The Third Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C.
All the people of Israel gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel. Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month. 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 opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.
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 of them to those 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.”Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
Picture it: people gathering in the town square just as light is breaking. There is no room to sit it’s so packed. Men, women, older children, all gathered together around a makeshift wood platform that a bearded man with long robes climbs and begins to read. He reads, makes commentary, and reads. Everyone is enthralled. For seven hours Ezra reads until finally it is midday, the sun and heat have reached their peak, you would think that the weather and the standing would have left the crowd suffering greatly. And they are suffering greatly, but not from the elements of the marathon session, they are suffering in their souls. As Ezra finishes the reading, a great cry goes up, “Amen, Amen!” From his position on the platform, the priest Ezra can see the tears streaming from the faces in the whole crowd. The cry of “Amen” broke the last holdouts, and the cheer transforms into weeping and mourning. Nehemiah, the local governor, mounts the podium and commands the people to celebrate, this event is a holy day of the LORD. The people disperse and celebrate. The next morning, they do it again. They do these marathon reading sessions for seven days straight, hearing the whole Torah. On the eighth day they have a solemn prayer before returning to their daily tasks.
What a tremendous moment that the people are so moved by hearing the Law that it brings them to tears. I don’t know about you, but I can barely make it through a 15min sermon, let alone all the way through Deuteronomy! I’d certainly be in tears, though for completely different reasons than the people there.
When we look at this story, this gathering to hear the Law read, our modern sensibilities are profoundly confused. Why would people do this? Voluntarily and spontaneously, spend hours upon hours hearing really really tedious commands, rules, statues, and long genealogies. There is an irony in this lectionary reading being so short and cut-up. It’s almost a criticism of how short lectionary readings are, because if we were to stope here, we really don’t get the whole story. But don’t worry, I’m not planning on going for seven hours with this story. Though if I were, I’d make you stand.
The reading of the whole Torah is the climax of two books in the Bible: Ezra & Nehemiah. Named after their main characters, Ezra & Nehemiah are two leaders who have garnered enough favor with the Persian emperor that they are given permission to lead the exiled Israelites out of Babylon back to Jerusalem. While it is a culturally momentous moment for the Israelites, there is a noticeable absence in Ezra and Nehemiah’s journeys: God doesn’t tell them to take them. The only person that God really talks to in this story is Cyrus the Great, the Persian emperor. Ezra and Nehemiah, the high priest and the governor, talk an awful lot to God, they make long and some of the most earnest prayers in the Bible, but God doesn’t really say anything to either of them. Ezra is remembered for rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem. That same temple that Jesus walked through 500 years later. Nehemiah rebuilt the walls in Jerusalem, restoring the political power of the Israelites in the region. What’s interesting is that the Bible isn’t entirely clear whether these two men are heroes or not. Both do tremendous good. They restore the religious and national identity of a people who had been lost for nearly a century. Their work stands for over 500 years. In one instance, Nehemiah gives up his income to pay the tribute to the Persian empire, sparing the people from taxes. Both confess their sins and shortcomings, as well as the sins of the people to God, and clearly are faithful to God.
But all this goodness is marred by great evil they commit in the name of God and national purity. Because the exiles who returned to Jerusalem did not arrive at an empty city. There were Israelites who had been left behind during the exile, and their grandchildren occupied the city, as well as Israelites from the north known as the Samaritans. When the Exiles return, they intermarry, rebuild their lives as the temple and walls are rebuilt. But Ezra, Nehemiah, and clearly a powerful faction of the returned exiles claim the people who were in Jerusalem weren’t really people of the covenant; that they were no different than gentiles or canaanites. Ezra forces a mass divorce of those who had intermarried and sends the women and children into exile. In the cruelest of ironies, the people who have just returned from exile force the most vulnerable, women and children, into exile. Nehemiah leads violent conflicts against them, so much so that the workers who are building the walls of Jerusalem have to be protected against retaliation by armed guards. Note, God has not commanded any of these actions. Ezra and Nehemiah do these things for the sake of power and national “purity”.
While there is tremendous good and earnest faithfulness in these projects of rebuilding the Temple and the walls, there is something terribly wrong at the same time. It’s at this moment where the good and the evil collide where the lectionary picks up the story of the reading of the Law. The people are brought to tears hearing the Law because they are hearing the story of their nation restored. They witness the house of the LORD once again, and the walls marking their national identity. In this moment, they are vowing to do better. They weep because they recognize where they have sinned and failed to keep the Law. Well, almost recognize. To hear the words of God, the story of their people, and to see the tremendous gift of love the Law is, it brings them to tears. But this still isn’t the whole story.
If we stop where the lectionary stops, we miss the continued tragedy of this story. After this climatic moment of faith, love for God, love for one another, all it takes is a few chapters and one business trip before Nehemiah comes back to find everyone failing to keep the Law. Working on the Sabbath, leaving the Temple they loved so much in disarray. The story concludes with Nehemiah praying for God to remember him for the good that he has done. “…Remember me, O my God, for good.” It is probably the most honest prayer in the Bible. A plea from a complicated man that God remember the good that he did; that he did what he thought was right, yet it never ended quite right.
The greatest irony in this story is that for two men who clearly loved the Law so much, and who clearly loved God greatly, they missed the heart of the Law. The exiles who were so moved by the Law it brought them to tears also missed the heart of the Law. Love the LORD your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. In doing what they thought was loving God by restoring national purity, they drove out and sent their neighbors into exile.
When we look at the whole picture, the story of Ezra and Nehemiah is complicated and troubling. Even more troubling is how timely this ancient tale feels. Every nation struggles with its sense of identity, and even within a nation, how often we choose to define ourselves by exiling our neighbors. How often do we hear calls from the temples and governor’s palaces to cast out the impure, the unwanted, the other?
Yet there is only one nation, one people, one chosen group to be God’s people: humanity. Despite the lies and false divisions we tell ourselves, despite all the excuses we use to cast on another into the desert, we are one nation, one people, one humanity. Ezra and Nehemiah’s story is a warning to us who call ourselves God’s people. How easy it is for people who love God, love the Law, and love their culture to commit great evil. How often we claim to be doing God’s work, while at the same time oppressing God’s people.
When you hear calls for a national renewal or calls to “purify the nation” in any and all forms, remember Ezra and Nehemiah’s story. When you are told that some are not worthy of all of life’s joy, or some are more worthy than others, remember the women and children exiled to the desert. We are told to see our neighbors as a problem. We are tempted to see our neighbors for what they represent to us, rather than who they really are. Remember that we are one body, and repent. There is only one people: humanity. And when you find yourself being tested, because you will be tested, and are tempted to give into your anger, annoyance, isolation, or frustration with those who oppose you, say to yourself the prayer of Nehemiah: “Remember them, O God for the good that they do.” “Remember me, O my God, for good.”
 Ezra mentions that the prophets Zechariah and Haggai are alive and prophesying at this time (Ezra 5:1). God is certainly speaking to Zechariah and Haggai, but it is ironic that God does not speak to Ezra or Nehemiah.
 Nehemiah 5:14-19
 Ezra 10-11
 Nehemiah 6
 Nehemiah 13:31