The prayer that we hear fall from Ezra’s lips today is fervent and sincere. It was, however, occasioned by a sad part of Israel’s history.
The remnant of Israel – a name given them because not everyone came back to Jerusalem – found that those who had been left behind seventy years ago had intermarried with the Canaanite people. Only the elderly, the weak, and the very poor had been left behind. Without help from the local people, they would have died. Because intermarriage between Israelites and foreigners was strictly forbidden, Ezra bows before God and prays about their sin. Then he negotiates a settlement with these families which involved sending their foreign wives and children away.
Why do they insist on this? Remember that they had just endured seventy years of slavery at the hands of the Assyrians. According to the prophets, especially the prophet Jeremiah, slavery had befallen them because they had not kept the covenant of Sinai, the Law or Torah as it was known to them. Fearing that unless they rid themselves of these sinners another calamity would befall them, they decide to send these people away. They become known as the Samaritans and live separate from their Jewish cousins. Indeed, they eventually become bitter enemies of the Jews.
If nothing else, their actions in this regard tell us that they were sincere in their desire to enter once again into their covenant relationship. Though their reasoning was faulty in that it was based upon the principle of retribution or reciprocity, it was, in their minds, the only thing they could to avoid another downfall.
This period of history is known as the Restoration and sees the Temple rebuilt and the birth of the various groups we read about in the Gospels who become the persecutors of Jesus; namely, the Pharisees, the Saducees, the scribes and the priests of the Temple.
We are fortunate in the fact that we have the teachings of Jesus to remind us that God is merciful, forgiving, and compassionate. Despite this, we often find that Christians act just like Ezra and the people of the Restoration when it comes to dealing with alien peoples. The Eucharist bids us to rebuild the Body of Christ, to go out and preach the nearness of the Kingdom of God.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator