Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Nehemiah 8:2-4a, 5-6, 8-10 | 1 Corinthians 12:12-30 | Luke 1:1-4; 4:14-21
Almighty, everliving God, direct our actions according to your good pleasure that in the name of your Beloved Son we may abound in good works. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever, amen.
St. Luke gives us a very interesting, clear picture of why we give such reverence to the gospels, particularly the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, because I think the intention that you hear in Luke, in this gospel, where it’s saying, “I want to put together, in a sequence that makes sense, a chronological sequence of the teachings of Jesus and how he revealed it over time so that you can really get a sense of what’s authentic in his teaching, what’s really there.” So after the council in the ‘60s, we took those words, in a way, to heart, and instead of just reading mostly from Matthew, as it was for centuries before that, we now read the full cycle. The first cycle is all of Matthew. The second one is all of Mark, and then the third cycle, that we’re in now, is all of Luke. And each one is different. Each one is a slightly different perspective.
And you know that Luke was a doctor, so it kind of makes sense. The image that he uses for the church is that of the body parts, something he’d be familiar with, but what is this part of the story? We’d heard already that he performed a miracle that was out of the sequence of time that he expected, but what he was saying through that miracle of changing water into wine is that there’s something new. Something new has come. It’s as different as water is from wine, and the wine is a symbol of the blood of Jesus that would ultimately be poured out for us so that it’s all about forgiveness. So right away it seems, as the stories are being put together by Luke, he knew this great teaching. Jesus opened our minds and our hearts to a dimension of God that was, in a sense, hidden in the Old Testament. It wasn’t yet revealed. It wasn’t that it wasn’t there in God. It was just that it wasn’t time yet to reveal it. What he’s revealing is an amazing disposition on the part of God, and that is his patience, his understanding, his compassion for those of us who break the law. His only response, he said, “That I’ve always had but haven’t been able to express it fully is I forgive you. I will not let your sins separate me from you, nor should it separate you from me.” One of the most devastating things about sins is not only that it’s something that is negative and affects the sinner and the one that’s sinned against, but it’s also something that tends to lead to separation, isolation. “I’m not who I should be. I’m ashamed. I’m not part of the body.”
So let’s go back to the first reading and see how this all fits into what I believe the church now, trying to amplify what’s in the gospel by choosing the other two readings, is trying to point out. So we start with Ezra, and Ezra is trying to explain to the people the beauty and the importance of the law. These are the laws that would tell people how they were supposed to act, so it rules their actions, and so when he’s describing this, the setting is pretty amazing. Ezra, the priest, is up high above in a position of authority. The people are laying flat on the ground, which is a symbol of humility, even the symbol of having to die to yourself in order to really follow the spirit of the law, but there they are, lying on the floor, on the ground. And as they listen to all the things they’re supposed to do, instead of saying, “Yeah, I’ll do that. I’ll do that. That’s great as long as I know I can do it,” no, I think they were very much aware of their limitation to follow the law. And so they’re just weeping, and one of the things that could make them sad is not just that they’re not going to be able to accomplish this, but also they knew that, if they didn’t accomplish it, they’d be excluded, separated from the community. Nothing is clearer in the Old Testament than that’s what’s happened with the law. The law, instead of being a very effective tool and getting everybody to do what they’re told, which somehow is not really the way to work with people, telling them what they must do, because when you tell them what to do and then you give them a law, the law can only do two things. It can tell the person that they’re not guilty. They didn’t do anything wrong. The law protects the innocent, but it can only condemn the guilty. That’s all it can do. Along with condemning the guilty, if you understand the way they thought about sin in the Old Testament, the way we still think about it in a certain way inside of us, when we sin, we’re not worthy of being a part of the community. And the community judges us and excludes us. In fact, it’s interesting. One of the symbols of sin in the Old Testament, the effect of breaking the law, I should say the affect of breaking the law, it would be simply this, you would be a leper, and a leper is someone who is contagious and will always be separated from the community, because they thought they were bad. That is a contagious disease, but it’s also a disease that distorts what you look like. It’s a very strange disease. If you have it, it will change your face so much that you’re not even recognizable as who you are. It’s like it destroys your identity, who you really are, perfect image of the way the law treats the sinner. So that’s the Old Testament.
