The Gospel for this Sunday is continued next week, so I will postpone its analysis until then. Instead, I will focus on the first reading, which is from Nehemiah chapter 8. It is a wonderful meditation on the glory and wonder of the Word of God, and it deserves our attention.
The background of the text is that in 587 B.C., Israel had been conquered by the Babylonians and the survivors of the war led into exile in Babylon. After 80 years, the Persians conquered the Babylonians. Cyrus, the king of Persia, permitted the Jews to return to the Promised Land. Sadly, only a small number chose to return and rebuild the ruined land and city. Among them was Nehemiah, a Jew and a royal official, who led the small band back and oversaw the rebuilding of Jerusalem.
Along with Ezra the priest, Nehemiah led a spiritual renewal that was spurred on not only by the purification of exile but by the rediscovery of certain lost or forgotten sacred books. On one occasion the people gathered to hear the proclamation of one of the lost books. That is where we pick up today’s reading.
HUNGER for the Word of God – The text says, And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate; and they told Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the Law of Moses which the LORD had given to Israel.
Note that the people are hungry for the Word of God. They have gathered together and now make the unified request (as one man) that the Book of the Law be brought and proclaimed to them.
The book that is likely referred to here is the Book of Deuteronomy. It would seem that the book had either been lost or at least severely neglected in the preaching of the time prior to the Babylonian exile of Israel. Deuteronomy contained not only a development of the Law but also a list of blessings for following it and grave warnings for not doing so. After the painful experience of exile, the people gathered are painfully aware that had they heeded Deuteronomy, they could have avoided the terrible events of the Babylonian conquest and the captivity of Israel.
Chastised and sober, they are hungry for this Word from God. As the Book of Psalms says, Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word (Psalm 119:67).
Are you hungry for the Word of God? More so than for money? More so than for bodily food? Scripture says,
- The ordinances of the LORD are true, and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb (Psalm 19:19).
- Man does not live by bread alone, but that man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the LORD (Deut 8:3).
- I have esteemed the words of his mouth more than my necessary food (Job 23:12).
- I rejoice at thy word like one who finds great spoil (Psalm 119:162).
Are we hungry for the Word like this? It seems that we won’t miss a meal for our bodies, but we’ll go days without the Word. Obesity is widespread in our culture, but our souls too easily languish because we are starved for the Word of God and the Sacrament of Holy Communion.
Are you hungry for His Word? An old song says, “More about Jesus in his word, holding communion with my Lord, hearing his voice in every line, making each faithful saying mine. More, more about Jesus, more of his saving fullness, see more of his love who died for me.”
HEARING of the Word of God – The text says, And Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding, on the first day of the seventh month. And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law. And Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden pulpit which they had made for the purpose.
Notice these two things:
ASSEMBLY – There is a communal dimension to the celebration of God’s Word here. It’s not just a private celebration or reading. While it is easy today to read the Scriptures alone, we should not neglect to gather with the Church and be taught the Word of God by others—especially the clergy—who are trained and anointed unto this task. Scripture says, And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near (Heb 10:24). Too many people think that all they need is the Bible, but notice that the proclamation of the Word is communal here.
AMOUNT of time – The text says that the proclamation and explanation of this Word took place from “morning to mid-day.” This is no seven-minute sermon; it is an extended time spent studying, praying, and hearing the Word of God. Many today consider a Mass that runs longer than 45 minutes to be counterproductive. It’s funny how excited we get when a three-hour football game goes into overtime, but then we complain when a sermon lasts longer than “regulation” time. We find so much time for other things and our attention span for them is long, yet we have so little time for the Word of God, and we are so impatient for the reflection to be over sooner. Yes, we find time for everything else. You can blame the preacher—and we may deserve it—but there’s usually more to the picture than just the preacher.
HONOR for the Word of God – The text says, And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people; and when he opened it all the people stood. And Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God; and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands; and they bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground.
Note the remarkable honor given to the Word through active listening. While many people today (especially more traditional Catholics) see silent and passive listening as the proper, pious, and respectful demeanor during the readings and homily, this is not the cultural setting described in this passage. Neither is a quiet demeanor the ubiquitous norm in the Church today. It is not a question of which is right and which is wrong but of whether or not the Word of God is being honored.
The listeners that morning some 2,500 years ago stood and said “Amen, Amen!” They lifted up their hands and even prostrated themselves on the ground while the Word was read. They were engaged in active listening, giving the Word their undivided attention and interacting with its sounds as it resonated within them. This is attentive listening, reflective and responsive; it is hearing with thoughtful attention.
Different cultures express attentiveness in different ways, but you can tell a lot by looking at people’s faces. Even in cultures in which people exhibit prayerful silence during Mass, these same people get excited at sporting events, even jumping to their feet. Excitement and exuberant joy are not unknown in cultures in which religious reserve is the norm. One would hope to rule out that such reservation indicates boredom. Those who are more reserved don’t want to come off as sour-faced saints, bored believers, distracted disciples, or cold Christians. Reverence can be expressed prayerful and attentive silence, but we want to be sure it is not simply the face of the “frozen chosen.”
