Bible Study: 3 Epiphany (C)

January 27, 2013

Susan Butterworth, Episcopal Divinity School

“Jesus rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’” (Luke 4: 20-21)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a; Luke 4:14-21

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10

Ezra the priest and Nehemiah the governor were the leaders of the Jewish community in the post-exilic period, after the return of the Jewish people to Jerusalem from exile in Babylonia. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah are a narrative of the restoration of the Jewish people to their homeland after the exile. The Jews are able to rebuild the temple, resume temple worship, and re-establish the law of Moses. In Nehemiah 8, Ezra reads the law to the people at the Festival of Booths, a harvest festival that also commemorates the 40 years the people of Israel wandered in the desert. As a pilgrimage festival, the Festival of Booths requires the Hebrews to make a pilgrimage to the temple in Jerusalem, hence the occasion for Ezra to address the people.

In this passage, the people are summoned to gather in the square before the Water Gate, outside the temple, where even those who are ritually defiled may participate, and the law is read to all who can understand: men, women and older children. The seventh month, Tishri, is the most important festival month in Israel. Tishri 1, the date the events of this passage occur, later became Rosh Hashanah, New Year’s Day. Ezra opens the book (unrolls the scroll), blesses the Lord, and all the people praise the Lord, saying, Amen Amen. The Levites make sure the people understand what they have heard, and the people weep in repentance for having disobeyed the law. But Ezra tells them to celebrate the harvest festival and send portions to the poor and foreigners as prescribed by the law. The lectionary passage ends with a passage that echoes the language of the prophets and the psalms: “Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

Why might the date when this passage takes place, Tishri 1, become the date of the festival of the Jewish New Year?

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah are credited with creating a distinctive Jewish identity in the post-exilic period. How do the events of this passage contribute to a national identity for the Jews of the fifth century B.C.? How do they contribute to a Jewish identity for the Jews of today? How does this Jewish identity connect to the practices of Christians in the time of Jesus and today?

Psalm 19

The psalms were used in the worship life of ancient Israel. When Ezra blesses the Lord in Nehemiah 8:6, “Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, ‘Amen, Amen,’ lifting up their hands,” he might have used this psalm of praise, extolling the glory of God as revealed in the creation of the heavens and of the law. Reasons to praise God are given in some detail in Psalm 19, with the demonstration of God’s power in creation and in his faithfulness and love to Israel in giving the law.

Verses 1-4 describe the paradox of the communication of the knowledge of God. There is neither speech nor words in the firmament, yet speech pours forth from the heavens to the end of the world.

Verses 5-6 present the sun as a particular manifestation of the handiwork of God. The sun is described by the poetic device of personification as a bridegroom and a man running a course with joy.

Verses 7-10 describes the law of the Lord as perfect, reliable, clear, righteous and truthful.

Verses 11-13 admit that even with the benefits of the laws, it is difficult to avoid hidden sin and faults.

Verse 14 is a concluding prayer of dedication.

Verse 6 is a transition from the praise of creation to the praise of the law. How does the idea that nothing is hidden from the heat of the sun create a connection to the law of the Lord?

How does this psalm connect with the reading from Nehemiah? How do verses 11-13 about offenses and faults echo Nehemiah 8:9?

1 Corinthians 12:12-31a

“There are many members, yet one body.” Paul reminds us that we are all members of the one body of Christ, baptized by the Holy Spirit.

Paul emphasizes the harmony of a diverse community that included people of social prominence, but was most likely mainly composed of people of lesser means and social standing. He wrote his letter to the Corinthians to respond to reports of discord within the community that he had founded, especially reports that the congregation’s less advantaged members had not been treated with respect, and to respond to ways in which the congregation has deviated from the gospel that Paul preached.

Apparently some members of the community had boasted of special spiritual gifts, including the gift of tongues or ecstatic speech, and felt they had a higher spiritual status. After he preaches unity, using the metaphor of the body and its members, he reprimands those who claim to have a higher spiritual status than others. Instead, all must strive for the greater gifts of being called to God into new life in Christ and of Christian love. The apostle exhorts his community to strive for the greater gifts, those that sustain the congregation. Paul’s “more excellent way” is the way of love.

Paul’s congregation in Corinth mirrored the ethnic, cultural and religious diversity of a large urban port city. How does he acknowledge this diversity? What do the members of the Corinthian congregation have in common? What brings them together?

What diverse gifts do you observe among the members of your faith community? Do you think there is spiritual competition among members of your community? In what ways are the members of the body that seem to be weaker indispensable?

Luke 4:14-21

At the beginning of the passage, Jesus has just returned from his baptism in the Jordan and his 40 days in the wilderness. The Holy Spirit remains with him as he begins to teach in the synagogues of Galilee. Luke portrays Jesus as a faithful Jew who customarily goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath. He has been invited to read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and to comment. According to Jewish custom of the time, one stood to read scripture and sat down to teach. Luke sympathizes with Judaism; for him the ideal follower of Jesus is one who behaves in a manner that allows harmony with the Jewish community. Luke emphasizes the theological concept that Jesus has been sent to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah – that there is continuity between ancient Israel and the Christian story. The inclusion of this passage from Isaiah in Luke’s gospel at this point also announces Jesus’ pastoral mission to the poor, the sick and the oppressed.

Revisit today’s Hebrew Bible passage from Nehemiah. How does the passage from Luke reflect the passage from Nehemiah? How does the passage from Nehemiah support Luke’s purpose of creating continuity between ancient Israel and his portrayal of Jesus?

Liberation theology has been defined as “the belief that Christianity involves not only faith in the teachings of the Church but also a commitment to change social and political conditions from within in societies in which it is considered exploitation and oppression exist.”

How might the prophecy of Isaiah in this passage from Luke anticipate liberation theology? Do you think that Jesus’ ministry as related in the gospels requires Christians to act politically? Why or why not?

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