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Engaging with the empire (Feb. 13, 2022)

Uniform Lesson for February 13, 2022
Scripture passage and lesson focus: Ezra 7:1-10, 23-26

It’s one thing when a king forgets the law and begins to use his position for his own gratification and benefit — as we saw last week in the story of David and Bathsheba. It’s another thing when a whole people forget the law after a long and devastating period of exile. This week we come to a chapter in the ongoing journey of God’s people where “law and order” need to be reestablished on the other side of captivity. King Artaxerxes of Persia grants Ezra permission to “go up” from exile to further and strengthen the restoration of Jerusalem and its surrounding territories in the province of Judah. As Jeshua and Zerubbabel are credited with rebuilding the Temple (Ezra 3), and Nehemiah is cited as the rebuilder of the wall (Nehemiah 2), Ezra is called to “study,” “do” and “teach” the law of the Lord. Perhaps, in ways both similar and dissimilar, we are called to do the same.

The hand of the Lord his God was upon him

Cyrus, Darius and Artaxerxes (three successive Persian rulers) are often looked upon as more enlightened leaders in the ancient Near East. In fact, the prophet Isaiah goes so far as to designate Cyrus a messiah, an “anointed” one of God (Isaiah 45:1). However, we must also recognize that this positive assessment is a relative one. Yes, the Persians, unlike the Babylonians, allowed some of the captives to return with some degree of autonomy. But no, the Persians did not truly set this people free. Judah remained a territory within the Persian empire with expectations regarding tributes and payments and hopes of providing a buffer amid Persia’s struggles with Egypt and Greece. Ezra’s engagement with the empire was messy, as is ours today.

The storyteller lists another reason for Artaxerxes’ more generous treatment of Ezra. According to the writer, Artaxerxes was willing to grant Ezra “all that he asked, for the hand of the Lord his God was upon him.” Ezra joins a line of biblical witnesses whose testimony to God is demonstrated primarily through the practical wisdom and the divine blessing exhibited in their lives — think Joseph saving Egypt from a famine, think Esther diverting a planned genocide, think the whole tribe of Israel as seen by the prophet Balaam (Numbers 22–24). Note that the writer of Ezra lists the Lord as “his” (Ezra’s, not Artaxerxes’) God. This is not a story of conversion as we usually understand it. Rather, the king sees something in the thoughts and actions of this foreign scribe that leads him to entrust Ezra with a critical mission within his jurisdiction. We might begin to wonder whether our thoughts and actions garner similar trust and empowerment today.

Study, do, teach

The preacher in me cannot help but lift up the threefold program to which Ezra “set his heart”: “to study the law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach the statutes and ordinances in Israel” (v.10). Ezra began with study, then moved toward action, then followed up his actions with an opportunity to teach. If people have forgotten the law due to a period of prolonged captivity to principalities and powers beyond their control, how will justice and righteousness once more become embodied in their worship and their work? Someone needs to study God’s way in God’s word. Someone needs to put such study into practice in one’s particular place and context. And someone needs to then teach one’s neighbors regarding the purposes and principles behind one’s actions, both individual and corporate. This sounds like the way of Ezra, the way of Jesus and the way of the early church: Study. Do. Teach.

Civil and ecclesiastical law

In the end, we cannot get through this lesson without tackling a couple of fundamental questions for this text in our context. First, this passage envisions a day when God’s law, as interpreted by Ezra and those whom he appoints, shall become the law of the land, enforced by capital punishment, banishment and/or confiscation of goods (vv. 25-26).
Such a theocratic approach to government is not the one the United States has adopted. Is this wise or unwise? Faithful or unfaithful?

Second, we must return to the notion of “strings attached.” While the officials are freed from “tribute, custom, or toll” by Ezra’s decree
(v. 24), this does not seem to apply to the rest of God’s people. How does the nation’s law and order line up with or against the demands of faith, then and now?

For discussion:

How is the “messiness” of Ezra’s position similar and dissimilar to ours today?

Richard Boyce is the dean of the Charlotte campus of Union Presbyterian Seminary, and associate professor of preaching and pastoral leadership. He is a minister member of the Presbytery of Western North Carolina.

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