The books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell the story of the restoration of the Jews to the promised land after the Babylonian exile (c. 587-538 B.C.). The many years spent by the dislocated people of God in Babylon had a profound effect on the attitude and identity of the Jewish people. It is estimated that of the 2 million to 3 million Jews given permission to return home, less than 50,000 took up the offer.
In Peter Kreeft’s book “You Can Understand the Bible” (Ignatius Press, $16.95), he notes: “We usually prefer comfort to freedom. Life in Babylon had been comparatively easy, but the trek to Jerusalem was 900 miles long. … Not only that, but once they arrived, they faced a ruined land, city and temple, along with the formidable task of rebuilding.”
As today’s reading from Nehemiah describes, it was not just a physical rebuilding; in fact, the heart of the restoration was spiritual, religious and liturgical. The people had to hear anew the book of the law and relearn the meaning of the law. The law shaped the Jewish people, for it oriented them toward God and showed who they were in relation to him. Hearing the words read by the prophet Ezra, the people gave their assent and praise: “‘Amen, amen!’ Then they bowed down and prostrated themselves before the Lord.”
Fast forward a few hundred years to a small synagogue in Nazareth. The setting was significant. The exact origin of the synagogue (meaning “house of assembly”) as a regular place of Jewish gathering is unknown, but some scholars believe it can be located in the Babylonian exile, when synagogues were needed as places of worship for Jews so far removed from the Jerusalem temple. During the time of Christ, the synagogue was an established place for teaching the law and prophets.
St. Luke describes in today’s Gospel how Jesus “went according to his custom into the synagogue on the sabbath day.” The young man appeared to be just one of many devout Jews. To those who heard Jesus read from the prophet Isaiah, he was simply the son of a carpenter (see Lk 4: 22). But he was ready to embark upon his public ministry. And that ministry began and was marked throughout by the proclamation of God’s word — every utterance of Jesus was a proclamation of that word by the Incarnate logos.
Like Ezra, he was priest and prophet. Like Ezra, he unrolled the scroll and read from the law and the prophets. Yet, whatever the similarities, the essential differences are summed up in his closing words: “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk 4:21).
Ezra, Isaiah and all the other prophets told the people to worship, love and obey God; Jesus said the same, but also made it known that he was God (see Jn 8:54-59). His priesthood was singular; his words were uniquely authoritative. The passage from Isaiah was fulfilled because the word of God had gone forth into the world as the Word who had assumed human nature: “And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us ... full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:14).
The ministry of Christ was to proclaim glad tidings to the poor, grant liberty to captives, give sight to the blind and free the oppressed. This is true restoration from the ancient exile of both Jews and Gentiles in the land of sin and darkness. Every man is invited by the Messiah to leave the land of sin and enter the promised rest.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.