God’s Word is important. God’s Word helps us know how we are called to live. Unfortunately, we don’t always listen. If we do hear it, we don’t always pay attention.
This was true for the Israelites. Through revelation, the Law, and the prophets, God had been telling them how to live well. Some listened. Many didn’t. In failing to listen and follow God’s Word, they fell into sin. God gives us free will. We don’t always make good choices. For their sin, God allowed the Israelites to be defeated by the Babylonians. Many were taken away in exile. The Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed.
It was not God’s will for the exile to last forever. God did not abandon his people even though they had turned away from him. God would bring the Exile to an end and return his people to Jerusalem. By the time of today’s first reading (Nehemiah 8:2-4a, 5-6, 8-10), the Exile was over and many of the Israelites had returned home.
The people then gather together for something special, the reading of the book of the law. It had been a long time since many, if not all of them, had shared God’s Word. This is a very special occasion. Ezra was “standing at one end” when “he read out of the book.” “The people listened attentively to the book of the law.” For the reading, Ezra “stood on a wooden platform that had been made for the occasion.” He stood “higher up than any of the people.” Then, after he read from the book of the law, Ezra interpreted it “so that all could understand what was read.“
Does any of this sound familiar?
What was the book of the law? It was the Word of God. Specifically, in this case, biblical scholars believe it was what the Jews call the Torah, the five books that begin the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy). This includes the law given by God through Moses.
What they did that day for the first time in a long time, we do every time we gather from Mass. We read from the Bible. The Bible is God’s Word, his revelation to us.
We are told that Ezra read the book, “standing at one end of the open place.” When God’s Word is read at Mass, it is not read from a dark corner. It is read from the front, at the head of the people. Just as Ezra stood on a wooden platform to read, when the Bible is read at Mass today, it is read from the ambo at the front on a higher place than the people. It is not read from a higher place to give honor to the person reading it. It is read from a higher place to signify its importance as God’s Word and so that all may hear it well.
After Ezra finished reading, he interpreted what had been read “so that all could understand what was read.” After God’s Word is read out loud at Mass what happens next? A homily is offered by the priest or deacon to help us understand what has been read to us.
What was the reaction of the Israelites to what they heard? We are told that “all the people were weeping as they heard the words of the law?” Why did they weep? Some may have wept in sadness for they realized they had not been living as they should. Perhaps some wept with tears of joy hearing what they had longed to hear for a long time.
Perhaps, as they listened to God’s Word, they realized that the Lord’s words “are spirit and life.” It refreshes the soul. God’s decree gives “wisdom to the simple.” It leads to “rejoicing in the hearts.” It enlightens us.
This reading by Ezra was the first time God’s Word had been read in a long time. It was not the last. It would become regular practice. This brings us to our gospel reading today. Jesus himself “went according to his custom into the synagogue on the sabbath day.” What happened there? He stood up and read from the prophet Isaiah. It was not merely Isaiah’s words that He read. It was God’s Word. Then, Jesus interpreted for the people what the passage meant when He said, “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” Next Sunday we will hear how the people responded to what Jesus read and said.
I said the words from the passage were not merely Isaiah’s words. All 73 books in the Bible were written down by human authors. It is written from their perspective but it is not merely their own words. It is the Word of God! Human authors wrote it down but they were inspired by God to do so. They were led by the Holy Spirit as they wrote.
We need to take God’s Word very seriously. Luke is the author of both the Gospel that bears his name and the Acts of the Apostles. Today’s gospel reading, begins with the very first four lines of Luke’s Gospel where Luke explains why he writes. He writes “to compile a narrative of the events.” What events? The events covering Jesus’ life and ministry from the moment of his conception until the moment of his ascension.
Luke speaks of the “eyewitnesses” to these events who handed them down to us. Luke takes his writing of the gospel very seriously. He says, “I too have decided, after investigating everything accurately anew, to write it down in an orderly sequence for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received.”
Luke addresses the introduction to Theophilus. “Theophilus” means “lover of God.” Do you love God? Do you attentively listen to God’s Word?
I mean truly listen. Do you listen with just your ears to God’s Word? When you read God’s Word, do you read it only with your eyes? Do you engage the Word with your mind? Do you allow yourself to listen with your heart and soul to God’s Word?
Beginning in 2020, Pope Francis declared that this Third Sunday in Ordinary Time be celebrated as the Sunday of the Word of God to remind us what the Word of God means.
What is your reaction to the Word of God?