Ezra read plainly from the book of the law of God, interpreting it so that all could understand what was read. (Nehemiah 8: 8)
Four hundred and fifty years before the birth of Christ, in the era of the Roman Republic, the two groups of people living in Rome were the Patricians and Plebeians. The Patricians were essentially the aristocratic families of Rome, concerned with the governance and administration of the City, whilst the Plebeians were the common folk, many of whom worked in service for the Patricians, enabling the great City to operate on a daily basis. The Patricians, as the intellectual and educated class, wrote and administered the law of the City, whilst the Plebeians were merely subject to it. It may seem peculiar to us with the benefit of hindsight, but the Plebeians, though bound by the law, were not aware of exactly what the law was or how it was to be kept, and so they eventually demanded (and won) the chance for the law to be promulgated and explained to them, in order that being aware of it they might abide by it more fairly and conscientiously. The result of this was the publication of the first body of Roman laws, known as the Twelve Tables: great bronze tablets that were displayed in the public space of the Roman Forum, in order that the plebs, that is the people, might be able to see, read, and begin to understand the law under which they were to live their daily lives.
In today’s First Reading from the book of the Prophet Nehemiah, we find the tradition of the Jewish people hearing the Law read to them by the priests who, by virtue of their office, would also interpret it so that the people might better know and understand the manner in which they should live-out their covenant with the Lord God. During the Feast of Booths, or Tabernacles, the annual commemoration of the dependence of the People of Israel on God during the forty year exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land and the celebration of the harvest, such a public reading of the Law was mandated by the Book of Deuteronomy. Again, this not only reminded the people of what the Law was—that is, the means by which they should live—but also sought reaffirmed the importance of its observance. Much in the same way as we might read a sign in a public place that says, “No Smoking”; we know that the law forbids it, yet the sign reminds us of that fact, and acts an encouragement to abide by this simple social precept.
This same principle is true of our reading of sacred scripture. As Christians, we are called to know and love the scriptures, and to allow the Word of God to be something that is truly alive within us; to infuse us and change us, in order that we might be more and more closely conformed to the promises of our baptism—our covenant with God, sealed in the Precious Blood of the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ. We are to know the scriptures well, and to read them with regularity, even daily. Yet the interpretation of scripture is not ours alone; we cannot read the texts of the bible and simply decide for ourselves what they mean. We cannot say, “What this means to me is different from what it means to you,” or “What this means to us is different from what it meant to our ancestors.” The universality of the Church, across time and place, means that the truth of the scriptures is unchanged from apostolic times, unchanging in our own, and unchangeable in the future. As the Epistle to the Hebrews tells us, “Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever” (Heb. 13: 8).
We see this principle at work in the choice of the prayers and texts of the Mass, which is our principle point of contact with the Word of God. Here we read and hear texts from scripture, and see them applied alongside other texts, in order to elucidate their true meaning. We hear particular passages or verses at different times of the liturgical year, to draw out the character of a particular person or a particular event, and we see parallels drawn between the texts of the Old Testament and the New Testament, in order that we might see more clearly the reality which, in the past, was merely a shadow.
Just as the Patricians served as the mediators of the law to the Plebeians in ancient Rome, and the Levitical priests acted as interpreters of the scriptures to the People of Israel, so the Church is for us—not just the plebs, but the plebs Sancta Dei—the voice of authority. The Church is the mother who guides her children to come to know what is right and what is wrong; what is just and what is unjust; what is true and what is false. In the teaching of the Church Fathers, and in the writings of the saints and successors of the apostles, we receive an authentic interpretation of the law, that is of the law by which we live our lives—the scriptures—in order that we might be faithful to the bond established between us and our Lord, who delivered us dry shod through Red Sea of our baptism, and brought us safely from the bonds of sin and death, and home to the Promised Land of eternal life, as the Israelites of old.
So may our hearts be ever ready to receive the Word of God with the humility and docility of a child seeking guidance from a trusted and trustworthy parent. And may we come, in the knowledge of that law, to serve the Lord more freely and more faithfully; that one with him in this life, we may come to share with him the fruits of the kingdom he has prepared for those who remain faithful to him. For “the Law of the Lord is perfect” and “the precepts of the Lord are right” (Psalm 19).