First Thoughts on Year B Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Lent 5

William Loader

Lent 5: 18 March  Hebrews 5:5-10

Hebrews is one of the most remarkable writings in the New Testament. Although it ends like a letter, it begins with the flourish which we recognise introduces a speech in the ancient world. It is written in some of the most sophisticated Greek in the New Testament. It weaves together the language we know otherwise from educated writers influenced by popular Platonism with older, Christian tradition, to fashion an arguing exhortation, designed to reassure and give confidence to believers of the day.

The reassurance must be understood against what appears to have been uncertainty on a number of fronts. One was simply the matter of human vulnerability in a world outside their control. That included a world of spirit and angels, whose good will might not be assured. It also included a world which could be hostile in human terms. The hearers had known victimisation by local authorities and appear to be facing potential of persecution on a grander scale. Closer to the soul, they appear also to have been rattled by a resurgent Judaism, probably in the 80s, which by its success called the legitimacy of the fledgling Christian movement into question. Was not the movement just another sect which had lost its way, carried off by enthusiasts who had betrayed Israel's heritage and which should now be left to peter out or become an institutionalised irrelevance like most other movements beyond their first and second generation?

The speech begins with a strong reassertion of God's action in Christ, culminating in the strong affirmation that this Jesus had been exalted high above all the cosmic powers, the angels (1:3-14; 2:1-9). Behind the rhetorical flourish is a defiant assertion that Christ and what he stood for and was, is 'at God's right hand', is what accompanies God. It is like saying today, in the face of the world's madnesses and conniving, that we believe God has the Jesus-shape, the form of love, and that this is stronger than all else! What can one do but trust that this is so - and live!

The author then turns to the plight of the hearers. They are not just facing fear about global powers; they are on the verge of being abused, such that they will have great difficulty holding to their convictions. The combination of such pressure and the undermining effect of a successful Judaism would lead some to abandon their faith altogether They would slink back into paganism or, as some would hold, would slip quietly back into what seemed a more recognised and respected religion: Judaism. The author takes the hearers back to the life of Jesus. He was similarly pressured and stuck it out.

Chapters 2 - 7 of Hebrews operate on two fronts: comfort and encouragement based on Christ's own faithfulness in suffering and arguments to undermine the continuing validity of Judaism. The latter become quite elaborate and continue on as far as Hebrews 10. The main ploy is to portray the Old Testament and its rituals as earthly copies of the far greater realities which belong to the heavenly world. The biblical temple merely reflects the true heavenly temple. So the old is just a shadow of what really matters. It had its legitimacy as something ordained by God, but that had to do with its other function: to foreshadow. Its old sacrifices foreshadowed a great new sacrifice to end all others. Its priests foreshadowed a single great priest to come. This was all a way of affirming, on the one hand, that the old was God-given, and, on the other hand, arguing that it could now be dispensed with. John's gospel argues very similarly, although in quite different language.

Our passage picks up one of the arguments in mid-stream. The old high priesthood had some value: it used human beings who therefore had the capacity to be sensitive and sympathetic to those they represented. They were not self-appointed despots. In reality some of them were, but the author's is a bookish argument. He is arguing about the claim that the Old Testament order should still be valid, not about historical realities. This is why, like the rabbis centuries later, he can speak of the temple as though it is a present reality, even though by the time of Hebrews it lay in ruins.

As the high priests were not self-appointed, so Jesus was appointed high priest by God. To argue this, the author refers to Jesus' appointment as 'Son of God' (5:5). That was the note with which the speech began (1:5). Christians came to understand Jesus' resurrection as an act whereby God pulled Jesus up from the dead and anointed him Messiah, crowned him king, and gave him the the ancient name of Israel's kings: the adopted Son of God (as in Psalm 2:7), and seated him at his right hand (Psalm 110:1). The author knew other ways of speaking of Jesus as Son of God, which had their roots in ancient speculation about wisdom as God's child from the beginning of time, but, like Paul in Romans 1:3-5, he is quite happy to use both ways. Here the older tradition shines through, as it did especially in 1:3b-9.

The reference to Jesus' appointment as Son is incidental to the argument. The main statement is that God also appointed Jesus priest. Just a few verses after the much used Psalm 110:1 which spoke of enthronement at God's right hand we find an allusion to that more ancient king of Salem, who was also a priest: Melchizedek (Psalm 110:4). This helps the author declare that Easter also established Jesus as the priest before God. In Hebrews 7 we find the complicated argument that this Melchizedek was likely to have been of a heavenly order of being and priesthood (as some had come to speculate in Judaism at the time). This made it possible to interpret Jesus' appointment 'according the order of Melchizedek' as indicating a heavenly priesthood based on a different level of being.

Here, however, the focus is on what had been noted earlier in the chapter: high priests belonged to the people and shared their common humanity (5:1-4). That is what the dramatic verses 5:7-8 now portray (a similar point is made in 4:14-16). Translations vary. I think the clearest way to is read these verses as describing a Jesus who was desperate, faced real suffering, cried out for help, still had to go through all the pain, despite his special status, and die, but then was saved up out of the realm of the dead because he had demonstrated the godly fear and faithfulness which kept him from giving up and betraying his mission. So it was not a super successful Jesus, but a Jesus who was broken by affliction whom God 'perfected' or brought to completion, a technical term meaning something like: brought to the end and fulfilment of his life journey. It is not about Jesus developing moral perfection, as if the suffering knocked the bad out of him! What he learned in the process was not how to be 'good' or 'perfect', but what it is like to face such human suffering and the pressure to give up. In other words he learned to face pressure comparable to what the hearers were about to face!

The author will go to expand this theme even further in 7:25 by arguing that this experience now enables Christ the priest to pray for those facing similar situations - to help them get through (not to be confused with the image of the heavenly advocate praying for forgiveness of sins which we find in 1 John 2:1). This is first century theology finding its way of asserting that right next to God there is a voice urging compassion for those hard up against it. Later generations will develop trinitarian doctrine and find ways of asserting this primitive idea in more integrated ways, speaking of solidarity as something which God does not need to be told about but which is central to God's being.

Solidarity, humaneness, compassion - and much fear inspire the author's rhetoric. Some of his arguments are less appealing. In 6:4-8 (and elsewhere) he expounds the threat that those who fail will be lost forever! No way back! A closed door. Later generations would find their way through such anguish and anger to a compassion which never shut the door. Our author is writing amid impending hopelessness and marshalling his wit and rhetoric to encourage. He leaves us a theology where the story of Jesus becomes a paradigm for life in adversity and we see a Jesus representing the human condition to God. In a mythological way we might say he takes solidarity into the heart of God, the holiest place - only to leave us now affirming that this was not only true then, but is true always. Always solidarity in the heart of God. As some would say: always the Son in the bosom of the Father, always the Spirit who gives life and hope.

Gospel: Lent 5: 18 March John 12:20-33

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