THE PURPOSE OF THE WORDS OF THE LAW: HOMILY FOR THE 3RD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME OF THE YEAR C. Rev. Fr. Boniface Nkem Anusiem PhD.

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We are living in a world that is governed by laws. There is hardly any aspect of life that does not operate according to some stipulated paradigms. These paradigms in turn provide the platform for functionality. A law can be seen as a system of rules and guidelines that are recognized as regulating the actions and operations of the entity to which it is enforced. Laws are essential in life for right ordering of persons and things. We actually cannot function without laws; they could be human, divinely instituted or natural laws.

Laws are not ends themselves but possible means to some desirable ends. For instance the law prohibiting drivers from taking alcohol is not meant to merely stop road users from the pleasure of liquor, but to safeguard them from accident as a result of possible intoxication. People generally detest laws and often see them as burdensome and destructive of freedom to do whatever they want but not realizing that there cannot be true freedom without laws.  Without laws actually there will be a harvest of chaos, confusion and utter anarchy. Imagine if there were neither traffic lights nor traffic wardens in big cities like Manhattan in New York, Toronto in Canada, London in UK, Dubai in UAE, Cairo in Egypt, Abuja in Nigeria etc. The resultant traffic malaise in these and similar places will be catastrophic. Imagine if the sun refuses to shine, imagine if the moon and the stars reconsider their natural operations!

Today in the first reading, we are presented with the reading of the Words of the Law to the Israelites who had just returned from exile. In the gospel reading on the other hand, our Lord Jesus Christ read from the scroll, the oracle of the prophet Isaiah. In the second reading St. Paul  seems to speak to the two communities gathered to hear the word of God from the book of the Law and the prophet in the first reading and the gospel respectively to maintain unity in their respective diversities and talents.

Beginning with the first reading, we are told that Ezra who was serving as a priest and scribe to Nehemiah the prophet at the time brought the book of the law before the assembly of the people consisting of men and women and those who could hear with understanding and read to them from morning till midday standing on a wooden pulpit raised above the people. The content of the book of the law was so powerful that the people were touched as they made gestures of acceptance, raising their hands in worship to God and weeping bitterly.

From the narrative above we discover that Ezra brought the book of the law but from where? The answer is that the book of the law had been abandoned by the people it has been with them though unbeknownst to them. Furthermore abandoning the book of the law which contains divine instructions meant abandoning God. In fact the remote cause of the people’s exilic experience was the abandonment of God and the choice of other gods (Amos 5:27). To this, the psalmist would say “those who choose other gods increase their sorrows (Ps 16:4). No doubt the exile was sorrow multiplied for the people of Israel. In exile the people were disconnected from the words of the law, in exile the people lost connection with God and all that pertains to Him; they were simply unconscious of God and His laws. Coming back from exile was not enough they needed to come back to God and to do this Ezra read the book of the law to their hearing.

The reading of the words of the law took place on a wooden pulpit that stood above the people. This is an indication of the supremacy of the Words of the Law which came from above. We remember that Moses got the law from God from the heights of Mount Sinai (Exodus 20). The Word came down from above to dwell among us (Jn. 1:14). Furthermore the wooden pulpit here prefigures the wooden cross on which the Word made flesh died for the salvation of not only the Israelites but the whole world. Hence our Lord Jesus would say “When I am lifted up from the earth (onto the cross) I will draw all men to myself” (John 12:32).

The book of the law was also read to men and women and all who could hear with understanding. There is a difference between hearing and understanding. From the narrative we are told that the people were attentive to what was read and so they understood and were consequently moved to worship and transformation. If we pay attention to the word of God not only hearing through our ears, but understanding with our hearts our lives will be ultimately transformed. Then the word of God would have accomplished the task of cutting through us like a double edge sword (Heb.4:12) and it would thus not return without accomplishing its work (Isaiah 55:11). The challenge here is for us to pay attention the law and allow the word of God to accomplish great things in our lives. As we were told, the words of the law moved the people to appreciation, worship and repentance. Their eyes were opened, they experienced a new lease of life, and they were transformed. You cannot encounter the word of God and remain the same because His name and His Words are above all things (Psalm 138:2). The Words of the Law on that day created not only a transformed and penitent community, but also a celebrating community. The word of God does the function of not only flogging us, it also consoles us, it lashes us and loves us. Hence after the ceremony of crying, Nehemiah called them to a ceremony of celebration as the joy of the lord is their strength.

