January 24, 2015 10:30 AM
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community, Palm Springs, CA
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Nehemiah 8:2-4A;5-6;8-10 Psalm 19:8-10;15
1 Corinthians 12:12-14;27  Luke 1:1-4;4:14-21
       + In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
       One of the things the three Abrahamic faiths have in common is that we are peoples with books. The Jews have the Old Testament, Christians the new Testament, and Muslims the Quran. Every Sunday, we celebrate the Liturgy of the Word with four scripture readings, one from the Old Testament, one from the Book of Psalms, which is also part of the Old Testament, a second reading from the non-Gospel texts of the New Testament, and a Gospel Reading taken from Mark, Matthew, Luke, or John.
Today’s readings invite us to meditate on the importance of scripture in our worship, to remind us of what we are, and what we are to become, listening with our hearts, so that we may pass God’s word on to others in what we say and do as the Body of Christ as we exercise our varied gifts.
We received the tradition of reading scripture as part of worship from the Jewish people, our forbears in faith, who read from scripture as the major part of their worship. That was the tradition into which Jesus was born. The Jewish liturgy in those days opened with prayers, followed by a reading from the law, and then a reading from the prophets. Just as we have multiple scripture readers in our liturgy for the different readings, Jesus was taking his turn to read from the prophets. Today’s Gospel gives us a small window into the worship life of Jesus, which nearly all scholars how concluded is that of a devout religious Jewish man who prayed regularly and attended the synagogue at the appointed times.
       Today’s first reading presents the reading of the law as part of synagogue worship.  Doing so marks the people of the Old Testament as very law oriented. The To-rah, the first five books of the Bible established their written law. In addition, unwritten oral law developed as a tradition of applying the written law to concrete situations, much like appellate courts do today in formulating rules of law based on actual cases. That was known as the Pharasaic tradition. Believe it or not, Jesus was a Pharisee himself, speaking as a Pharisee to other Pharisees.  Much of His material concerning the To-rah echoed that of Rabbi Hillel, a prominent Pharisaic scholar who lived while Jesus was maturing. What Jesus sought to do, was to make the scriptures a living, breathing document, just as liberal judges do in interpreting the United States Constitution, in contrast to the conservatives, who think we should see the world as it was seen at the time the document was written and that the Constitution is thereafter forever set in stone until formally amended.
Conservative Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, see the scriptures as both facts and law. For them, what’s in the Bible is both factually true and provides a rigid set of rules for human behavior based on fear of divine punishment, in this world or the next. However, that’s not how Jesus read scripture, and today’s Gospel illustrates that. Jesus saw scripture as inspirational, a spiritual document to point the general directions where God intends our hearts to proceed. For Jesus, scripture was a jumping off point rather than a destination, where the journey of our relationship with God begins rather than where it ends. One cannot begin that journey if one sticks with a literal application of the Old Testament not read through the eyes of Jesus.
       So, why do people look to scripture as a book of rules? It fills a psychological need for a sense of finality and closure. Rules give people predictability for their lives, allowing them to feel secure knowing that if certain circumstances occur, certain results will follow. Those were the circumstances of the Jewish people who gathered to listen to Ezra read from the To-rah, the first five books of the Bible called the Pentateuch, which has over six-hundred commandments spread throughout its text. By way of historical context for the First Reading, the Jewish people had just been released from the ultimate in security, which was a seventy year captivity in Babylon, to where they had been forcibly deported. Life for them had been anything but secure and predictable. King Cyrus then conquered the Babylonians and allowed the Jewish people to return to their homeland, and when they got there, they rejoiced in the comfort from once again hearing God’s word proclaimed. This homecoming celebration had been foretold by the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Zechariah. What the prophets had predicted was now fulfilled. They rejoiced at the restoration of their traditions. The law of God was re-established, and everyone felt secure. Their status quo was back in place. They probably sang the ancient equivalent of, “Happy Days Are Here Again.”
       But the post-exilic restoration of Jerusalem was only part of the ongoing story. It did not forever restore the Jewish people to the land promised to them by God since the time of Abraham. The Persians reigned for about two hundred years until conquered by Alexander the Great, whose empire eventually gave way to the Egyptians, the Syrians, and ultimately to the Roman Empire, which set up the Herodians as puppet kings to maintain control over the Jewish people.  That was the context for the time at which Jesus appeared.
Jesus came as the Messiah, to bring freedom from that legacy of oppression, which like all oppression, was an ongoing domination by the rich and powerful over the poor and weak. The proclamation by Jesus of the words of Isaiah established Him as one who would change all that.  He saw himself as the fulfillment of what Isaiah had prophesized, one who would challenge the domination system and free people from it. By proclaiming this particular passage from Isaiah, Jesus established himself in the tradition of Moses who liberated the Jewish people from the Egyptians who held them as slaves. What Jesus read that day in the synagogue were the exact words Isaiah intended for him to speak. That day in the synagogue, he proclaimed Himself the Messiah. Jesus represented a new age linked with the past through the words of Trito, or Third, Isaiah.  Jesus was, therefore both a continuation and a beginning.
