“The precepts of the Lord give joy to the heart,” proclaims the responsorial psalm. “The law of the Lord is perfect,” writes the psalmist. Because of this, Erza the scribe encouraged the people to celebrate when the law was proclaimed. Historical scholars remind us the text from Nehemiah belongs in the context of the post-exilic reconstruction of Israel. Our reading, then, is a celebration of the recovery of the people after a period of extended trial and near destruction. For them the law quite literally “refreshes the soul.” We should not forget, however, that the joy came only after a period of suffering.
But then the lectionary hurls us from this post-exilic context into the future ministry of Jesus. Here, we read of a less-than-joyful reception of Jesus’ law. “The harvest is rich, but the workers are few.” Jesus counsels his disciples on how to cope with frequent rejection, and the doubt that comes with it. It must have been difficult to go out and do this ministry, even two by two, but we are encouraged by the promise of ultimate success and peace.
A further complication that faces us today is that it is the feast of Francis of Assisi. These are indeed an odd set of readings within which to interpret this celebrated Saint. What has he to say to Ezra or to those who went out two by two? Perhaps the key is this: Francis did literally what the Lord asked. He carried no walking stick, and no traveling bag. He wore no sandals, and he frequently preached “peace.” Because of his obedience he was not discouraged and was able, throughout his life, to proclaim that “the precepts of the Lord are right [and rejoice] the heart.” Francis obeyed the law of Christ in a way that few Christians have, but, as all who study Francis know, the path he followed was not always easy.
In the weeks since the attack on America we have given much attention
to Islam. I have studied that religious tradition for some years,
although I understand it very imperfectly. One thing, however, that
I admire is the emphasis that Muslims place upon obedience and submission
to God. This theme, though strong is Christianity, rarely stands
in stark relief. Yet, there are times when it should. God’s
ways are often complex and difficult to grasp—they certainly have been
these last two weeks. Jesus reminds us that to labor for God’s harvest
is hard, but he also reminds us that if we are faithful and obedient, despite
the difficulty, the end result will always return to us as peace.
Such, I think, is the promise that comes to us today from Nehemiah, Luke,
and, Francis: “the ordinances of the Lord are true, all of the just.”
I am grateful for this and consoled by it, even if I am not quite ready
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