In 2004, we were living on our boat in Puerto Rico but were in the process moving to Florida. Melanie was expecting our second child and my task was to sail our boat to Florida. She went on and I gathered a small crew and set off.
In Ezra, we find a confluence of divine influence and human agency. The story, of course, was written by Jewish historians, so their interpretation of Cyrus’ actions attributed partial responsibility to God. It says, “The Lord stirred his heart.” Did God cause Cyrus to let the Israelite people return to Judah? Or, did Cyrus do it because it was good politics?
On the first attempt to sail back home, something broke on the boat. We heard a loud, “THUD! THUD! THUD!” From the sound, I figured that the folding propeller had only open halfway. But, this was louder and more violent than any other boat sounds. I dove in in the water and swam under the boat. It was the prop.
I was suspended under the boat, holding the propeller shaft, and inspecting the prop. Suddenly, I was struck the beauty. It seemed like I could see forever in any direction. The visibility in the water was amazing! We were about 90 miles northwest of the coast of Puerto Rico, over the Puerto Rico Trench, which is over 5 miles deep. Despite the beauty and wonder of that moment, I knew that we had to turn back.
At the time, I was so frustrated. I wondered if God was pushing me back to Puerto Rico. Everything had gone wrong as we were leaving. Was it God? Or, was it simply a mechanical problem?
During the initial months of the pandemic, we approached it as something to get through. Now, we see that it will last and it might even change some things forever. What will the future look like? For us, right now, what does it even mean to go back?
Ezra opens with the initial return of the Babylonian exiles. King Nebuchadnezzar led the Babylonians to conquer the ancient Israelite people. Cyrus led the Persians to defeat the Babylonians in 539 BCE. After the defeat, when he entered their capital city, people welcomed him as a person of peace, and Cyrus demonstrated religious tolerance by allowing exiled deities to return to their shrines.
When I read about Cyrus in Ezra 1.1, and his edict repeated in Aramaic in verses 2-4, I wonder why he let them go back. It could have been good politics. Letting people rebuild their shrines would endear him to the people, especially after the Babylonians’ approach of taking the best and brightest back to Babylon.
Nebuchadnezzar took Jerusalem at the end of 2 Chronicles (36.10ff). The problems of his rule are clear in places like Daniel, in which wise, young Jewish man Daniel outwits Nebuchadnezzar. Jeremiah and some Psalms also address the period of captivity.
With Cyrus, that all ends. Go back home. Rebuild your lives. It’s all okay.
As much as it is nice to be able to go back home, anyone who has endured any catastrophe (or even a hardship) can attest that it isn’t your home anymore. It’s the rebuilt home after the fire. It’s the cleaned home after the flood. It’s the familiar home even after you’ve been changed by a journey. Even if everything is as you left it, you have changed through your experiences.
When I flew back to Puerto Rico a few months later, after the birth of our second child, I had a different crew. I had a new plan. The things that broke on that first trip were now repaired. I learned from the mistakes I made during that first attempt. Even though the path of my planned journey was essentially the same, I was different.
In turn, the experience was different. Everything went well. Even when there was a problem, it was no big deal. We were ready. The autopilot broke somewhere between Puerto Rico and the Turks and Caicos, but that’s just a blip in my memory now.
I do remember the sunsets and sunrises, the flying fish, the dolphins, ships passing in the distance, seeing the sea change from deep blue to turquoise around Caribbean islands.
Returning from Captivity
The ancient Israelite people may have experienced something similar, probably not the turquoise water, but they saw Jerusalem in a new way. Cyrus told them, “Go back.”
They could now rebuild their temple. Some of them probably never imagined they would ever be able to do that. In Ezra 1.1, it says that the Lord “stirred up” or “moved” Cyrus’ spirit. In this moment, there is a convergence of divine and human agency. God moves and so does Cyrus. Wouldn’t it be great if God stirred people’s spirits once again to let us go home? To go back to the way things were? Do we even want that?
God could move a nation’s heart to do what’s necessary to end the spread of COVID-19.
But, if God can do that, and God loves us, why isn’t it happening? Why do people keep doing things to endanger themselves and their community? Why can’t we stop the spread of the coronavirus?
We have freedom.
Like Cyrus, we get to decide whether or not we do the right thing. We can decide whether or not we follow God, or respond to God’s stirring in our hearts. We can choose whether or not to do the right thing. Even when we know what is right, we can still do what is wrong. That’s the double edge sword of freedom.
That freedom goes a long way.
In our Gospel lesson, Jesus talks about different ways to be and the way God sees them. We hear him saying, “Blessed are the poor,” and we get to decide whether or not we believe him. We can either celebrate the poor or go on praising the rich.
We read about Jesus saying, “Blessed are the meek,” and then we have to decide how we approach the egos of the proud. Too often, we praise the proud and overlook the humble.
Consider those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Let’s join them. Or, better yet, let’s be them. In an age of retribution and revenge, Jesus’ teaching about mercy falls too frequently on deaf ears. Even the Persian king Cyrus was merciful.
Then, there are peacemakers. Don’t even get me started on the way we mistreat peacemakers.
We go back but still go forward
We encounter the entire episode in Ezra through the eyes of the Chronicler.[i] It’s the work of a Jewish secretary, so we see it through a very clear filter. These were the “first years of restoration.”[ii] The prophets Haggai and Zechariah get name-checked in Ezra 5.1. This book fits within Hebrew theology.
It also fits within our lives.
We can think about going back to the way things used to be, or some idealized future. The people’s experience in Ezra shows us that even going back must mean going forward. They didn’t return to the same Jerusalem they left. The rebuilt temple wasn’t the same as the one that was destroyed.
Despite all its warts and blemishes, despite failures by leadership and individual members, this little community, gathered around its Temple, was God’s people.[iii]Ralph Klein
There is a future, and there is hope for the future. What’s next for us? I don’t know. God knows. We can rest in the assurance that God is present in this moment, loves us, and will be with us no matter what the future holds.
[i] Jacob Myers, Ezra – Nehemiah, ed. William F. Albright and David N. Freedman, vol. 14, The Anchor Bible, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1965), 7.
[ii] Walter Brueggemann, An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2003), 364.
[iii] Ralph W. Klein, “Ezra-Nehemiah,” in New Interpreter’s Bible, ed. Leander Keck (Nashville: Abingdon, 1999), 680.