Images and stories of the devastation from hurricanes and earthquakes continue to fill my consumption of current events in the world. And surprisingly, just as the spirit always does, I’m reflecting on the book of Nehemiah as the reading of the day.
Of all the books of the bible, Nehemiah isn’t in the top fifty in terms of popularity. Yet it holds a most remarkable story of people who have influenced Judaism and Christianity to this day. And we hear about this in today’s first reading. In 538 BC the Edict of Cyrus permitted those captive in Babylon to return to Jerusalem. The reality was that those returning didn’t find much to return to. Since the Babylonians had destroyed Jerusalem fifty years earlier, little progress had been made economically, politically, and religiously. While many were delighted to go home, they quickly discovered this wasn’t the home they remembered, nor the home of their heart-warming stories. Sitting in the midst of the ruins was demoralizing. It did nothing to motivate them to rebuild. Nor did the lack of economy spur any desire for construction. It was difficult enough to rebuild a home. The idea of rebuilding the city of Jerusalem or the Temple must have been far too lofty. This is when the prophets, Haggai and Zechariah come into their own. Their immediate purpose was to spur the lethargic religious spirit of the people to rebuild the temple and fully restore worship in Jerusalem. In short, their argument was that the sooner the temple is rebuilt and the sacrificial system is functioning, then the sooner the LORD God will be on their side. After all, who is going to motivate us? And who will defend us from our enemies?
Amidst destruction and lethargy, Nehemiah, Ezra strove to motivate the people to work for the fulfillment of the vision of restoration. And today’s first reading is the promulgation of the law when Ezra gathers everyone, men, women, and children old enough to listen and proclaims the law again to the people. They all sit listening attentively.
Why is this remarkable? This is our first written account of people sitting listening to a public proclamation of God’s Word. Yet it isn’t written as a news report merely stating the facts of a particular day in human history. It is descriptively written, touching the senses of seeing and hearing. One can almost smell the motivation in people beginning to bubble up into a desire to positively respond to this Word of God being proclaimed. It is remarkable to me on a second level. When I witness 900+ people coming to a Sunday Eucharist and listening to God’s Word is most impressive. They take time out of their schedule which is far busier and more hectic than our ancestor’s schedules. Sometimes it is a miracle for that many people to put their cell phones down for 15 minutes. And to choose to listen to what this Word of God says, not what we want it to say, testifies to me how powerfully Jesus continues to teach and feed his people in the Liturgy of the Word.
To move a group of people from lethargy to motivation requires inspiration touching the depth of sacredness in the human person. In the past several months we have all seen loss, violations, and desperation beyond our comprehension of how to respond. So how is it something written 2500 years ago speaks so clearly to us today? Because first and foremost we start with God’s Word and listening to what is said to us, we discover God’s love for us, resulting in determination, and motivation.
Fr. David Colhour, C.P. is the pastor of St. Agnes Parish in Louisville, Kentucky.