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Introduction To The Scripture For The Third Sunday After Epiphany - Year C
Nehemiah 8:1-10; Psalm 19: I Corinthians 12:12-31a; Luke 4:14-21

The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (jlss@sympatico.ca) of the United Church of Canada. John has structured his offerings so that the first portion can be used as a bulletin insert, while the second portion provides a more in depth 'introduction to the scripture'.

INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE	
The Third Sunday After Epiphany - Year C

NEHEMIAH 8:1-10     The passage tells how Ezra the scribe read the  law to
the assembled populace after the walls of Jerusalem had been rebuilt.  This
reconstruction had taken place under the leadership of Nehemiah, the Jewish
cupbearer of King Artaxerxes I of Persia, who had been appointed governor
of Jerusalem and Judea in the mid-5th century BC.


PSALM 19            This originally existed as two separate psalms, but
were combined as one in an exquisite poem celebrating the wonder of God's
creation and the spiritual value of personal devotion to God and obedience
to God's law.


1 CORINTHIANS 12:12-31a    Paul's image of the disciple community as the
body of the risen Christ has stood the test of time.  It still speaks with
power to our generation.  Of less significance for us is the list of
offices and functions which he enumerates. 
     
His purpose in doing so is to illustrate how the various gifts he had found
among the Corinthian disciples could work together harmoniously when each
person fulfilled his or her function for the good of the whole.  He moved
from this powerful metaphor to show how this could be done through the best
gift of all - love.


LUKE 4:14-21             It was the custom in the Jewish synagogues of the
1st century to ask a visiting rabbi to teach from the scriptures.  After
making an initial tour of Galilee, Jesus went to worship on the Sabbath. 
He was asked to read and interpret a passage of scripture.
     
He chose a passage from Isaiah 61 which was to become the model for his
ministry.  Then he declared to the congregation that this prophecy was
being fulfilled in their hearing.

************

NEHEMIAH 8:1-10   Until the time of Origen in the 3rd century, the books of
Ezra and Nehemiah were regarded as a unity.  They are now again considered
as a composite whole edited from earlier sources and memoirs of the two men
under whose diligent guidance the walls of Jerusalem and the temple were
rebuilt and Israelite law re-established as the guiding principles of late
post-exilic life.  Most scholars accept that Chronicler was responsible for
the final form of the two books in the 4th century BC.  This occurred about
a century later than the main events of the reconstruction period in the
5th century BC.

In Ezra 7-10 there is a memoir written in the first person.  Similarly in
Nehemiah 1-7:5 there is another memoir in the first person.  These
undoubtedly existed at the time when the editor did his work.  The present
passage (and the following three chapters, Nehemiah 8-10) may also be part
of the memoir by Ezra which some scholars believe to have been displaced
from its original location between Ezra 8 and 9. 

This passage tells how Ezra the scribe read the law to the assembled
populace after the walls of Jerusalem had been rebuilt.  This
reconstruction had taken place under the leadership of Nehemiah, the Jewish
cupbearer of King Artaxerxes I of Persia, who had been appointed governor
of Jerusalem and Judea in the mid-5th century BC.  One of the scholarly
puzzles is why nowhere in the two complete narratives do the two community
leaders, Ezra, the scribe, and Nehemiah, the governor, ever meet.

This event recalls a similar event two centuries earlier when King Josiah
commanded that the rediscovered book of the covenant law to be read before
the assembled elders of Judah and Jerusalem. (2 Chronicles 34:29-32)  The
reading of the Torah had great influence on succeeding generations, and
still has to this day in both the Jewish and the Christian traditions. 
Like Christianity, however, how one hears the law and interprets its
relevance for the present is always a matter of strong debate and
frequently open conflict.  Of special note in this passage is the statement
about interpreting what had been read. 

The reading omits two verses which name members of the community present
for the occasion.  The best explanation for this omission is that the names
are virtually unpronounceable for the ordinary reader unfamiliar with
Hebrew.  The names are not significant, but the role these people played
is.  They were interpreters who helped the audience understand what they
had heard.  That is the role of the rabbi in the Jewish tradition and of
the preacher in our own Christian tradition.  Naturally, diverse
interpretations could be given, leading to a heterogenous understanding and
application of the same law.  Jesus himself also appears to have played a
similar role in his disputes with the scribes and Pharisees.  The same is
true today in Judaism as it is in Christianity.  For instance, do the laws
relating to liturgy, property, sexuality or murder have the same authority
today as they had in the time of Nehemiah or Josiah?  And whose
interpretation has primacy?  Out of such differences denominationalism
arises in every religious tradition.


PSALM 19   This originally existed as two separate psalms, vv.1-6 and vv.7-
14.  Differences in style, poetic grace and points of view indicate dual
authorship.  At some point they were combined, perhaps by the author of the
second part, in an exquisite poem extolling the virtue of personal devotion
to God and obedience to God's law as of equal spiritual value as wonder at
the majesty of God's creation.

In the earlier part, there are references to ancient myths about the sun
popular in Egypt and Babylon.  But, though making use of such ideas, the
psalmist stops short of describing the sun as divine, preferring instead a
metaphorical allusion.  Pythogoras' doctrine of the music of the spheres
may also lie behind the poem.  In his attempt to discern the basic
principle of the universe, that 6th century Greek Philosopher proposed that
numbers determined the harmonies of music, the proportions of architecture,
the movements of the sun, moon and stars, and the harmony of the spheres.
It is entirely possible that some such cross-cultural influence gave this
deeply religious psalmist concepts which he transposed into theological
language.