Now, here is Jesus. He comes in to change that, and he said, “I’m not going to get rid of the law,” but one of the things that’s so clear, that shocked everybody, is his seemingly disregard for the rules and the laws. But that was just an effect of the thing that he was really doing. He was saying something about the law that we had to understand, and what he’s saying is there’s two ways to deal with the law. One is the letter of the law, and the other is the spirit of the law. And so he comes, and he says right away, in his hometown — he’s there, and he describes himself. “I’ve walked into this town, and what I’m filled with is the Spirit. I’m the anointed one, the Christ.” And what he’s saying is the Christ is the one who’s come to open your eyes, to free you from that which imprisons you and to take a burden off of you. So here’s the spirit of the law, the truth behind the law, the true reason for the law being reimagined by Jesus, and it was probably the one thing that was most difficult for people to grasp, because their whole society had been build on the law being the requirement to be a part of society. Society and church were the same thing practically, and so one of the things that’s really interesting about that is, when you look at the way in which laws operate, when they’re dealing just with your actions — and as I said, they can only judge your actions if you’re guilty, and if you’re guilty, you’re condemned. But what’s so interesting about that condemnation is you’re considered to be automatically less than everyone else. It had gotten so incredibly crazy in the Old Testament that anyone then who had a disease or was in trouble or was poor or didn’t have any kind of seemingly blessed life, they were definitely cut out of the community, but it was so intense the cutting out that no one in the community was ever encouraged to talk to the people that were out of the community to convert them or change them. They were just to stay away from them, because they were contagious. They would ruin the integrity of the community.
Think of that. It’s so frightening to me when you think of how that still lingers in us. When someone fails, when someone doesn’t do what they’re called to do, they’re automatically considered as less than, and we’re talking about an action they’re doing, not necessarily their intention. Sometimes their intention is way off, but there are so many people with an intention to do good that do wrong, and yet we treat them as if they are their intention. That’s another thing about the law. It can’t do anything other than expose it and condemn it. So Jesus brings the Spirit, and what does it do? It heals. It opens our eyes to see something that frees us from the prison of self-hate, self-distrust and the community’s hatred and distrust of us and lifts an enormous burden off our backs. “I’ve come to free those who are imprisoned, to open their eyes, to lift a burden off them.” The burden is the law, but the burden of the law is not in the nature of the law itself, but it’s in the way they used it, not as a motive to do what was right. Well, they did use it for that, but then a big shadow of that was they also used it as a way of excluding people and cutting them out. You say, “Well, how unfair.” Well then, look inside yourself, because what I think is so fascinating is the way we treat others is the way we treat ourselves. And if that image lingers in us, that when we sin, when we do something wrong, there’s something wrong with us, if we make that same problem the law makes as saying, “You are your actions,” then you’re going to feel something that automatically tends to give you a sense of separation.
Then you look at the beautiful image of the doctor who’s talking about every part of the body is essential, but the thing he didn’t say, that maybe he didn’t even realize it then, because we know it now in medicine, the body has an amazing capacity to heal itself. So if something’s bad in your body and immediately you cut it out with medication that masks its effects or you operate and take it out, that may be necessary in some way, but it’s not the plan of God. The way that beautiful metaphor is used, the body has the ability to heal the sinner. You, your essence has the ability to heal that in you that you feel makes you so less capable of being a part of what God wants. What a gift, to be freed from rejection, from judgment, and I guarantee you, whenever you’re feeling it working in your life against something that you feel you can’t get past or some dark secret you have, that if anybody knew it, they would hate you, until you get rid of that, you can never welcome your brother and sister back into the community.
Father, you know us so well, and your patience is beyond our wildest dreams. Somehow institutions and people that speak for you are not always as generous as you are, and so help us to hear your voice always over all other voices, your truth. And your truth is sin is not the obstacle we have made it into. It is simply part of the process that we go through in order to truly grow and become all that you call us to be. So fill us with your Spirit, your mind, your heart, most especially as we deal with our own failings and our own faults so that we might deal with others in a way that truly brings life for all of us. And we ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.