26 January 2013

RETURNEES

3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Lk 1:1-4; 4:14-21 (Neh 8:2-4a, 5-6, 8-10 / Ps 19 / 1 Cor 12:12-14, 27)


About the year 400 B.C., the Jews were finally freed from Babylonian captivity.  A contingent of them returned home from exile, led by a priest-scribe named Ezra, and immediately started reviving the Mosaic Law.  Ezra, as we heard in the first reading today, translated and explained to the Jewish returnees the Torah from daybreak till midday.  When he was done reading, the people expressed veneration for the Law by bowing down and prostrating themselves before Yahweh.  Realizing that it was their infidelity to the Law that caused all the sufferings they had to endure, the people also wept.  Thus, Ezra, the priest-scribe, said to them, “Do not be sad and do not weep.  Go, eat rich foods and drink sweet drinks, and allot portions to those who had nothing prepared; for today is holy to our Lord.  Do not be saddened this day, for rejoicing in the Lord must be your strength.”
          Fidelity to the Law of Moses – the Torah – around this the life of every good Jew revolved.  They attributed everything that happened to their lives – both good and bad – to their faithful obedience to the Torah or to their persistent disobedience to it.  It governed their lives.  It gave meaning to their existence.  It determined for them not only their future as a nation but their eternity as individuals as well.  Without the Mosaic Law, there would be no Jew.  Be faithful to the Law of Moses and you are faithful to God.  Violate it and you transgress not Moses but God Himself.
          In the Gospel, we have another returnee: Jesus.  After His baptism by John in the River Jordan, Jesus went home to Nazareth in Galilee.  Like Ezra, the priest-scribe in the first reading today, Jesus also stood up to read.  He was, however, given not the Torah but a writing of one of the great prophets – Isaiah – on which it is written, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.”  Moreover, unlike the Jewish returnee in Ezra’s time, the people in the synagogue who heard Jesus did not weep.  Rather, they looked intently on Him.  The scene was indeed filled with suspense, as “the eyes of all in the synagogue,” the Gospel reported to us, were on Him.  Then, Jesus, as it were, dropped the bombshell: “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.”  Unfortunately the Gospel today ended here.  “Abangan ang susunod na kabanata,” as we say it in Tagalog.  “Naman, bitin!,” we would probably remark.  For next Sunday’s Gospel will pick up from where it left today.
          But, please pardon me, I’m spoiling the suspense.  The people who heard Jesus read the prophecy of Isaiah concerning the Messiah, the “Anointed One”, the Christ, and claimed that it was Him, would first speak highly of Him and, amazed, would trace His roots.  “Isn’t this the son of Joseph?” they would verify their knowledge of this famous returnee.  But the otherwise pleasant homecoming almost ended up with murder, for eventually, the people did not like Jesus’ words when He started convicting them for their lack of faith, so they rose up, drove Him out of the town, and led Him to the brow of the hill on which their town stood, intending to hurl Him down headlong.  Jesus, however, unbelievably escaped death by simply passing through their midst and going away.
          We see in the first reading and the Gospel today the issue which, in the early Christian community, was to scandalize both Jews and some Christians alike, and the reason why St. Paul’s missionary efforts were riddled with controversy and even threats against his very life.  The Christian kerygma – Jesus is Lord – clearly implies that Jesus is greater than not only Moses but even the Torah itself.  Jesus Himself is the Law.  The Jews regarded salvation as fidelity to the Mosaic Law.  But St. Paul the Apostle wrote and preached that faith in Jesus Christ means freedom from enslavement to the Old Law.  In Rom 7:6 the Apostle declares, “…by dying to what once bound us, we have been freed from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written law.”  Thus, understandably, the Jews, who heard Jesus in the synagogue today, eventually went berserk and wanted to throw Him down the cliff.  They believed that the Law by itself gave life.  They held to the conviction that religion consisted in knowing perfectly the Mosaic Law – the Ten Commandments and the other more than 600 positive prescriptions and negative prohibitions that were added by rabbinical commentaries through time.  They placed their faith in the Law, but the Law, the Christian message taught, failed them, for despite their obedience to the Law of Moses, they, like the rest of humanity, were all sinners.  Indeed, the Law provided information about sin, for without the Law who would know what sin is?  But there was no strength in the Law, no life, no salvation.  For the Law could never give the very life of God.  Jesus could, did, and continue giving that life!  Thus, man is saved by faith in Him.  This is the action not of the Law but of grace that makes faith in Jesus possible.
          The post-exilic returnees in the first reading today did not only go back to their homeland.  They also wanted to go back to their old ways, rigorously and slavishly following the Law as the determinant of their salvation.  The Returnee in the Gospel today, however, went back to His hometown to invite His own people to move on by recognizing that the ancient prophecy concerning the Messiah was then being fulfilled in Him.  The first group wept for their infidelity to the Law of Moses.  The audience of the second turned into a furious mob for their lack of faith.  To which group do we belong?
          In the mind of St. Paul the Apostle, religion for us, Christians, should be about knowing Jesus, loving Jesus, and following Jesus.  Thus, our prayer, “Day by day, O dear Lord, three things I pray: to see Thee more clearly, to love Thee more dearly, to follow Thee more nearly day by day.”  As we strive to live out this prayer, the Spirit of Jesus, rather than the Law, takes control of our entire life.  This Spirit, who has anointed Jesus for His mission, becomes the force acting from within us, setting us free and gifting us with what is necessary to live as members of Christ’s body as the second reading today described to us.  A person who has been freed by the Spirit of Jesus avoids sin not because of the dictates of the Law but because sin is wrong in itself.  A person who has been gifted with the Spirit of Jesus – or, along the lines of the second reading today, who has been baptized in the one Spirit and who drank of the same Spirit – strive to actively, lovingly, generously, and humbly play his role in building up the body of Christ to which he belongs.  So, whose spirit then do we possess – that of the Law or that of Christ?
          We, too, are returnees when we gather together in and as a church every Sunday.  But, what have we really returned for?  How do we actually return?  After our gathering, how do we go forth?  And will we return again?

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