sacrifices in the Temple. (The service of the sacrifices and the altar would continue, of course: in Judaism as long as the Temple existed, in Christianity in the Mass and holy communion.)

Paslm 19.

The Psalm reading is one that recurs in the lectionary cycles. It is simultaneously comprehensive and penetrating. It presents an awesome sweep from the glory of God proclaimed in the heavens, and especially in the always-observant sun, through a poetic clustering of terms praising God’s torah, on to the depths of the human self which are vulnerable to error and alienation from God.

It is the praise of God’s law or instruction (torah) that makes this psalm an appropriate response to the previous reading. The psalm presents (verses 7-10) six synonymous terms or phrases to describe God’s guidance. In the terminology of the NRSV, these are the law, the decrees, the precepts, the commandments, the fear (read “reverence”), and the ordinances, all modified by the phrase “of the Lord.”

When the psalm was composed these terms may not have referred to a specific set of writings, of the kind read by Ezra to the people. There were sources of God’s instruction down through the ages besides the written Torah of Moses – from judges, sages, and prophets and prophetesses. However, our psalm is on its way toward Psalm 1, where the righteous person lives day and night by meditating on a written Torah – which in later generations was heard on Sabbaths in the synagogues.

I Corinthians 12:12-31a

The Epistle reading continues selections from the First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians. (The Corinthian correspondence is read on the Sundays after Epiphany in all three years of the lectionary cycle. In Year C, I Corinthians 12-15 are read during the Epiphany season.) This passage is one of the great meditations in Christian history on unity and diversity in the Body of Christ. Paul applies his model to the church, which lives by the variety of its charismatic gifts (verses 4-11). The basic model of one body with many members, all of which are functionally differentiated but sensitive to each other, is profound, though capable of many varieties of application.

In the context of this Sunday’s readings, the emphasis may be on the unity of the people of God produced by the work of the Spirit and the hearing of God’s word. The unity of the church has its source in the Spirit’s confession that Jesus is Lord (12:3) and the measure of its diversified work in whether it builds up the common good (12:7). Not all can be apostles, not all can be prophets, not all can be teachers or healers (verses 28-29). But SOME functions are essential. In Paul’s context this probably includes that of apostles (see 15:1-2); in a larger context, also essential would be the hearing and responding to the scriptures, which contain “the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises” (Romans 9:4, NRSV).

In some respects Paul tends to speak of the Holy Spirit as if it provides all the instruction believers need, thus replacing the Torah. In the broader view, however, the Spirit works by gathering the people around the scriptures – to hear Jesus as well as the psalms, prophets, and Moses.

Luke 4:14-21.

Hearing Jesus through the scriptures brings us to the Gospel reading. Luke’s presentation of Jesus’ first proclamation of the gospel is so loaded with implications that it is spread over two Sunday readings. The first big impact of his announcement at Nazareth is today’s portion; the reaction of the home folks to this novelty is next week’s prophetic conclusion.

Luke tells the story of Jesus’ return to Nazareth almost immediately after his encounter with the lures of agri-technology, international mover and shaker, and world-class superhero (the temptations). The placement of the Luke story is uniquely his own, the Nazareth visit coming much later in Mark and Matthew. And Luke presents Jesus here as fulfilling all righteousness, as it were: he goes to synagogue on Sabbath, “as was his custom,” and is sufficiently esteemed by the prominent people that he is given the place of second reader in the service. The first reading was from the Torah; Jesus will do the reading from the Prophets.

What prophet Jesus will read from is determined for him: the scroll of Isaiah was handed to him. The passage within that scroll was apparently up to him. He unrolled the scroll to near the end – a long process for a scroll of perhaps thirty feet long. However, as Luke presents it, Jesus had his passage in mind. It is what we call Isaiah 61:1-2, though the quotation given by Luke does not agree exactly with either the Hebrew or the Greek versions of the passage that we have. It is closest to the Greek of Isaiah (the Septuagint), which includes the reference to restoring sight to the blind.

The main point, however, is in the first verse, which is the same in Hebrew, Greek, and Luke: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me / because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor” (verse 18, NRSV). Most of all, the people are hearing about one anointed with the Spirit. (The Hebrew verb for anoint is māšah, from which comes the Messiah; the Greek verb is chrisein, from which comes the Christ.) This anointing makes him the Anointed One, and the Anointed One comes to restore God’s intended way among the people.

The rest of the quote spells out what is that way of God, to be realized in “the year of the Lord’s favor” (verse 19). It is release for the captives, recovery of sight for the blind (spiritually as well as physically), and freedom for the oppressed. To proclaim these things is to proclaim jubilee, the restoration of the original rightness of the human condition (the language is from Leviticus 25, see especially verses 8-12).

Jesus read this passage as the text for his message: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (verse 21). Undoubtedly an astonishing message, and if the folks of Nazareth believe this they are probably candidates for some South Florida (or southern Dead Sea) real estate deals. Luke is fully aware of this and will relate the sequel in next week’s reading.

For now, the gospel has been proclaimed from the scriptures, Jesus’ identity as Anointed One has been declared, and the people have the opportunity to unite around a new reading of the Law and the Prophets.

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