3rd Sunday after Epiphany

January 25, 2004
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
Reading 2: 
Psalm 19
Reading 3: 
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
Reading 4: 
Luke 4:14-21
By Ronald Farmer

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
This lection, an edited version of the longer passage Neh. 7:73b-8:18, is remarkable in several respects, four of which will be noted. In light of the fact that Ezra’s culture was steeped in patriarchy and hierarchy, one surprising aspect of the passage is the role of the laity and the presence of women and youth alongside men. The initiative for the reading of the Torah lay with the congregation, not the clergy (v. 1). The people wanted to hear “the book of the law of Moses, which the LORD had given to Israel.” Ezra, the scribe-priest, read the Torah “before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding” (v.2). The focus on the laity is also reflected in the choice of location for the reading: outside the sacred precinct of the Temple (accessible only to clergy) in a public square near the Water Gate, part of the newly rebuilt walls (see Nehemiah 1-7) on the east side of the city.

Second, the passage reflects the inescapable interrelatedness of tradition, scripture, and interpretation. Although there is no way to ascertain exactly what was read, most scholars think that Ezra read significant portions (the reading lasted around six hours) of something approximating the canonical version of the Pentateuch. As modern scholarship has demonstrated, the development of the Pentateuch was a complex process extending over many centuries. Oral and written traditions arose in particular communities and were reapplied to later communities; these units of traditions were edited, expanded, and combined, eventually culminating in the canonical form of the Pentateuch. As this passage clearly indicates, it was not sufficient that the Torah be read to the assembly. It had to be explained and applied so that the people understood (vv. 7-8; see also v. 13). Thus, canonical scripture is always “sandwiched” between two long trajectories of tradition—pre-canonical development, and post-canonical interpretation. Each sermon or church school lesson presupposes that scripture has “a growing edge.”

Third, the people’s response to hearing the Torah was twofold. Initially, they wept. Clearly the reading evoked a sense of guilt as they came to understand that they had failed to keep the Torah. Ezra, however, urged the people to stop weeping and instead to rejoice and celebrate, for that day, the first day of the seventh month (Tishri, September-October), was to be a holy day. Obediently, the people began to rejoice as was appropriate for Rosh Hashanah (v. 12). Their joyful obedience to the Torah continued in the subsequent observance of the Festival of Booths (vv. 12-18). Indeed, any genuine hearing of the Torah involves obedience.

The fourth aspect of the text for comment is the affirmation, “the joy of the LORD is your strength” (v. 10). The Hebrew actually permits two translations, as just stated or “the joy in the LORD is your strength.” Both translations yield wonderful meanings. The former means “God’s own joy in us is the source of our strength”; the latter translation refers to our joy in God as reflected in “dedication to God, commitment to God’s ways and to God’s Torah” (Ralph W. Klein, The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, in The New Interpreter’s Bible [Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999] 3:804).

Psalm 19
The structure of this beautiful and well known psalm is readily discernable: vv. 1-6, God’s glory revealed through the heavens, especially the sun; vv. 7-10, God’s glory revealed through the Torah; and vv. 11-14, a prayer for the ability to live a life pleasing to God.  Scholars speculate that vv. 7-14 were added by a later poet to counterbalance vv. 1-6, which as a unit resembles hymns to Canaanite deities. Whether or not that is the case, the two portions of the psalm reflect what later theologians came to refer to as general revelation and special revelation. Interestingly, “the thought of the psalm moves from the outer reaches of the natural world to the inner recesses of the human personality, the human heart” (John H. Hayes, in Craddock, Hayes, Holladay, and Tucker, Preaching through the Christian Year: C [Valley Forge, Penn: Trinity Press, 1994] 85).

A text frequently set to music by composers throughout the ages, vv. 1-6 express through timeless poetic images the glory and creative activity of God.  As personified members of a heavenly choir, the stars, moon, and sun unceasingly sing of God’s surpassing glory—day after day, night after night. No place on earth is devoid of this endless witness.

The careful parallelism of vv. 7-9 is as striking as it is instructive:

synonym for Torah
function of Torah
description of Torah
law
perfect
reviving the soul
sure
decrees
making wise the simple
right
precepts
rejoicing the heart
clear
commandment
enlightening the eyes
pure
fear
enduring forever

The desirability of the Torah is presented through two “more/than” statements:  more desirable than gold, the most precious of metals, and honey, the ancient world’s primary sweetener. Clearly, the poet conceived of Torah observance as a joy, not a burden. Unfortunately due to a misunderstanding of the Apostle Paul, many Christians have a very narrow and negative understanding of the term Torah, contrasting it with grace. The word does not so much denote “law,” in a legalistic sense, but rather “instructions” or “teachings,” which are manifestations of grace.