In the second part of the psalm, the author carefully observes the rules of
Hebrew poetry.  The law is represented by six different synonyms paired
with one another through parallelism: law - testimony; precepts -
commandments; fear - ordinances.  However, these have more meaning to the
psalmist than mere synonyms.  They are means of grace instructing and
warning the devoted Israelite of what God requires of the pious believer.

The psalm, probably from the same period as Ezra, the scribe (ca. 450 BCE),
ends with a prayer that the worshiper may be preserved from sin and live
worthily of his calling as a covenanted soul.  For him, the law is no
burdensome yoke, but a source of moral strength.  Many Jewish people today
hold a similar point of view.  So do many Christians. 


1 CORINTHIANS 12:12-31a   Paul's image of the disciple community as the
body of the risen Christ has stood the test of time.  It still speaks with
power to many in our generation.  Of less significance for us is the list
of offices and functions which he enumerates in vss.27-30.  It is
impossible to discern whether these were actual offices in the Corinthian
community or merely the functions performed at different times by the same
leading members like himself.  Compare this list also with the shorter one
in Ephesians 4:11 which may represent a later development in the leadership
structure of the Christian community.

Read the passage with a touch of levity and see if Paul isn't tweaking his
Corinthian converts for their childish behaviour as they squabble about who
has the more important gift.  One could even create a skit around the parts
of the body using paper costumes to represent each organ.  A youth group
might been enlisted to provide the "sermon" for this Sunday.  It might be
specially useful for a service that included or was followed by an annual
vestry or congregational meeting.

The apostle wanted to illustrate how the various gifts he had discerned
among the Corinthian disciples could work together harmoniously if each
person fulfilled his or her function for the good of the whole.  He moved
from this powerful metaphor to show how this could be done through the best
gift of all - love.

The passage can be interpreted in a wider context than a local congregation
or even a denomination.  It would make sense to use it for a service
celebrating the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.  In a year when
democratic elections will take place in the USA, Canada and probably
several other countries, it could help to focus what is meant by the phrase
"the public good."  James Madison, the Virginia-born champion of religious
freedom and fourth president of the United States, may have been the first
to popularize the idea of public good as distinct from private rights.  He
emphasized the importance of protecting both in his *Federalist Paper, no.
10* written in 1787.  That idea has not been popular in the corridors of
power in recent decades.  Private initiative and enterprise in every aspect
of life have been given most attention instead.  Yet the concept of public
good is as old as the oracles of the Old Testament prophet Amos.  He was
speaking of what God wills for all of humanity. 

In this passage about the gifts of each person, the apostle Paul made a
similar call for each member of the Christian fellowship to have concerns
for every other member.  There can be no other approach to living in the
real world of globalization and universal communication.  The whole Body of
Christ can now be interpreted universally as the whole of humanity as is
implied in the later letters of Ephesians and Colossians attributed to
Paul.


LUKE 4:14-21   It was the custom in the Jewish synagogues of the 1st
century to ask a visiting rabbi to teach from the scriptures.  After making
an initial tour of Galilee, Jesus went to worship on the Sabbath.  He was
asked to read and interpret a passage of scripture.  As we shall see in
next week's gospel lesson, his interpretation was not what his audience
wanted to hear!

Michael Steinhauser made a significant point in an Internet seminar on "The
Man In The Scarlet Robe.  "Though there were at least two major Roman-
Hellenist cities in Galilee, Tiberias and Sepphoris, there is no mention in
any of the gospels that Jesus entered either of these, but remained in "the
surrounding country" (vs.14).  Recent archeological discoveries have
revealed that there was a significant Jewish population in Sephhoris,
scarcely five miles from Nazareth.  One can assume that the same was true
for Tiberius when Herod Antipas moved his seat of government to that city
which he built on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.  Jesus was more of a
village preacher than a Hellenistic cynic or an eminent rabbi from
Jerusalem.  Yet he was certainly being heard by the common people if not by
the religious authorities. 

Or was this just Luke's way of lifting up Jesus' appeal to the common
people in contrast to the later opposition of the authorities?  Did he have
the community for whom he was writing more in mind than the curious and
disbelieving Nazarenes? 

Jesus chose a passage from Isaiah 61 which was to become the model for his
ministry.  Then he declared to the congregation that this prophecy was
being fulfilled in their hearing. From this dominical mission, the present
disciple community has discerned God's "preferential option for the poor"
and the cause of social justice for the most vulnerable in our society. 

We have seen this mission exemplified in the enthusiastic secular response
to environmental crises in this country and elsewhere in recent years.
Despite the lack of cooperation from such large countries as the USA,
Russia and China, many national legislatures have adopted  the Kyoto Treaty
as national policy.  On the other hand, for fiscal reasons, governments
appear to have withdrawn more and more from their role of developing
realistic programs for bringing about a sharing of the world's limited
resources to drive the industrial and commercial systems that will bring
equity and justice where it is most needed.  Instead, the chief motivation
of the most powerful is to compete for control of these resources so that
as little change as possible in the lifestyle of the wealthier parts of the
world will be necessary.  One has to wonder what Jesus would say to us if
he were to be asked to preach in our community.

                         
copyright  - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006, 2004
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.



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