Rise up; this matter is in your hands. We will support you, so take courage and do it. (Ezra 10.4)Home from the Front
The Best Years of Our Lives, William Wyler’s 1946 masterpiece, tracks the lives of three World War II GI’s who come home from the front. They grapple to reconcile three conflicting images of the small town they left: as it was, as it is, and as they idealized it while they were away. On top of that, each man has undergone profound changes. All three are emotionally scarred; one is severely maimed. So while their home isn’t as they remembered it, neither are they remotely like their families and friends recall. Everyone strives to help the soldiers’ reentry into civilian life, reassuring them they can pick up where they left off—tacitly overlooking where they left off is long gone, never to return. Until the men summon the courage to grieve their losses at home, however, their loved ones will never understand what must be done to lift their hopes.
Ezra’s story puts me in mind of The Best Years of Our Lives. Born to a Jewish priest in Babylonian captivity, he’s never seen his homeland or met any Jews outside of those in exile. All he knows is what his elders told him and he’s read in Hebrew texts. Still, he aches with homesickness. He gains permission to lead 5,000 captives back to Jerusalem. But when he reaches the city, he’s stunned to find it’s nothing like he imagined. The Israelites have abandoned God’s statutes, permitted His house to fall into disarray, and disavowed their heritage. Like the soldiers, Ezra’s anxiety is two-pronged. Life in exile ineffably heightened his awareness of all that was right and good in Israel, and the loss of what he idealized plunges him into sorrow. Rather than acclimate to the changes, he becomes a first-rate activist. He mounts a campaign to rebuild the temple and restore Hebrew life according to what the texts say it should be. For the first time in nearly a century, Israel is challenged to live by the Book.
By returning with 5,000 exiles and expensive gifts from Cyrus, the Babylonian king, Ezra becomes someone worth watching. He doesn’t disappoint. He’s astutely demonstrative. When he learns the Jews have flouted prohibitions against intermarriage with pagans, he tears his clothes, falls facedown in the temple, and wails with grief. But it’s good grief—the kind of sorrow that garners attention and chastens those who’ve played so frivolously with the Law. What shakes them are Ezra’s objectivity and pure motives. As a well-informed observer, his response to Israel’s disobedience is undeniably apt. Many Jews rally around him. They ask God’s forgiveness for their sin and encourage Ezra to take the initiative to press for widespread change. “Rise up,” they tell him. “This matter is in your hands. We will support you, so take courage and do it.” (Ezra 10.4) They authorize Ezra to conduct a nationwide investigation and identify every improper marriage. A spirit of penitence sweeps over Israel as Ezra leads the nation he loves back to the values it lost.
We all happen on Ezra moments at various times—if not on the same scale, most certainly of the same sort. We’ve been raised on principles of faith and morality that we expect to find in lives and situations we encounter. Any time we realize people we trust and respect don’t honor what they taught us to value, we’re shocked and filled with sorrow. This is especially true for those of us who’ve gained deeper understanding of our values while living apart from those who share our heritage. Returning to find they’ve abandoned principles we cherished from afar, our first inclination veers toward confronting them or criticizing their hypocrisy to willing listeners. Ezra shows us a much more effective response. Instead of venting outrage over wrong attitudes and actions, it’s far better to express our grief over what’s lost because of them.
When we mourn sin’s losses rather than malign its practitioners, we demonstrate its impact. What grieves Ezra are bald discrepancies between what he knows is correct and what he witnesses. The Jews don’t need a good talking to—they need to ask God’s forgiveness and mend their ways. Israel has grown so comfortable with its errors that Ezra’s distress takes everyone by surprise. If he can see the harm of their disobedience, and if he cares so deeply for his nation that he weeps because of it, how can the Jews possibly dismiss it? His grief surpasses condemning them; it convinces them. While others might put them down, Ezra lowers himself to lift them up. And they answer by lifting him up. “We need your help with this,” they confess. “And we’ll help you do it. Take courage.”
In Matthew 23.12, Jesus says, “For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” Humility reveals true courage. It also exposes the cowardice hiding behind condemnation. Genuine grief for moral or ethical shortfalls reduces our self-importance in order to raise the minds of those who’ve fallen into indifference. To cite a current example, finding believers who put political ideology above compassion for those without healthcare, we’re tempted to challenge their Christian claim. We take issue with them, when the suffering of millions is what’s really at risk. Mourning what’s lost by unconcern gets to the point. Identifying the harm disobedience causes reaches the heart. We see this in Ezra. His pain is empathic—not in the shallow I-feel-your-pain sense, but as one who authentically mourns what the Jews have let slip away. Ezra moments call for courage to care more about the problem than our pride. They tear down logic’s scaffolds to uncover the truth about sin. It hurts.