The Torah functions in two ways. First, it warns of detrimental behavior (v. 11a) by indicating the boundaries beyond which one should not go. Even with the Torah, however, one can make mistakes unintentionally (attempting to live a moral life is difficult, indeed!), so the poet asks for forgiveness for unintentional as well as intentional sins (vv. 12-13). Second, the Torah leads to the reward (consequence) of living a life pleasing to God (v. 11b). Such a life is characterized by experiencing the wonderful blessings set forth in vv. 7-9.

The psalm concludes (v. 14) with a prayer, frequently voiced by preachers as they step into the pulpit, that the poet’s articulated words and inner meditations might be pleasing to God.

1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
In last week’s epistle reading, Paul stressed the common source of the various spiritual gifts. In today’s reading, the focus is on the oneness of the body of Christ (the church), a oneness experienced in the midst of a rich diversity. The metaphor dominating the remainder of chapter 12 is the comparison between the human body, which is composed of many members of various types, and the body of Christ, which also is composed of many and diverse members. In both cases, the human body and the church, this unity-in-diversity, is the will and work of God (vv. 18, 24b, 28a).

The first illustration of unity in the midst of diversity occurs in v. 13 where Paul stated emphatically that all Christians—Jews and Greeks, free and slaves—were baptized in one Spirit and were all made to drink of that same Spirit. All ethnic and social differences are transcended in the one body of Christ.

Having stated and illustrated his focal teaching, Paul turned to the topic under discussion in chapters 12-14: spiritual gifts. To illustrate how foolish it would be for Christians endowed the less showy gifts to question their membership in the church, Paul likened such thinking to the humorous notion of a foot thinking it is not part of the body because it is not a hand, or an ear having the same doubts because it is not an eye (vv. 14-16). If the whole body were an eye, there could be no sense of hearing. And if the whole body were an ear, there could be no sense of smell. Fortunately, God orchestrated the body in such a way that there is a functional unity based on a rich diversity of members (vv. 17-18). The members need one another; indeed, those members that are least showy may be most necessary. In vv. 21-24, Paul illustrated this concept, again rather humorously, using the human body’s more showy members (eyes and head), less showy members (hands and feet), weaker members (internal organs?), and less presentable members (genitalia?). The point of this organic unity in the midst of rich diversity is clear: “that there be no dissension within the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it” (vv. 25-26).

Paul applied this extended metaphor to the church in vv. 27-31. God has appointed a rich diversity within the body of Christ. In this second representative listing of spiritual gifts, tongues and the interpretation of tongues again hold last place (compare 12:8-10). Moreover, the Greek grammar in vv. 29-30 reveals that Paul expected his readers to answer the questions, “No.” Just as there are no “non-gifted” Christians, so too there are no “every-member” gifts. Both situations would defeat the notion of unity in the midst of diversity.

Although Paul has stated repeatedly that God bestows spiritual gifts on the members of the church as God sees fit, v. 31 does suggest that one might desire (pray for?) additional gifts. But in doing so, Christians should heed Paul’s command to “strive for the greater gifts” rather than the most showy.

Luke 4:14-21
In the Gospel of Luke, the public ministry of Jesus begins with a programmatic story: Jesus’ preaching in Nazareth. By programmatic, I mean that this story sets forth the key themes that will unfold in the course of the Gospel narrative. The lectionary divides this crucial story into two readings, 4:14-21 and 4:21-30.

The opening paragraph (vv. 14-15) in today’s Gospel lection both provides a transition from the baptism and temptation stories to Jesus’ public ministry, and sets the context for appreciating the account of Jesus’ preaching in Nazareth. First, we learn that Jesus had returned to Galilee from Judea. Second, we encounter another example of the Lucan emphasis on the activity of the Holy Spirit (1:15, 35, 41, 67; 2:25, 26, 27, 40; 3:16, 22; 4:1). And third, we learn that Jesus had rapidly gained a reputation as an inspired teacher.