Those who are more demonstrative want to be sure those outpourings are not formulaic recitations of “Amen” or a sort of egocentric, theatrical acting. One shouldn’t just seek to get everyone in the pew “pumped up.” The “Amen corner,” where it exists, should be sincere.
The key point is to honor the Word of God, whether by reverent silence or exuberant response; in no way should the Word of God leave one bored and unmoved.
HELP unto the Word of God – The text says, The Levites also, helped the people to understand the law, while the people remained in their places. And they read from the book, from the law of God, clearly; and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.
The Word is not alone; it is explained and interpreted. We need the Church in order to properly understand the Word of God, to have it authentically interpreted. While devotional reading is to be encouraged, the Word of God is not meant to be read apart from the Church. As the Protestant experiment has shown, attempting to have the Scriptures without the Church and the Magisterium brings disastrous, never-ending division. This truth is expressed well in the story about the Ethiopian official: So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I, unless some one guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him (Acts 8:30).
The authoritative preachers of God’s Word—the bishops, priests, and deacons—have the task to read, analyze, organize, illustrate, and apply the Word of God in the liturgical setting. In the task of proclaiming the Word of God, there is a need beyond that for authoritative teachers; there is also the need for the pastoral assistance of others. In my own community there are excellent lectors who often read the Word with such power and inflection that I hear it as I have never heard it before. Further, I have a wonderful choir that often sings hymns and passages rooted in the Scripture such that I come to know them as never before. It’s really pressed to my heart. My congregation, too, by its lively response to the proclaimed Word and the preaching, brings forth insight and makes the Word of God an experienced reality.
HEARTFELT reaction to the Word of God – The text says, And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to him for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” So the Levites stilled all the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.”
They are moved to tears by what is proclaimed. They weep because they realize what their stubbornness has brought about: disaster, decline, and exile. Had they but heeded God’s Law, this terrible period of Israel’s history could have been avoided.
True listening to the Word of God should bring forth a response. The desired outcome of preaching the Word is to elicit a response. The purpose of the Word of God is not only to inform but to transform. It might make you mad, or sad, or glad, but if you are really listening to the authentic Word of God, you cannot be unmoved. Scripture says,
For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are open and laid bare to the eyes of him with whom we have to do (Heb 4:12).
HEEDING of the Word of God – Nehemiah chapter 8 continues beyond the passage in the lectionary today. It goes on to say, On the second day the heads of fathers’ houses of all the people, with the priests and the Levites, came together to Ezra the scribe in order to study the words of the law. And they found it written in the law that the LORD had commanded by Moses that the people of Israel should dwell in booths during the feast of the seventh month, and that they should publish and proclaim in all their towns and in Jerusalem, “Go out to the hills and bring branches of olive, wild olive, myrtle, palm, and other leafy trees to make booths, as it is written.” So the people went out and brought them and made booths for themselves, each on his roof, and in their courts and in the courts of the house of God, and in the square at the Water Gate and in the square at the Gate of Ephraim. And all the assembly of those who had returned from the captivity made booths and dwelt in the booths; for from the days of Jeshua the son of Nun to that day the people of Israel had not done so. And there was very great rejoicing. And day by day, from the first day to the last day, he read from the book of the law of God. They kept the feast seven days; and on the eighth day there was a solemn assembly, according to the ordinance.
Among the things they discovered was that Israel had not been celebrating an important and appointed feast day: the Feast of Tabernacles (or Booths). This feast, while a harvest festival, was also a celebration that acknowledged the gift of the Law on Mt. Sinai. It is quite symbolic that they had stopped celebrating this particular feast. The leaders, having studied the Word of God, reestablished it and commanded the people to observe it carefully. This illustrates heeding the Word of God.
Notice all the respect we’ve seen for the Word of God: they hungered for it, heard it, honored it, helped in its proclamation, and had a heartfelt reaction to it. The real honor, though, is given when they heed it. There’s a lot of “lip service” paid to the Word of God, a lot of empty praise; some even shout “Amen” at Mass. The real acid test is whether we heed the Word. An old spiritual says, “Some go to Church for to sing and shout. Before six months they’s all turned out.” Another says, “Some seek God don’t seek him right, they fool all day and pray at night.”
We are warned of the danger of failing to heed:
- And every one that hears these sayings of mine, and does them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, who built his house upon the sand: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it (Mat 7:26).
- And that servant who knew his master’s will but did not make ready or act according to his will shall receive a severe beating. But he who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, shall receive a light beating. Everyone to whom much is given, of him will much be required; and of him to whom men commit much they will demand the more (Luke 12:47).
- An hour is coming, has indeed come, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who have heeded it shall live (John 5:25).
There is wonder in the Word of God, but only if we heed it.
Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: On the Wonder of the Word of God