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4th Sunday of Epiphany

24 January 2019

Nehemiah 8.1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 12.12-31a; Luke 4.14-21


THIS Sunday’s readings cast a light on what it means for the Law and the Prophets to be fulfilled — and not abolished — by Christ (cf. Matthew 5.17).

Our passage from Nehemiah tells of the Israelites’ rediscovery of the books of the Law, as they return from exile in Babylon. While the people’s initial reaction is to weep tears of penitence, Nehemiah instructs them to cease their mourning. He tells them instead to “go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine.” They are not to be grieved; “for the joy of the Lord is your strength”. The Israelites are to rejoice because the Law is a gift from God. It maps out the paths which lead to fullness of life.

In the words of our Psalm, these statutes “revive the soul”, “rejoice the heart”, and “give light to the eyes”. There is “great delight” to be had in keeping them. This is not the self-righteous pleasure of legalism, but the joy which comes when creatures fulfil their God-given vocation and pursue the paths that lead to personal and corporate flourishing.

Ellen Charry explains the connection between these verses of the Psalm (which concern the Law) and the earlier verses (which celebrate the glory of Creation): “Together, these strophes teach that God provides for both the physical and spiritual welfare of his people through the light of the sun and torah; revelling in the commandments is the daily path of a fine life, made possible on the physical plane by the sun running its mighty course from one end of the sky to the other” (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Psalms 1-50).

It is an error — one condemned by the Church since the earliest centuries — to contrast a vengeful, legalistic deity in the Old Testament with the merciful, loving God of the New. In both Testaments, the wrath of God is closely linked to his mercy: it flows from an appreciation of the holiness of God, the devastating effects of sin, and the fierceness of God’s love for those who are the victims of oppression and injustice.

There is a deep continuity between the message of Jesus and the Law and the Prophets. This is why, in Sunday’s Gospel reading, Jesus encapsulates the purposes of his ministry by quoting Isaiah 61. Its message of good news for the poor and liberation for the oppressed recapitulates some of the central themes of the Law. For example, the “year of the Lord’s favour” refers to “the practice of the jubilee year authorised in Leviticus 25, when all properties lost in economic transactions will be restored and returned in order to permit a stable, functioning community” (Walter Brueggemann, Westminster Bible Commentary: Isaiah 40-66).

Jesus’s originality is not located in his proclamation of a set of “kingdom values”. What is entirely new is his claim that “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” The message of Jesus cannot be reduced to a set of ethical precepts: the Kingdom that he proclaims is inextricably related to God’s saving action in coming among us as the Word made flesh.

As Paul explains in Romans 7, fallen humans are unable to obey the Law in their own power, even when they long to do so. Only in Jesus is the Law fulfilled, the power of sin broken, and God’s purpose for humanity revealed in all its glory. In Jane Williams’s words, “we have tended to assume that Jesus became human like us, but now we discover that we are invited to become human like him” (The Art of Advent).

Our epistle explains how the saving work of Jesus becomes good news for each person who accepts him as Lord and receives his Spirit: “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” By the power of the Spirit, and through the sacramental life of the Church, we are now incorporated into the mystical Body of Christ; united with the one who has both fulfilled the Law and paid the price of our transgressions.

Fed by Christ, in word and sacrament, we are nourished by his life and incorporated into his mystical body. Our lives are conformed to his, not by external exhortations or commandments, but by his Holy Spirit dwelling in us. In him, we find revival for the soul, joy for the heart, and light for the eyes.

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