28 Sept, Wednesday of Week 26
Neh 2:1ff. The Persian king, Artaxerxes I allows the Jewish nobleman, Nehemiah, to go to Jerusalem, on a mission to rebuild its walls and restore the ancestral graves.
Lk 9:57ff. Jesus responds to prospective followers by a series of stern statements.
Courage amid Uncertainty
In career terms, Nehemiah had it made, as personal valet to the Persian king, Artaxerxes I (464-423 B.C.). An incidental detail indicates his rank or position at court, as the one who first tasted the king’s food and drink, to prove that nothing poisonous was being offered the monarch. He was daily in the royal retinue, and was therefore in a position to make requests or to interpret events and people. Yet he was sad because the city of his ancestors lay in ruins. Even though the temple had been rebuilt at the urging of Haggai and Zechariah, it was open to hostile invaders and no one could muster much energy to rebuild on a decent scale. The great prophecies of Ezekiel and Second Isaiah, spoken during the Babylonian exile, must have seemed to Nehemiah like visions without substance, mere whistling in the dark.
His gloom was so visible that the king asked what ailed him. To find the right words, Nehemiah prayed to the God of heaven and then made his request to be allowed go to Israel and speed up the rebuilding. He even got down to practical nuts-and-bolts issues like letters of introduction to local governors along the route of his return and requiring Asaph, the keeper of the royal park, to provide wood for the city gates, temple-citadel and his own residence. Nehemiah’s account ends with a reference that the favour of the Lord was on me.
Job also takes us back to that austere period after the exile as well as forward to personal crises in our lives. Today he is replying to Bildad, the second of his three friends who had journeyed to give him sympathy and comfort. In many ways chapter nine summarizes the entire Book of Job: no one can be justified before God, God is wise in heart and mighty in strength… “Should he come near me, I see him not; How much less can I give him any answer.” The magnificent poem to God’s overpowering control of the universe, beyond human scrutiny and comprehension, which concludes the Book in chaps. 38-41, is already sketched for us in today’s reading. Like Job, we too must live long within the dark cloud of mystery, in order to learn the way of faith and humility before God. Quick answers, like quick food and instant wealth, are generally not the best for physical health and psychological peace. Yet, once we have learned to recognize the inner groaning of the Spirit “as we await the redemption of our bodies” (Rom 823) and to be inwardly at peace with hopes as yet unfulfilled, then God calls us like Nehemiah to summon all of our human talents and to seize the opportunity to act with prudence and courage.
Very few people can live heroically on a continuous day-by-day basis, nor should life be planned that way. Yet, harsh moments come to each disciple, and then we need to turn and hear again the stern words of Jesus: The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. Let the dead bury their dead. Whoever puts his hand to the plough but keeps looking back is unfit for the reign of God. Today’s reading sets a pattern for one’s entire life, a life that includes long delays, great opportunities for human talents, heroic decisions of faith. For this day’s “today” we need to discern which of the readings are most appropriate, yet even today it is necessary to prepare for tomorrow and its new, unexpected demands.
First Reading: Nehemiah 2:1-8
In the month of Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was served him, I carried the wine and gave it to the king. Now, I had never been sad in his presence before. So the king said to me, “Why is your face sad, since you are not sick? This can only be sadness of the heart.” Then I was very much afraid. I said to the king, “May the king live forever! Why should my face not be sad, when the city, the place of my ancestors’ graves, lies waste, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?” Then the king said to me, “What do you request?” So I prayed to the God of heaven. Then I said to the king, “If it pleases the king, and if your servant has found favour with you, I ask that you send me to Judah, to the city of my ancestors’ graves, so that I may rebuild it.” The king said to me (the queen also was sitting beside him), “How long will you be gone, and when will you return?” So it pleased the king to send me, and I set him a date. Then I said to the king, “If it pleases the king, let letters begiven me to the governors of the province Beyond the River, that they may grant me passage until I arrive in Judah; and a letter to Asaph, the keeper of the king’s forest, directing him to give me timber to make beams for the gates of the temple fortress, and for the wall of the city, and for the house that I shall occupy.” And the king granted me what I asked, for the gracious hand of my God was upon me.
Gospel: Luke 9:57-62
As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”