Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 57; 145, Ezra 7:27-28, 8:21-36, Revelation 20:7-15, Matthew 17:1-13
Do we recognize the distinction between technical freedom and equality and practical freedom and equality?
After King Artaxerxes decreed any Jewish people who wished to return to Jerusalem were free to do so – and to take with them an abundance of gold, silver, holy vessels and urns, livestock for offerings, and other supplies – the prophet Ezra led them home. Ezra did not ask for military protection because he’d boldly proclaimed the Lord would protect them from harm.
Over the next four months and nine hundred miles, the Jews did indeed manage to avoid enemies and ambushes and return to the city, where they began to rebuild.
How would we describe that time between the decree and the arrival in Jerusalem? The people were technically free, but they certainly weren’t yet an autonomous nation. They were surrounded by enemies and far from home. Almost certainly a few of them died before reaching the city. The joy of no longer being prisoners must at times have been muted or eclipsed by the dangers of freedom without security.
There’s a significant lag between the time people are legally decreed to be free or equal and the time it becomes a practical reality they can take for granted. The history of the United States is full of slow, jerky progress for many kinds of people. Slavery was outlawed over 150 years ago, but racial inequity persists to this day. Women are legally equal to men, but a long history (and present) of federal court cases are evidence the culture hasn’t caught up with the law. People with disabilities have legal protections, but struggle daily to be seen, heard, and accepted. One of our oldest guaranteed freedoms is freedom of religion, but people of all religions face discrimination to greater or lesser degrees. Undoubtedly you can think of numerous additional examples. That four-month, nine-hundred-mile journey seems short in comparison.
Just because someone has been declared free … doesn’t mean they are home free.
When someone who belongs to a group that has been oppressed or marginalized tells us they aren’t home free yet, instead of dismissing them with “you have equal rights” let’s be willing to listen to what is still wrong. Let’s listen to what enemies lie in wait to ambush them.
Artaxerxes was wise enough to understand he needed to make restitution to restore the possibility of opportunity to the Jews. Just as Ezra did not ask Artaxerxes to rebuild or even protect the Jews in their new freedom, communities still seeking full freedom and equality today only want what has been taken or withheld from them and the opportunity to build themselves up. The least we can do is figure out how to get out of their way.
Comfort: God desires justice for everyone.
Challenge: Make a point of listening to the experiences of people who differ from you, particularly people who have been historically oppressed in ways you have not.
Prayer: The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made. (Psalm 145:8-9)
Discussion: How diverse is your church? Your employer? Your dinner table?
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