I presume all religions can identify with the scene in today’s first reading. Just when we think we’re doing exactly what God wants us to do, something happens, and we discover things God wants that we haven’t been doing; things which were an essential part of our faith from the beginning, but through the years and centuries were pushed into the background of that faith. Such an “aha!” moment certainly took place in our church over 45 years ago during the Second Vatican Council.
For the ancient Israelites, it took place around 500 years before Jesus’ birth, after those in exile were permitted to return to Jerusalem. Since Judaism had fallen on hard times during the long Babylonian captivity, there’s a great need to remind people of the essentials of their faith. So Ezra reads from the law - perhaps from the book of Deuteronomy - “from day break until midday.”
When the hearers realize the implications of not knowing anything about Yahweh’s commands, they wept and “prostrated themselves before Yahweh, their faces to the ground.” Thankfully Ezra isn’t into self- flagellation. “Go, eat rich food,” he commands, “and drink sweet drinks, and allot portions to those who have nothing prepared; for today is holy to Yahweh. Do not be saddened this day, for rejoicing in Yahweh must be your strength.”
Rejoicing is also at the heart of the first public message Jesus delivers in Luke’s gospel. Reading from chapter 61 of Third-Isaiah, he proclaims, “The spirit of Yahweh 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 Yahweh.” What a liberating message on which to base a ministry! No wonder Jesus’ first followers constantly refer to it as “gospel” - good news. It offers people a totally new way of understanding themselves and the world in which they live.
Paul, the first author of the Christian Scriptures, feels called to concretize Jesus’ message. Nowhere does he do it better than in this section of I Corinthians. He develops in detail his basic insight that all followers of Jesus form the body of the risen Christ. “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.”
What a freeing concept! People who, everyday of their lives, were reminded of their “place” in a world of human-imposed restrictions are now assured that the risen Jesus has peeled off those limitations. “Now you are Christ’s body,” the Apostle states, “and individually parts of it.”
Paul’s certainly not the only Christian author to bring up this liberating concept. More than 20 years after the Apostle’s death, Matthew has Jesus lay out his dream of an equal, all-inclusive community. Just check out chapter 23 to hear it: no titles, no privileged positions, no outward signs of importance or status.
Perhaps we who have been brought up with the idea that Jesus divided his followers into clergy and laity should be forced to listen to Jesus’ laws from “daybreak to midday.” Wouldn’t it be terrific if, one day, we also could honestly repeat Jesus’ words, “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing?” Many of us, formed by the experience and spirit of Vatican II, would be happy just to hear, “We’re working toward the day when this Scripture passage will be fulfilled in our hearing.”