EZRAH 5-10: During my recent sojourn in Burkina Faso, I was touched by the story in Ezrah 8, about the band of pilgrims and priests transporting treasure to the Temple of YHWH from their places of exile, across a dangerous, difficult and hostile desert, without the help or defense of the world. I saw in this story a powerful symbol of the church, and of our own pilgrimages. So I made it the focus of several messages in various locations. Some of those thoughts are repeated in my message of March 13, 2011, also available on this website, at http://www.emmanuelmennonitechurch.com/2011/03/23/kan-bayn/
We too are exiles (I Peter 1:1) on a journey to God’s great house of worship and fellowship. We too are carrying treasures for which we are accountable. Only our treasures are the gifts of the Spirit (I Cor. 12-13), and the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22). Like Ezrah and his pilgrim band, we transport our treasures across a dangerous and difficult landscape, beset by dangers and enemies who would steal and even kill. But God has the power to deliver us to our destination with all the treasures he has confided to us intact.
Ezra’s dealings (chapter 10) with those who had married Gentile wives poses some moral problems, namely divorce, even with children. But in light of the covenant made in Nehemiah 13 not to marry Gentiles, it is just as true that those who took foreign wives presented the Judean community with moral problems, such as the breaking of a covenant with the community, the dilution of the holy people’s religious and linguistic identity, and the abandonment of Jewish women so that they would only have Gentile men to marry, nearly guaranteeing that their children would not be Jewish. The issue takes on a different cast when it is a beleaguered remnant community that is at stake, and when the people in question had already effectively agreed to do otherwise by their return.
The post-exilic story continues with the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls, under the guidance of Nehemiah. His position and influence with the king of the Medo-Persian Empire indicates something of the effect, and sometimes the respect, of the Jewish community in the land of their Exile. The command given by God in Jeremiah 29:7 (“Seek the peace of the city to which I send you”) had, to some degree, been fulfilled. A century after the beginning of the Exile, it is time to seek the peace of Jerusalem, which includes giving it a boundary. Given the previous history, it is not hard to understand why some in the Medo-Persian empire might feel threatened by such a move. But the threats to the community do not come only from outside the walls taking shape. Chapter 5 records a situation akin to ours today: extreme poverty and disparity, debt, usury and enslavement. Modern forms of enslavement include sex trafficking and the trafficking of labor. But what else do we call it when people work full time or more and still cannot pay for all their basic needs, such as housing, health care or education? And yet they must stay at the same low wage jobs to keep what little they have? The re-building of Zion’s walls under the leadership of Nehemiah serves as a metaphor for the rebuilding of Zion’s religious and legal life and boundaries, so that the community there might again serve as the “city on a hill,” an example and model to the world of that city which is yet to descend and reunite heaven and earth (Rev. 22).
PSALM 38 is a quintessential Psalm of Lament, a personal lament rather than a national one, in that the mourner and petitioner confesses his sin, his suffering and his ostracism and rejection at the hands of his neighbors. In it we are given words and models for our own confession and laments, and the assurance that God hears them. In our times of grief, penitence, depression and exclusion we may find our experience mirrored and expressed in such psalms. When such experiences seem far from us, and all is going well enough, it is still valuable for us to hear the words of Psalm 38, lest we fall into assuming that faith and virtue are always and automatically connected with success, strength, health and happiness, and to encourage our compassion.