Reflection for Sunday – January 23, 2022

Readings: Nehemiah 8: 2-4a, 5-6, 8-10; 1 Corinthians 12: 12-30; Luke 1: 1-4, 4: 14-21 
Preacher: Ruth Marchetti

Nearly 60 years ago a preacher from Atlanta Georgia held a throng in awe at the Lincoln Memorial as he called for an end of oppression for African Americans. Martin Luther King’s stirring speech resonated far beyond the crowd as people turned with hope that we might finally “lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood…(and) make justice a reality for all of God’s children.” Justice would, of course, not be so simple to achieve.

In today’s Old Testament reading, Ezra and Nehemiah call their people back, not only to their homeland, but to the great symbol of their covenant with God—the Law. As Ezra unrolls the scroll to read the law, the people are deeply moved. This law not only brings order to their lives, its practice sets them apart; it is essential to their identity.

When the great King Cyrus restored Jerusalem to the Israelites and repaid the resources that had been stolen when the Temple was destroyed, there was great rejoicing. No longer would the Jews be subject to a foreign law and forced to worship strange gods, their identity was restored in the Law. When the new temple was completed and Ezra stood to read the law before all the people who were old enough to understand, many wept. Certainly there was joy in that weeping, but perhaps also loss—they may have been people of privilege who benefitted from Persian law or enjoyed freedom from strict dietary and ritual regulations. How many of us have benefited from laws that privileged some groups over others?

Law brings order to society, but it doesn’t always bring justice. We have only to look to the experience of people of color in our nation. Many ancestors were imported as slaves, human bodies owned as livestock. Even with the end of slavery, the dominant culture found legal ways to deny basic rights, liberty and even life to people of African descent. People who had endured the trauma of slavery did not even receive compensation for their time in bondage. African Americans were not the sole targets of bias. Others, especially Asians, were excluded from the United States altogether or denied citizenship when their labor was no longer needed. It’s been barely 100 years since women achieved equality in voting rights and far fewer since laws denying basic rights to LGBTQ people began to fall from the books. Justice has not always been present in our law.

Yet the psalm extolls the “perfect law.” Has any law ever been truly perfect? God’s law is perfect; embellished with human add-ons, we attain order and identity but lose perfection. Jesus incarnate announces a new covenant, but the same law, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”  Jesus is the embodiment of the Law that will truly set us free. A law boiled down to its essence, unencumbered by provisions that allow for existing biases: just love and care for one another.

When Jesus begins his public ministry by standing up in the temple, unrolling the scroll and reading from the prophet Isaiah, he is proclaiming a perfection in the law that would bring “good news to the poor… freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, (and would) set the oppressed free.” Once again, the people are moved and astonished, the recognition of some powerful truth resonates in them, before they turn against Jesus. If I am not poor, imprisoned, blind or oppressed do I really want those who are, to be free and empowered? How might that impact the structures that benefit me?

We are all shaped by our families, our culture, the groups we align with, what we read, what we watch or listen to. Jesus calls us to look at the world and its laws through the prism of the perfect law that recognizes the fundamental “God within” identity of every human.

Whose words stir your heart today?

Ruth Marchetti
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