“Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Today’s liturgy puts before us two readings from Scripture. The first is from the prophet Nehemiah who tells us of the return of the Jews from their exile in Babylon. They return to find Jerusalem a heap of ruins. Of the many who went into exile, many had switched faith so that only a few returned. And these few, many of whom would never have seen Jerusalem, were tasked with rebuilding the city — we who are live in the aftermath of bushfire devastation know just how hard it is to rebuild. Today’s first reading describes what the exiles did having completed the rebuild of the city’s walls and Temple. In a six hour homily, which went on until the ‘people understood’ (Nehemiah 8:8) (there’s hope for me yet!) and consisting mainly in the reading of the Book of the Law, Ezra the priest reminds the assembled people of who they are. We are told the ‘people wept as they heard the words of the Law.’ (Nehemiah 8:9) These people as they hear the stories of their tradition — the Exodus, God’s care of them in their journey across the desert, the stories of their ancestors’ failures and rebellions — they feel everything from nostalgia to elation to horror to happiness. They weep in gratitude over God’s goodness. They weep in bewilderment over God’s silence. They weep in regret over their sins. They weep in mourning for all that was lost. And they weep in relief that the exile is over, that Jerusalem is once again their home. (‘Today’ by D. Thomas) They come as they are. Part of why we read the Scriptures is to remind ourselves of who we are and to hear again our stories — its stories are our stories that tell us of who we are. We have to keep listening to Scripture, remain open to it no matter what we have done and no matter our circumstances, and let it move us, that we may know again who we are and hear again its call to do what we have to do, no matter the hardship, to be who we are: God’s People, a holy People.
The Second reading of Scripture is presented to us by St Luke. (Luke 1:1-4) It tells of the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. In the bits left out between the opening verses of this Gospel passage and the main story, we are told of Jesus’ baptism, and after which we are told that, as he was praying, ‘the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove.’ (Luke 3:21-22) From that time on, Jesus is presented as being ‘led by the Spirit’ (Luke 4:1-2), or as today’s Gospel has it, that he returned to Galilee ‘in the power of the Spirit.’ (Luke 4:14) Using the words of the Scroll of the Prophet Isaiah, Jesus tells us how the Spirit is moving him: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour.” (Luke 4:18-19) So Luke goes on to present Jesus to his reader as doing just that: preaching and teaching in their synagogues and healing many. (Luke 4:15, 30)
When Jesus read those words for Isaiah, we are told that he ‘sat down, and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began, saying to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:20-21) This is the bit we need to hear, for it tells us of our Lord and how he understood what he had to do. With these words, what Jesus is saying to the people of his own home town is that he is the long-awaited Messiah, and to which they respond incredulously: “Isn’t this Joseph's son?” (Luke 4:22. C.f.: 3:22) We, too, need to wrestle with who Jesus is, but this is for next week’s Gospel. Today we are just pointed to the beginning of this Gospel, where St Luke tells us that ‘since I have investigated all the reports in close detail, starting from the story's beginning, I have decided to write it all out for you, … so you can know beyond the shadow of a doubt the reliability of what you were taught.’ (Luke 1:3-4) So, we need not doubt that Jesus actually said this: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” St Luke, then, goes on to show Jesus doing the things mentioned in the Scripture: proclaiming good news to the poor, proclaiming liberty to captives and to those who are oppressed, curing the blind, and so proclaiming that now, today, is the year of the Lord’s favour.
Well, so what? Part of the reason we read the Scriptures is to remind ourselves of who we are and to hear again our stories — its stories are our stories that tell us of who we are. We are Christians, and this is a story of the Christ, the one we call, “Lord.” Luke’s Gospel ends as it began with the Lord’s disciples waiting in prayer for the Spirit to come, as the Lord himself did after his baptism. (Luke 3;21; 24:49, 53) Luke resumes his account of Jesus and his disciples in the Acts of the Apostles with the story of the Spirit coming upon them while they were at prayer. (Acts 2:1ff) Led by this Spirit, the disciples are out preaching the Good News, just like their Master. (Acts 2:4ff) We have been baptised. When his Spirit comes on us, we can expect it to lead us, too. It may not be that we are necessarily to preach. For as St Paul reminds: “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” (1 Corinthians 12:4-7) This Spirit gives each of us a particular gift that we can use to ‘build up the Body of Christ’ (Ephesians 4:12), that is, Christ’s Church. Like our Master, we can expect that this Spirit will grow in us a concern for the poor and the oppressed, for the those disabled either physically or spiritually, for those on the margins, so that in responding to their needs we do indeed proclaim ‘a year of the Lord’s favour.’
There is no shortage of things that ought to move us to concern. Today one percent of the World’s people own forty-three percent of the World’s wealth; fifty-four percent own just over one percent — the world is full of poor people who need some help, who need to hear some good news; we have to step over some who are sleeping rough in our cities (C.f.: Luke 10:30ff) — we don’t need to go far to find them. These terribly wealthy accumulate much of their wealth on the backs of those who work for poor wages and under dangerous conditions — we ought to be concerned with what are acceptable working conditions; is what we have what we want for our children? The wealth of billionaires during this pandemic has increased by $3.9 trillion dollars, which is approximately the same as that lost by workers during this same period due to job losses, restrictions in the hours of work available, and time lost due to illness and lockdowns — is this the common good at work? And this is only to look at things economic. We could also look at the liberty to captives. Indigenous peoples make up three percent of our population, yet they make up twenty-nine percent of the prison population. Half of children in juvenile detention are indigenous. There is something wrong here; they can’t all be bad. Then there are asylum seekers, whose only wrong was in coming here to ask our help, and whom we just lock up without any hope of release; this is not right. In today’s world there is no shortage of causes in need of serious help. Our task is to let the Spirit move us to see what we can do with what we have to help ‘build them up for the good.’ (Romans 15:2) To each of us Jesus says, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” We, his disciples, are called in the Spirit to do what we can, today, to make his words true, so that, for the poor and marginalised who come across our path, this might indeed be ‘a year of the Lord’s favour.’