This week, there are two stories about people reading God’s Word – and about the importance of words for who we are, and how we are to live. Reminding ourselves of the importance of words is especially important in our social media age, where we write words rapidly, sloppily, and frequently. Our culture is prone, I think, to devaluing the impact of words.
Yet words do matter. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” is maybe a cry of a bullied child hoping to make hurtful words disappear, yet in fact we know that words can and do hurt and – try as we might – words are never mere words, and often do not disappear at all!
J.L Austin’s 1962 book How to Do Things With Words continues to be a much-quoted book, full of ideas worth reading and considering, no matter whether we’re pastors or theologians or lay people. Austin reminds his readers that words do real things. Saying marriage vows might be an example – a time when saying particular words enact a marriage covenant that had not existed before. Reality has changed for the couple, as well as the surrounding community, and all because of words spoken.
If we want to see evidence of the fact that words are not “mere words” we have only to look at this week’s first reading from Nehemiah, where we see the priest Ezra reading scripture to an attentive crowd. We need to know that in Ezra’s day, the people have experienced a lengthy exile in Babylon, and have only returned recently from exile in Babylon; here is a communal opportunity to gather in a way that they have not been able to do for a very long time. Reading scripture – speaking the words of the Torah – become the occasion for being the People of God. Note how joyful it is for the people to hear the laws of God, to speak the Torah, to listen to these words!
So many of our Christian communities are used to thinking of the laws in the Old Testament as drudgery, but if we think that, we miss the point here. The people here respond to Ezra’s spoken words with purpose and celebration; the festival described here is still celebrated in Jewish communities as the Festival of Booths. The people find in those words a sense of purpose and calling! Just as the marriage vows name a new relationship and reality, Nehemiah’s words name God’s new (or maybe renewed) relationship with God’s people there gathered.
Nehemiah foregrounds today’s gospel reading, where we see Jesus mirroring Nehemiah’s action by reading scripture in the synagogue. The passage he reads is from Isaiah 61: 1-2. Scripture scholars have suggested that this text from Isaiah was proclaimed during the Babylonian exile – a time when the temple and the city of Jerusalem were in ruins, when the people with political and economic clout were sent to Babylon. Perhaps the people in Jesus’ day identify with the Babylonian exile, for in first century Palestine, they were ruled by Romans. Just as Ezra, above, responded to the exile of Babylon by reading scripture, Jesus responds to the plight of the people by reading Isaiah, a passage where God names that someone will be present among them to preach good news to the poor.
Just as in the first reading, there is a response to God’s Word. But here, it is Jesus himself who responds, naming himself as the person who is the very fulfillment of God’s Word. As the fulfillment of God’s Word, Jesus calls us back to God, seeks to restore us to relationship with God.
What will our response to Jesus’ words – indeed, to the “Word made flesh” – be? Like Nehemiah’s community, and like the hearers at the synagogue, we are invited to treat Jesus’ words as an invitation to a new relationship and a new reality. Here is a reality of lifting up the poor, releasing captives, proclaiming God’s acceptable year.
God’s reality as proclaimed in today’s gospel, is a reality that we, in the Ekklesia Project, seek to live in all our communities. Let this week’s scriptures be for us what reading God’s Word was for the people in Nehemiah’s time: a cause for purpose and celebration, a reason to remember who we are and why we seek to be friends with each other!
For communities that celebrate the sacraments each week, I want to add this brief reflection on the liturgical words we use in Christian sacraments of Eucharist and baptism: Our prayers do things in relation to the elements of water, bread, and wine. Sacramental elements become means of grace for us. More than that, in the Sacraments, we receive the gifts of God so that we can become more fully who God has called us to be: joyful, celebrating, servants of the Lord. Let us be who we are called to be!