Monday, January 18, 2016


This week’s Old Testament lesson offers us a glimpse of what must have been a profoundly moving occasion. After decades of exile in Babylon, the Israelites have returned to the Promised Land. Under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah, Jerusalem has been rebuilt, the ancient gates are functioning again, and the people gather in celebration at the Water Gate, itself a symbol of new life. Ezra reads aloud the books of the Law of Moses. It takes a whole morning, but these are the Laws that have made the Israelites the people they are, and to which they now re-dedicate themselves.
Jesus unrolls the Scriptures James J Tissot (1886)
So moved are they, the people weep. But Nehemiah bids them be joyful. The beautiful  words of Psalm 19 (prescribed for this Sunday) echo his sentiments. “The law of the LORD is perfect and revives the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure
and gives wisdom to the innocent; the statutes of the LORD are just and rejoice the heart”.
Both passages serve to underline the immense cultural and religious significance the Scriptures held for the Jews. We need a sense of this if we are to appreciate just how extraordinary the episode recounted in the Gospel is. Jesus reads the Scriptures in his local synagogue, to people who have known him all his life. Suddenly he announces, referring to himself it seems, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." It is little wonder that the people are stunned into silence, and then -- as next week’s continuation of the same passage shows – moved to anger and violence. The modern reader’s task over these two weeks is to read imaginatively, so that it becomes possible both to sympathize with them for their profound religious loyalty, and yet to understand how they went wrong in their rejection of Jesus.

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