       The contrast between the former age of the Old Testament and the new age that came with Jesus, was that the Gospel replaced the law as the word of God. The Gospel became for  Christians what the law was for the Jews. While the Jews stood when the law was read, Christians stand for the presentation of the Gospel at Mass. In the Gospel, Jesus is made present and alive for Christians. The word of God was no longer written on stone tablets, but became incarnate in the person of Jesus among us, first in the flesh as a mortal, and remaining among us eternally is his resurrected presence. The Gospel is not just words. Jesus Himself is the Gospel.
       Last Monday, we celebrated the Feast of Dr. Martin Luther King, a martyr who died because he actualized the teachings of Jesus. Dr. King took the message of Jesus we heard in today’s Gospel reading into the streets and ran with it. But he was killed because he refused to acquiesce to the prevailing social system where Caucasians dominated people of color, just as Jesus refused to acquiesce to the domination systems of the Herodians and the Romans. Jesus and Martin Luther King got in the face of a prevailing domination system and demanded that it change.  Both Dr. King and Jesus sought to bring glad tidings to the poor, liberty to captives, and freedom to the oppressed. For both of them, that was what the Day of the Lord was all about, the time when everything will be made right. That is the revolution we celebrate when we hear the word of God and then receive Jesus as the Word Incarnate as we offer Mass as our mission as the Body of Christ.
       When one is in the business world, one hears much about “mission statements.” It seems that almost every company has one. According to Business Dictionary Dot Com, declaration of an organization’s core purpose and focus that normally remains unchanged over time. The Business Dictionary goes on to state that properly crafted mission statements serve as filters to separate what is important from what is not; they clearly state which markets will be served; and, they communicate a sense of intended direction to the entire organization.
Jesus’ proclamation from Isaiah in today’s Gospel reading was His mission statement, and it fit the Business Dictionary definition perfectly. It must become our “mission statement.”  For Christians, the poor and the oppressed are our priority, not the wealthy. They are the market the church is in business to serve. The Gospel is God’s mission for Christians. Our direction as a society must flow from the basic moral test of how our most vulnerable members are faring.  Christians have a moral obligation to see that basic human needs are met, which is the test of whether the economic system of a society is just. To get there, Jesus takes the side of those most in need, not that of Wall Street. As His followers, Jesus did not come to suggest we should allow more scraps to fall from our table in more generous giving to charities. Rather, Jesus challenges us to speak for the voiceless, to defend the defenseless, and to look at policies and social institutions according to how they impact the least among us. The more we strive to secure their real needs, the more effectively we love them, and that’s what Jesus wants us to do.  The present way our society is organized, with the one percent of the population controlling most of its wealth, does not seem to be able to get that done. Therefore, our mission as Christians is to change the system, to upset the applecart, to inaugurate a new reality like the one Jesus proclaimed in the synagogue.
Our lives must testify to the truth of the Gospel that God loves the world and the poorest within it. Father Gustavo Guttierez, a theologian and priest who spent much of his life working among the poor and oppressed people in South America, put it very well when he said that when Jesus proclaimed, “Blessed are the poor,” Jesus did not mean “blessed is poverty.” Poverty is never good, but an evil to be opposed. Very few people are poor because they are lazy or have made bad choices. More often than not, on a world-wide basis, poverty is due to structural injustices that privilege some while marginalizing others. Poverty is a complex reality that encompasses more than just lack of money. To be poor is to be insignificant, often leading to an early and unjust death. Imagine knowing you will die because you are too poor to pay for the healthcare that will keep you alive. I cannot imagine a more wretched form of torture, yet that is what this country imposes on people by making them personally responsible for paying for their own health care. A society that allows people to die because they are poor is a violent society, violent because it violates the dignity of the human person. Such a society is not a just society, because it punishes with death based on poverty, which more likely than not arose from economic and social structures than anything one does or fails to do.
The individualizing of responsibility for mere survival is often used to excuse people from taking care of others; I’m sure you have felt, on more than one occasion, something like, “I don’t have time for taking care of other people, because I am too busy taking care of myself.” With that attitude, we as Church cannot be the one Body of Christ into which we are all baptized as we become anesthetized to the suffering going on all around us. Even more tragic, the poor accept the lack of human dignity in their lives and no longer see themselves as sons and daughters of God. According to Father Guttierez, poverty is more than a lack of economic resources, but a way of thinking, and a way of life. Bringing good news to the poor, liberating people from oppression, is notan optional activity for those so inclined. Rather, it is “the law of the Lord,” the program for which all Christians were anointed at baptism as the mission of the Body of Christ.
The victory of King Cyrus over the Babylonians allowing the return of the exiles to Jerusalem, and the arrival of Jesus as Messiah, demonstrated that yes, God does intervene to relieve human suffering, and that’s worth celebrating.  Those events, however, are but two in a very long narrative of a journey towards the ultimate establishment of God’s Kingdom on earth, when and where those captivated in poverty and dominated by oppressors will partake in the reign of God’s justice. That is the essence of the end times, the day of the Lord for which we as Christians pray, the ultimate Christian hope. AMEN.