The opening of the gospel periscope tells us about one Theophilus to whom the account of the life of Jesus was addressed. It will be useless searching to know who this Theophilus was. The name means God’s lover or Lover of God. Hence Theophilus here represents all those who love God. It represents all of us who through baptism became children of God. The next phase of the narrative tells us about the beginning of the ministry of Jesus Christ after the desert experience of fasting, prayers and temptations. He began his public ministry at his home town Nazareth. He was very much like a newly ordained priest going to his home town to celebrate his first mass.  Jesus left home as the son of Joseph the carpenter but now he comes home as the son of God the messiah. He left home as a carpenter of woods but now he arrives as a carpenter of souls. He left home alone and came back with a lot of followers. This sudden change could have been amazing to his townspeople and entering the Synagogue on the Sabbath day they did not hesitate to give him the scroll when he came to read.

Jesus mounted the pulpit, very much like Ezra did in the first reading, and opening a portion from prophecy of Isaiah (61:1-2) he read the oracle which says:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, he has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.

We see in this, the moving power of God’s spirit on Jesus Christ. In fact all the messianic actions came through the power of God’s Spirit. The same Holy Spirit that has been in action from the time Mary got the news that she would be the mother of the Saviour (Luke 1:35) and the time she visited Elizabeth (Luke 1:41), continued to manifest not only at the baptism of the Lord and the time he entered into the desert to pray but also upon his coming to Nazareth to inaugurate his public ministry. We see in the passage what we may see as the messianic manifesto. Any worthwhile government upon taking up its mandate announces its manifesto which contains what it would do for the people. Hence at the beginning of his ministry Jesus announced the action plan of his mission on earth:

  • To announce the good news to the poor: The poor here refers to those who are in dire need of divine sustenance, those who are deficient of divine connection. The poor here refers to those whose spirits are yearning for God.  Jesus Christ would say that they are blessed who are poor in spirit (Matt 5:3).
  • To proclaim release to captives: Reflective of the Babylonian captivity, the captives are those who have been taken away from their homeland. The captives here refer to those living outside divine coverage, those who have been snatched away from God by sin. There is a mental picture of those who made up the assembly that Ezra addressed in the first reading.
  • Recovery of sight to the blind: Blindness is a great challenge physically. There is also another sense wherein someone can be considered to be blind spiritually. This is the sense our Lord was referring to in his manifesto. Like the assembly in the first reading they were suffering from spiritual blindness and the words of the law helped to open their spiritual sight to see clearly and thus appreciate God.
  • To set at liberty those who are oppressed: Oppression is one of the misfortunes of being in captivity. Oppressive situations are borne out of disconnection from God. The exilic experience of the people of Israel describes this situation very well. Hence with the liberating power of Christ the oppression and oppressors would become tales.

 

  • To announce the acceptable year of the Lord: In a sense this refers to the Jubilee year which also announces freedom for salves and debtors (Leviticus 25). With this announcement Jesus indicates that he would grant freedom to all the salves (of sin) and all those in debt (to God). The coming of Christ becomes then a special jubilee, a favourable time, the acceptable year of the Lord for the liberation of humanity.

      At this juncture, we come back to examine the purpose of the Words of the Law. As we pointed out earlier in this reflection, any worthwhile law functions in bringing about right ordering in any context it is applied. God’s law goes beyond right ordering to effect in us salutary values  that are beyond right ordering. The responsorial psalm tells us the purpose of the Words of the Law:

  • To revive our souls.
  • To give wisdom to the simple.
  • To gladden our hearts.
  • To give light to our eyes.
  • To bring about truth and justice.

 

The reading of the book and Jesus’ declaration of his Messianic manifesto are coming to us at the beginning of the calendar year as well as at the beginning of a new “Liturgical Semester” to help us build formidable structures as we progress within the year. We are called upon to make personal the messianic action plan of our Lord. For instance I can put myself in the position of the poor, the captive, the prisoner and one who needs divine liberation. It is only by assuming such positions that the work of the messiah will be effective in my life and in your life.

Have an awesomely blessed Sunday and a rewarding week ahead!

Fr. Bonnie.

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