Ezra the priest, one of the exiles from Judah living in Babylon, was a scholar, well versed in the Law of Moses. He was also a man of sincere faith; he gathers a group of exiles to return to Jerusalem, and doesn’t ask for soldiers to guard them on their journey. He has told the King that the hand of the Lord is with them, so he proclaims a fast in order to pray for a safe journey. They do arrive safely, together with the silver and gold they have bought with them for the temple. Once there, they sacrifice burnt offerings to the Lord; then Ezra meets with the leaders of those already resident in Judah. He hears that the people have broken the Law of their God, by intermarrying with the surrounding nations. Whatever we think of this issue ourselves, it was part of their Law, and an important way to ensure that the people continued to worship the Lord, and didn’t stray after foreign gods, a perpetual snare in Old Testament times. Marrying someone of another race, those who worshipped idols, tended to bring the temptation of the Judeans worshipping those idols themselves. Ezra is horrified; he knew the Law, and he had only recently returned from an exile due at least in part to Judah’s inability to keep it. His response is immediate: tearing his cloak and his hair, he sits immobile, appalled. At the evening sacrifice, with the people gathered round him, he falls to his knees and prays. Read the prayer is Ezra 9:6-15. It has the desired effect: the people who are listening confess their sin, and decide to change the situation.
What interests me here is far less the specifics of the story, but Ezra’s reaction; his self-abasement and prayer of sorrow. Ezra himself was not responsible for this situation; he had only just returned from exile himself, and only then found out what had happened. Yet his first reaction is to pray; to fall down before God in sorrow and confess the sins of the people. As a priest, this may well have been part of his role. Yet, that aside, I wonder how much we can learn from Ezra’s reaction? How often, when institutions that we’re involved with are challenged, is our first reaction one of defensiveness, rather than sorrow? How often do we come before God to confess the sins of the church, of our country, of our culture? Not sins that we personally may have been responsible for, although we may have inherited the consequences, or been unavoidably part of it. But still sins nevertheless. I wonder how differently our church might be, if we regularly came before God in sorrow for the ways in which we fail, and have failed in the past? Yes, we regularly confess in public worship, yet that is not quite the same somehow. How often is that a prayer of general, rather than specific, confession? And how often does it concern institutional sins, rather than a confession that we have all, individually, sinned?
There are many ways we could do this. Each of us, as part of our personal prayer, could come before God in sorrow for the ways in which the church has failed, sinned and departed from the way of our Lord. There may well be the possibility, also, of a public service of repentance, or a day of penitence and confession; to come before God together in sorrow for the ways in which the Church has gone astray; whether we could enlarge that to our country and our culture may well depend on individual situations. Nevertheless, there is plenty for the Church to confess about itself, from the past and the ways that past influences the present, as well as current concerns.
You may well be saying by this point that we have got some things right, we’re not as bad as all that; and you would be correct. But there are also many areas where we have got it wrong, and in some cases disastrously so; there are issues which we should and could repent of, a cleansing of the soul of God’s church, that might help us see the way forward in ways that are less damaging and more Christian. It might also help us see where we are going astray today, on issues that we are not always aware of, closely involved as we are.
The other matter that strikes me from reading the book of Ezra is what happened to all those foreign wives, and their children? They were all sent away, and that is not a decision I am arguing with, separated as I am by thousands of years, and a completely different culture. But … what happened? The book of Ezra is silent. Presumably, they had to go back to their own villages, and their families … if those people would take them. Options for divorced women would have been very limited in those days, and I suspect that the decision to send them away may well have been disastrous for many. But I don’t know. What I do know is that sin is never innocent of victims; in particular, institutional sin will have its’ own legacy and its’ own victims. How can we remember, pray for and respond to those who suffer due to the Church’s failure?