In the seventh month all the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel. Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month. He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law. The scribe Ezra stood on a wooden platform that had been made for the purpose. And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, "Amen, Amen," lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground. Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherbiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, the Levites, helped the people to understand the law, while the people remained in their places. So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.
And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, "This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep." For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, "Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength." So the Levites stilled all the people, saying, "Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved." And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.
After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, "The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, 'Peace to this house!' And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the labourer deserves to be paid."
" Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, 'The kingdom of God has come near to you.' But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, 'Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.' I tell you, on that day it will be more tolerable for Sodom than for that town."
We sense special urgency in each of these texts today. Ezra forcefully gathers the people, even the teenagers ("children old enough to understand"), to hear about God's guidance through the Torah received by Moses. Then Jesus sends out the seventy-two disciples with no provisions, but with an urgent mission to announce that the reign of God is at hand. While these texts share a sense of the need to act at once in a decisive way, they part company in their vision of the future. Ezra foresees a long stretch of history on earth, for which he prepares his people by renewing the covenant and by teaching them God's written law.. while Jesus announces that human hopes would soon be fulfilled in the reign of God.
Perhaps we need both of these perspectives, both the sense of urgency and some plan for the long haul. Jesus told his messengers, "If the people of any town you enter do not welcome you, move on. But know that the reign of God is near." Facing certain choices in life we may have time to think, and then like Ezra we can carefully prepare for the future. At other times we need to choose instantly, and only our best impulses can help us then. Sometimes we have time afterwards to correct mistakes, but it seems that at other times (like the towns that rejected our Lord's messengers,) our decisions are fixed in stone, unchangeable. For the rest of our life, possibly for eternity, we must live with the consequences.
In the Church too, we need Ezra-like leadership -- someone to speak with authority, whom we can confidently follow. He explained the book of God's law plainly, so that all could understand it. The good Lord did not intend the Torah to bring sorrow but joy. When Ezra saw his people in tears of repentance, he urged them in a friendly tone, Do not be sad, and do not weep Go, eat rich foods and drink sweet drinks. Share with those with nothing prepared. Like pope Francis in our time, Ezra urged joy along with sane discipline and so proposed a way of life to last into the future. With inspirational, joyful leadership, our Church can emerge strengthened from the travails of our recent past. If we commit ourselves to living under the guidance of God, we have the living presence of Jesus right here, in the midst of us.
St Luke shows Jesus sending out a large group of seventy-two, and telling them to "ask the Lord of the harvest to send out still more labourers into the harvest." The Lord's work in its various forms cannot be carried out by just a small little group; it requires a large number of helpers. Because the harvest is great and varied, the more labourers the better. This is an important message for both bishops and faithful in our own day. More and more people are needed to take responsibility for the life of the church, for the work of the Lord.
In sending out his spokespeople, Jesus draws attention to the difficulties they will face. He anticipates that some towns will not make them welcome. But whether people make them welcome or not the disciples are to proclaim, "the kingdom of God is very near to you." The Lord is very near whether welcomed or not. The Lord is present whether he is received or not. Jesus continues to work in and through those who are ready to be his labourers, whether or not that work is appreciated. We are constantly in the presence of God's kingdom, God's rule among us; there is no getting away from that reality. The question is how we respond to that ultimate reality.