Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
First Reading: Nehemiah 8:2-4a, 5-6, 8-10; Response: Ps 19:8,9,10,15; Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 12:12-30; Gospel: Luke 1:1-4, 4:14-21
The first reading is from the Book of Nehemiah. Even though a foreigner in the Persian kingdom, he had risen to the high position of Cupbearer to the king, at that time Artaxerxes I, 465-424 B.C.
The title may not sound important, but it implied that the bearer of this title was a confidant of the king — part of a king’s “Kitchen Cabinet.” From a relative he received information about the struggling Jewish community in Judea. This community had been restored about 540-538 B.C. by decree of Cyrus the Great, the King of Persia. Nehemiah became so concerned that he obtained permission from his king, circa 444 B.C., to go to Jerusalem as governor. He may, in fact, have been related to the royal dynasty founded by King David, that was out of power since the exile of Israel to Babylon in 587 B.C. In spite of opposition from enemies of the Jewish community in Jerusalem, he decided to rebuild the city walls with the help of devout Jews. The population of Jerusalem was so small that he ordered one out of 10 Jews to live in the city.
The temple had been rebuilt by the returned exiles and was dedicated in 516 B.C. The religious situation had declined to the point that the Jewish community in Persia prevailed upon the Persian king to also send a religious leader to Judea. The king appointed Ezra, “priest and scribe of the Torah (law) of the God of heaven” to go to Jerusalem with authority to spend funds from the royal treasury for support of the temple in Jerusalem. Our reading describes Ezra’s address to a grand assembly of the Jews in Jerusalem for a public reading of the Torah (Book of the Law). Ezra stood on a high place, unrolled the scroll, and began with a prayer. When he concluded, all shouted “Amen, Amen,” and bowed to the ground before the Lord. This was the people’s ratification of the Torah as the religious and civil constitution of the Jewish community of Judea. The day of the public reading of the Torah was proclaimed, “Holy to the Lord God.” After this liturgy, the people were sent home “to eat rich foods and drink sweet drinks.” The connection of this first reading of our liturgy with today’s gospel: as Ezra unrolled the scroll of the Torah and read it publicly, so Jesus in the gospel unrolls the scroll of Isaiah and reads from it publicly.
The Responsorial Psalm 19 picks up from the first reading the theme of honor given to the words of the Torah. “The law (Torah) of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul.” Typical of Hebrew poetry, the Psalmist repeats that thought in different words, “The decree of the Lord is trustworthy, giving wisdom to the simple.” The Psalmist is so overwhelmed by the words of the Torah that he continues, “The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart.” The people’s response fits the Psalmist’s enthusiasm, “Your words, Lord, are Spirit and life.”
The second reading continues last Sunday’s instruction from Paul to his Corinthian Christians. Last Sunday, we read his list of the various charisms (gifts of the Spirit) granted to individuals in the Church at Corinth. The call for unity among the addressees was implicit in Paul’s insistence that all the charisms are from one and the same Spirit, one and the same God. In today’s reading, the call for unity in that community is explicit in the comparison of the Christian community to the human body. All the parts of a body work together to make the body healthy, effective and productive. If some parts do not function in the role designed by nature, the body will be sick. So the corporate body of the Church of Corinth will be sick if all individuals do not engage in the functions of the gifts of the Spirit given to individuals for the good of the whole community. “Now you are the body of Christ,” says Paul, and to be a healthy Church they must work together.
The gospel reading comes in two parts. First is the Prologue (Preface) of Luke’s gospel. Luke dedicates his gospel to Theophilus, a convert of Greek origin. We may assume Theophilus was the wealthy sponsor of Luke’s project, which we call the Gospel of Luke and Acts of Apostles. Equipment for the kind of official catechetical document Luke was about to write was expensive — from vellum (sheepskin) to ink, plus financial support of the writer. Luke notes that “many attempted to narrate the events that have been fulfilled among us,” by eyewitnesses and ministers of the word. Thus, Luke himself is not an eyewitness, is in fact dependent on two previous generations of tradition. He is not satisfied with previous written narratives. Following his own research, he intends “to write an orderly sequence of events” concerning Jesus and the Christian movement so that Theophilus may be certain of the teachings in which he was instructed. What written sources did Luke have with which he was not satisfied? We know of two: the Gospel of Mark and a collection of mostly sayings of Jesus referred to in biblical studies as “the Q Source.” The Q stands for the German word Quelle translated into English as Source.
The second part of the reading switches to chapter four. Jesus visits Nazareth, where he grew up and had worked as a carpenter. It was a Sabbath. Like all devout Jews, Jesus went to synagogue. If a man wished to do a Scripture reading and comment on the reading, he would stand up. Jesus stood. He accepted the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the passage he wanted to explain. He read, rolled up the scroll, gave it to an attendant and sat down. What had he read? Isaiah 61:1-2. Originally, this passage described God’s authorization of a prophet about 520-515 B.C., followed by his mission to bring good news to the poor, liberty to captives, sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed, and to proclaim a Year of Jubilee. Though the Year of Jubilee has a long history, by the time of Jesus and in context of Luke’s gospel, it probably means a religious restoration, a spiritual renewal. Luke loves drama, and so writes, “All eyes were fixed on him.” Jesus began, “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” What happened next? Luke notes that all were astonished at Jesus’ gracious words. What did he say that suddenly turned the synagogue crowd into violence against him? The rest of the story: next Sunday’s gospel!