Upon returning to Nazareth Jesus quite naturally was asked to read. After all, he was a hometown boy with a growing reputation.  The passage provides the reader several glimpses into ancient synagogue worship. (1) An officer called the Hazzan had oversight of the sacred scrolls (vv. 17, 20). (2) Those leading in worship stood to read, and sat to preach or teach (vv. 16, 20). (3) Although the Torah reading followed a fixed three-year cycle, apparently in Jesus’ day there was still some reader discretion regarding the selection from the Prophets—at least that is the how most scholars interpret the words, “he . . . found the place where it is written” (v. 17). If this is the correct interpretation, then the selection of the reading is most significant.

The quotation in vv. 18-19 is a modified form of the Septuagint version of Isaiah 61:1-2 with an insertion from Isaiah 58:6. (Luke’s modifications are shown in italics.)

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor

[Luke omitted to bind up the brokenhearted.]

He has sent me to proclaim
release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free [58:6],
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Noteworthy is Jesus’ omission of the next line in 61:2, “and the day of vengeance of our God.” Sometimes what one does not say is as important as what one says. Does this omission reveal something about Jesus’ understanding of the nature of God?

As we have seen, this Gospel emphasizes the role of the Holy Spirit. Here the reference to Jesus’ baptismal anointing for his mission is obvious (3:21-22). And in contrast to the wilderness temptations to be the type Messiah the people expected (4:1-13), the four infinitive clauses of this quotation reveal the type Messiah he will be—he will preach good news to the poor, will proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, will set free those who are oppressed, and will proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord. As the Gospel unfolds, the author presents stories selected to demonstrate the fulfillment of this prophecy (hence, scholars see this story as programmatic for Luke).

Preachers and teachers may easily mine this passage for the wealth of possibilities contained therein. In an earlier article, I suggested the following approach.

Jesus proclaimed that his ministry would have economic and political impact as well as involve physical and spiritual healing. Any attempt to restrict the poor, the captives, the oppressed, and the blind to a “spiritualized” interpretation runs counter to the proclamation of “the acceptable year of the Lord,” an expression referring to the Jubilee Year described in Leviticus 25 and 27.

Every fiftieth year slaves were to be emancipated and land was to be returned to its original owner (family) without payment. Although there is no evidence that the Jubilee Year was frequently or faithfully observed—selfishness apparently prevailed—among the devout it became an important metaphor for the liberation God desired for the land and its inhabitants. Not surprisingly, Jubilee imagery attached itself to Jewish messianic expectation. That Jesus associated the Reign of God he came to announce/inaugurate with the Jubilee Year is clear. Yet equally clear from the Lucan presentation of Jesus’ ministry is that he did not call for the literal observance of the Levitical legislation.

What are process-informed readers to make of Jesus’ remarkable announcement? Certainly they would not call for the literal observance of the Jubilee Year; that would be even less appropriate today than it was in the first century. But rather than dismiss Jubilee Year imagery as irrelevant, process-informed interpreters would pay special attention to it precisely because it does not “fit” the contemporary world. By holding this foreign proposal for economic liberty in the unity of a contrast with familiar proposals from the contemporary world, interpreters might experience creative transformation; that is, they might experience the emergence of a novel proposal for economic justice capable of embracing many elements of the foreign and the familiar in a harmonious manner. How might this happen? Due to space constraints, one brief example must suffice.

Clearly the Jubilee Year was not in the (short-term) interest of the wealthy and the powerful. Such legislation amounted to a redistribution of wealth and the means to production in order to prevent a growing gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” Today that gap is widening at an alarming rate as more of the world’s wealth and resources fall into the hands of fewer people. One contemporary proposal that has the common good as its goal is the reduction or elimination of the staggering debt third-world nations owe. Even the wealthy and powerful would benefit from living in a more just and peaceful world.

One final note: An examination of how the earliest Christians appropriated Jesus’ announcement in their cultural context might prove instructive to present-day interpreters. Especially relevant is the Book of Acts, which is volume two of the literary unit Luke-Acts. Pertinent passages include 4:32-37, 6:1-7, 11:27-30, and 24:17. (Ronald L. Farmer, “More Than Band-Aids: Reflections on Luke 4:16-30” in Creative Transformation 10/3 [Summer 2001]: 11).

Not surprisingly, “the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on Jesus”(v. 20) when he sat down to teach. Because v. 21 is repeated in next Sunday’s lection, I will comment on its significance then.

Ronald L. Farmer served as  the Irvin C. and Edy Chapman Dean of the Wallace All Faiths Chapel Chair and Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Chapman University. In addition to numerous essays and articles in various books and journals, he is the author of Beyond the Impasse: The Promise of a Process Hermeneutic and Revelation in the series Chalice Commentaries for Today. He now resides in Ecuador with his wife.