As a theological librarian on faculty at a seminary, I’m asked to preach in our weekly chapel service annually. This year, I preached on Nehemiah 8:1-10 which tells the story of Ezra reading the book of the law of Moses to the people after they have returned to Jerusalem from exile. This homily focuses on the work of responsible interpretation.
The following was written and delivered by Myka Kennedy Stephens in Santee Chapel, Lancaster Theological Seminary on Saturday, February 2, 2019. Please give proper attribution when quoting from or referencing this work.
Interpretation. The act of giving meaning and explaining something. What a tremendous responsibility, and yet it is something we do all the time – often without thinking.
Take, for example, a recent conversation I had with my thirteen-year-old son through Apple’s iMessage app. On the day of our spring convocation, I was expecting to hear from him that he and his sister had made it safely home from school. We’re in the early days of letting them stay at home by themselves and this was the first occasion when they would be coming home to an empty house and would be alone for nearly two hours. I was a little anxious. I discreetly checked my cell phone when it vibrated during the service and found this message: “I have arrived home safely. My sister has not been kidnapped.” In the moment I read that message, my brain could have interpreted those words in a number of ways. Knowing my son and his dry sense of humor, I interpreted his words playfully. My anxiety wasn’t entirely placated, though, and so I responded, “Glad to hear that. Is she totally safe? And you too?” His reply did not answer my worry directly. “Maybe. I hope the microwave doesn’t explode.” Under those words, I interpreted a layer of meaning that they really were safe, fine, and in good humor.
Interpretation. We do it when we read, when we listen, when we engage in conversations. As our society has become more centered on information and communication, the way in which we interpret what we see and hear and how we act upon and share our interpretations plays a major role in how we relate to one another and function as a society. When interpretation is haphazard, careless, and irresponsible, there are dire consequences for communities. You don’t have to look far for examples of this. Just take a look at Twitter or Facebook at any time on any day.
Interpretation plays a vital role in faith communities. This should not be a surprise. Throughout your time here at Lancaster Seminary you’ll find that there is a strong emphasis on developing interpretive skills and finding your voice as a leader. The scripture passage we heard this morning tells us how scriptural interpretation became established as an integral part of becoming a faith community. Nehemiah, and its companion book Ezra, contain the stories of how community was restored among the Jewish people after the Babylonian exile. At this point in the story, the people of Israel have been allowed to return to their land by the Persian emperor Cyrus. They have restored the temple and rebuilt the walls around Jerusalem.
It is the first day of the seventh month which is celebrated today as Rosh Hashanah, New Year’s Day in the Jewish tradition. All the people are gathered in the square, asking for and eager to hear Ezra read from the book of the law of Moses. He reads to them, speaking from a wooden platform that places him above the people so that he can be seen and heard by all assembled.
Our reading this morning from the Revised Common Lectionary omits a couple of verses that offer some key details about Ezra’s reading that I would like to share with you. Verse 4 lists those who were standing with Ezra as he read. Ezra was not sharing the word of God with the people by himself. He was flanked on both sides by a total of thirteen laypeople. Verse 7 lists an additional thirteen Levite priests who moved about the people to help them understand the law while Ezra read. We must understand then that verse 8, which we did hear this morning, refers to the way in which this team of religious leaders led the people in reading the word of God: “So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They” (meaning Ezra, the laypeople on the platform, and the Levites moving among the people) “gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.”
The people assembled who hear the reading have a deep emotional response. They weep. The grief they are feeling, or perhaps sense of being overwhelmed by what they have heard, could shut them off from fully integrating and living into God’s word. Ezra and the other leaders give assurance: This is a holy and joyous day. Do not be grieved. Eat, drink, and find strength in God’s joy.
From my perspective as a theological librarian, I see a familiar pattern of behavior in this story. It illustrates the cycle of asking questions, seeking and finding answers, and then incorporating this new information into knowledge, which can in turn lead to asking new questions. Starting with the question: The people ask Ezra, “Please read to us from the book of the law of Moses.” They want to know what it says. They want to hear the law and to understand it. It could be that after years of exile, they have forgotten it or the details or a little hazy. Regardless, they ask. They have a desire to know more.
As Ezra reads, the people are hearing the law. What they hear affects them. Weeping almost shuts the reading out. They begin to shut down, to emotionally turn inward, to abandon their search, their quest for an answer to their questions. Yet Ezra, the laypeople accompanying him in the reading, and the Levite priests walking among the crowd, do not let that happen. They continue to be a conduit for the word of God, helping the people understand it. They are not only providing access to the book of the law of Moses, a primary source of information for this faith community, but their communication of the law includes interpretation, giving sense and meaning to the word in a way that the people can understand and relate to. This is what enables the people to then integrate God’s word into their knowledge and faith, which will feed their continued growth as people of God, fueling new questions about God and living together as a faith community.
This cycle of behavior I have outlined has two agents. The first is the person asking questions, seeking answers, finding sources of information, and incorporating new knowledge. The second is the one who helps provide answers, who becomes a source of information, an authority to whom a person comes with questions. We must also acknowledge, that this second agent—this person of authority who becomes a source of information—also engages the same cycle of asking questions, seeking answers, finding sources of information, and incorporates new knowledge before providing interpretation to a wider community. Ezra is the one the narrator draws attention to as the leader who communicates and interprets God’s law to the people, but he is not alone. He is accompanied by laypeople of authority and trained priests who assist him. Interpretation to a faith community is a huge responsibility, and Ezra models wise research practices, drawing support from a community of faith leaders with wisdom and a tradition. This is the model of responsible research, responsible communication, responsible interpretation for the formation of faith communities. This is how we discover the joy of the Lord and derive strength from it to share with those whom we are blessed to lead.
As a community of learners and seekers who are actively being formed into leaders and communicators, I encourage us to reflect on the role we play in the seeking and formation of those we seek to serve. As leaders, we will be asked a variety of questions, we will be invited to offer interpretations. They way in which we do that will have a direct impact on those who trust us enough to ask. We have a sacred duty to honor that trust and ensure that we are responsible in how we provide our answers. We cannot rely solely on our intuition, interpreting without thinking. I challenge us to consider who are our authorities and trained experts that we call upon to help us in responsible interpretation. Is it Amazon’s Alexa, Wikipedia, the top ranked Google search result, and the latest Facebook meme? Or is it a carefully curated collection of reliable publications and websites and authors you can trust? Do you rely upon your own knowledge and experience, or do you regularly call upon the wisdom of others—teachers, preachers, scholars, librarians—to assist you in the task of interpretation? We bear a heavy responsibility as communicators and leaders within faith communities. The good news is that we do not bear that responsibility of interpretation in isolation. Ezra drew wisdom from carefully selected laypeople and priests to help him. Who are your chosen wise ones?