Nehemiah's authors presume a phenomenon which many find difficult to accept: Over time, devotees of a specific religion can actually forget the core beliefs of that religion (Neh 8: 2-6, 8-10).

We've all heard of the experiment in which someone approaches people on the street, requesting they sign a ten-point petition. Most refuse to sign, claiming the list contains "un-American" statements. Then they're politely told that the petition is actually our U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights!

Sunday's first reading narrates a similar event. We're not certain about the date of Ezra's dramatic reading at Jerusalem's water gate, nor about "the law" he proclaimed. Scholars know it happened sometime in the fifth century, BCE, after the Israelites had returned from Babylon, during a period when ordinary people were poorly instructed in the ways of Yahweh. And "the law" could have been any one of four formulations of the Mosaic law: a) the whole Torah (the first five books of the Bible); b) one of the law codes contained in the Torah; c) the "priestly source" of the Torah; and d) just the book of Deuteronomy.

New words

But no matter what was read or when it was read, the message was new to the people. They "were weeping as they heard the words of the law." Though Yahweh's Chosen People are ignorant of some of the essentials of their faith, the Levites refuse to hold the peoples' ignorance against them. (How could they? As the community's teachers, they were responsible for it!)

"Do not be saddened this day," they insist, "for rejoicing in Yahweh must be your strength." The Israelites shouldn't cry over what they didn't know. What they eventually discover will always be a cause for joy.

It's easy for Christians to hear about Jews overlooking essentials of their faith, but they find it difficult to admit the same thing about themselves. Yet Scripture scholars remind us that the authors of the Christian Scriptures composed their words only because some or all in their communities were starting to veer from the heart of Jesus' faith. Like us, they began to stress minutiae and downplay essentials.

Nothing is more essential to Christian faith than the conviction that Jesus saves us. Yet many followers of Jesus stress the "heavenly" dimension of salvation to the detriment of the "here and now." This seems to be why Luke (Lk 1: 1-4, 4: 14-21) has Jesus -- at the beginning of His public ministry of salvation -- quote this specific oracle of Isaiah: "The Spirit of Yahweh 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 Yahweh."

Essentials

For Luke, it's essential that salvation begin in the nitty-gritty depths of our everyday lives. Those who faithfully imitate Jesus are much more interested in liberating captives, the blind and the oppressed than they are in getting people into heaven. The latter is simply an extension of the former, not a replacement for it.

Likewise, Christians have argued for centuries over the way Jesus is present in the Eucharist yet practically ignored the way He is present in one another. Yet it's clear from the second reading (I Cor 12: 12-30) that the earliest Christian author, Paul, believes it's essential for all Jesus' followers to understand and appreciate their presence and role in the body of Christ.

"God," he writes, "placed the parts, each one of them, in the body as He intended. If they were all one part, where would the body be? But as it is, there are many parts, yet one body."

Getting souls into heaven and determining how Jesus is present in the bread and wine can be quite antiseptic. Helping to liberate people now and discovering the risen Jesus in those around us can be quite messy -- so messy that it's easy to understand why many have forgotten that both were once at the core of early Christian faith.

(01-18-01)