By Father Jean-Pierre Ruiz
The books of Ezra and Nehemiah, classified among the historical books of the Old Testament, are probably not at the top of the list of most people’s spiritual reading. Yet both books focus on a vitally important period in the centuries before Christ: the return of the Judean exiles from Babylon after the fall of the Babylonian empire to the Persian armies, the rebuilding of the ruined walls of Jerusalem and the reconstruction of the Temple.
The book of Ezra begins with a proclamation by Cyrus, the King of Persia in which he declares, “All the kingdoms of the earth the Lord, the God of heaven, has given to me, and he has charged me to build him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Those among you who belong to any part of his people, may their God be with them! Let them go up to Jerusalem in Judah to build the house of the Lord the God of Israel, that is, the God who is in Jerusalem” (Ezra 1:2-3).
Ezra and Nehemiah were key leaders of the Judean returnees, with Ezra, the priest-scribe, sent by the Persian king to organize the reconstruction of the Temple (Ezra 7:11-28) and Nehemiah sent, at his own request, to rebuild Jerusalem, beginning with its defensive walls (Nehemiah 2:3-8). After surveying the dire condition of the city’s fortifications, Nehemiah urged the people to set themselves to the task: “You see the trouble we are in: how Jerusalem lies in ruins and its gates have been gutted by fire. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, so that we may no longer be a reproach!” (Nehemiah 2:17).
While it is important for us in the Diocese of Brooklyn to be familiar with the historical background, there is much more to the name “Nehemiah” for the thousands of Brooklynites who live in homes built as part of the Nehemiah Plan, a project developed and sponsored under the aegis of East Brooklyn Congregations (EBC). Founded in 1980, EBC is a community-based, multi-faith organization that has scored significant victories for its constituents in concerns that include affordable housing, education reform, tenant organizing, consumer organizing and public safety.
Deliberately dubbed the Nehemiah Plan after the key figure who led the work of rebuilding Jerusalem’s walls, EBC launched the project in the early 1980s, with the support of religious leaders that included Bishop Francis J. Mugavero, and with countless hours of work by committed laity and clergy of our diocese, side by side with equally committed members of other faith communities. From the beginning, EBC emphasized that the Nehemiah Plan was about building community, and not just another construction project. It is people who make a house a home, not bricks and mortar, steel and concrete. A home is more than a roof over your head. It is a place where life is shared in the give and take of everyday life.
In the portion of the Book of Nehemiah from which this Sunday’s first reading is taken, we learn of a dramatic assembly of the people of Jerusalem convened outdoors “at one end of the open place that was before the Water Gate.” While the city’s walls and gates had been rebuilt – “none of the houses had been rebuilt” (Nehemiah 7:4), and much remained to be done to make the city habitable – the labor ahead had to wait for something far more vital to the well-being of the people. “The whole people gathered as one…called upon Ezra the scribe to bring forth the book of the law of Moses which the Lord had commanded for Israel” (Nehemiah 8:1).
From daybreak until midday, Ezra read to the people from the Torah, from the Sacred Scriptures. When Ezra opened the scroll and pronounced the blessing, “all the people, their hands raised high, answered, ‘Amen, amen!’ Then they bowed down and prostrated themselves before the Lord” (Nehemiah 8:6).
Reading out loud was the customary practice at a time in history when relatively few people were literate, but there was much more to the solemn gathering than this merely practical matter. First things first: building a solid foundation for the returnees to flourish and thrive as members of God’s faithful people called for them to renew their commitment to God’s covenant.
No structures of brick or stone could stand secure unless both the builders and inhabitants stood on the solid ground of God’s holy word. In the words of the psalmist in this Sunday’s responsorial psalm, those assembled outside the walls recognized, “The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; The command of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eye” (Psalm 19:9).
This week, Luke’s Gospel tells us that Jesus Himself began the work of His ministry by reading aloud from the Scriptures while at the Sabbath gathering for prayer in the synagogue at Nazareth. Like Jesus, and like the people of Jerusalem gathered outside the city walls in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, we come together to proclaim and to hear God’s word, and to build our community of faith on the solid foundation that God’s holy word provides.
Praying with the psalmist, “Your words, Lord, are Spirit and life,” we recognize, as did Ezra and Nehemiah many centuries ago, that unless the Lord builds the house, in vain do its builders labor.
Readings for the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Nehemiah 8: 2-4A, 5-6, 8-10
Psalm 19: 8, 9, 10, 15
1 Corinthians 12: 12-30 or 1 Corinthians 12: 12-14, 27
Luke 1:1-4; 4: 14-21
Father Jean-Pierre Ruiz, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, is a professor of theology at St. John’s University