Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the First Reading
March 29, 2020
We return this week to the Prophet Ezekiel. Our selection is from the 37th chapter, which contains the prophecy of the dry bones. Previously we looked at Ezekiel’s call as a prophet and a reference to chapter 37. Today, we will examine the conclusion or rather interpretation of the “dry bones” prophecy. I think you may find it eerily pertinent to our current situation.
But first we need to remind ourselves of the historical context.
Ezekiel was born about 622 BC in Jerusalem and died about 570 BC in Babylon. The dates and places tell his story. Jerusalem was situated on the trade route between Egypt to the south and whatever power was dominating the north. Never a mighty empire, the Jews were able to play one power off against the other to maintain significant independence for over three centuries. Ezekiel lived at the time when this ended. In 609 BC, they thought that the Neo-Babylonian empire was ascendant and allied themselves with it. By 597 BC, the leadership felt that it was weakening, and they could assert more independence. This was a grave miscalculation and the Babylonians invaded, conquered Jerusalem, and took many Jewish leaders into captivity. Ezekiel was one of these and he spent the rest of his life in Babylon. In 586 BC, there was another rebellion which resulted in the destruction of the city and the Temple and the exile of the remaining leaders of the people, especially the royal court, the scribes, and the priests. Without the temple, how could the Covenant be maintained? Without the monarchy, how could the promise to David be fulfilled? All that could be seen was devastation.
Yet Ezekiel saw more. In the section immediately before what we read today, the Lord said to Ezekiel:
Prophesy over these bones, and say to them:
Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD!
I prophesied as I had been told,
and even as I was prophesying I heard a noise;
it was a rattling as the bones came
together, bone joining bone.
I saw the sinews and the flesh come upon them,
and the skin cover them,
but there was no spirit in them.
I prophesied as he told me,
and the spirit came into them;
they came alive and stood upright, a vast army.
Then he said to me:
Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel.
This was the deadest thing that he could imagine. Bones left in the desert, bleached and brittle from the sun. Yet he said that these bones would take on life again.
There are two things to notice here and both are about prophecy.
Ezekiel is ordered to prophesy over the bones. To prophesy, with an s, is a verb. It means to utter divine pronouncements. They are words of power and, as we see today, always effective. The Lord inspires a person to act in his name often to admonish the people and warn them of the consequences of their deafness. We see this in the great prophets before the exile like Amos or Hosea. They saw injustice and uttered a prophet word against it and when not obeyed the land was overcome by enemies. The prophetic word by the time of Ezekiel was seen not so much as predicting the future as causing it.
Prophecy, with a c, is a noun and means the statement of a prophet often about a future event. This is clearly present here. He is assuring the Jews that their relationship with the LORD is not over and they will not be dissolved as a people. At the time this is uttered, there is no evidence that it was even remotely possible.
Yet history has its surprises.
The Babylonians were conquered by the Persians in 539 BC. They had a different style of colonizing. Like the British, they cultivated the elite and used them to administer conquered territories. They invited the Jewish leaders in Babylon to return to Jerusalem as their agents. They would be allowed some autonomy and could rebuild the temple. Most did not accept the offer and there was a vital Jewish community for as long as there was a Babylon, but enough did that that the Jews could rebuild the city and more importantly the Temple.
We have already heard that “these bones are the whole house of Israel.” We have also seen that this is through the spirit of God. Just as in creation, the LORD God “formed man out of the clay of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and so man became a living being”. (Gen. 2:7). So too here, it will be by the spirit of God that the people are restored, but more than merely reanimated.
He now addresses the people in their graves. They are dead, yet:
Then you shall know that I am the LORD,
when I open your graves and
have you rise from them, O my people!
When they, or rather, the succeeding generation experiences this, they are to understand it as a proof that the LORD is the only God.
He goes further:
I will put my spirit in you that you may live,
and I will settle you upon your land;
thus you shall know that I am the LORD.
I have promised, and I will do it, says the LORD.
When they return to the land, they will know they are to have a new and deeper understanding of Divinity. A living sense that it is the Spirit of God that gives them life. They exist by and for the LORD.
This took some time to digest. The Lord may work through political expediencies, but his intentions are always beyond them.
The people who returned to Jerusalem and the Holy Land from Babylon were courageous people but their expectations were too human. They thought that Jerusalem and the Temple would be rebuilt as gloriously as before. It was not and they were disappointed.
Yet as we have seen when reviewing the great prophets of this period: Second and Third Isaiah, Haggai, and Zechariah, their great reward was a flowering of thought and worship. Here they begin to understand their vocation. They are not to be just another nation, but a means for all nations to find the LORD. They were not to seek to dominate the world, but to illuminate it. They saw that the LORD had not brought them through the agony of the exile only to bring them back as who they were before. This was a radically new way to envision a nation. He expected them to accept his spirit and be transformed.
We perhaps may feel the same as we await the future. My expectations for the city, nation, and local institutions after this crisis, although not immediately unrealistic, are most likely not going to be fulfilled. I think I am going to be often and greatly disappointed.
So may we all be. But this is not the basic question: “What is God’s expectations of us at this moment?” Will we have learned anything, will there be a transformation? Ezekiel is speaking to us as a community, not primarily as individuals. What are Jesus’ expectations for St. Charles Borromeo Church after this crisis? What will be our vocation, how will we be a light?
That most institutions, groups, and associations will disappoint us as much as the Assyrian empire disappointed the Jewish settlers is almost a certainty; far more important for us is “Will we disappoint Jesus?”