First Thoughts on Year B Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 19

William Loader

Pentecost 19: 4 October Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12

Like Luke in both his writings (the gospel and Acts), Hebrews begins with a long flowing sentence typical for writings of good style of the day. We are not reading a letter, but an address to which some personal notes have been attached, probably by the author. We have no idea who the author was and very little information about the setting in which he worked and the people to whom he will have sent this sermon. There is a connection, one way or other, with Italy (13:24), but apart from that all we know is what we glean from the writing itself. There we glean that those who will have listened to the address read in their congregations faced potential dangers probably from civil authority (10:32-34) and were also under some duress from a resurgent Judaism which threatened to undermine their morale. They needed reassurance both about the validity of their faith over against Judaism and about their future in the light of their vulnerability to the powers that be.

The future mattered; the past mattered; the question was how to hold both together in confidence and hope. The opening reflects this concern. God spoke in the past - in Israel's story, especially through the prophets, and God has spoken again - in the Son. There are subtle contrasts in affirming this continuity. The word through the Son is even better than a word through the prophets. And the single word through the Son is even better than the many and various forms the word took in the past.

The message of the Son is not so much words he spoke, but what he did and was. This is why the author goes straight on to speak of Christ's self offering and his ascent to sit at God's right hand (1:3b).There are two elements here: forgiveness of sins and the ongoing support which Christ's presence guarantees. The latter will be the focus of the first eight chapters. The former takes centre stage in chapters 9 and 10.

Undergirding both of these is a third element concerned to emphasise the nature of the Son. It draws upon Jewish tradition about wisdom, often seen as God's companion and close assistant. The idea that Jesus is a reflection and stamp of God's being (1:3a) derives from here, as does the notion that he was God's assistant in creation and will be God's assistant and heir at the end of time (1:2). This profound christology also informs the statement about Jesus as God's word or Logos in John 1:1-18 and the hymnic affirmation of Col 1:15-20, which acclaims Jesus as God's image and the firstborn of creation as well as being firstborn from the dead (as in Heb 1:6). It was an effective way of asserting that in Jesus we are actually coming face to face with God, encountering God's being as it turns toward us in communication (word).

1:1-4 reaches a climax with the statement that the Son is superior to angels, which forms the platform for the elaboration of that contrast which follows in 1:5-13. Drawing on the older traditions which acclaimed Jesus as Messiah-King, and interpreted his resurrection as a divine coronation in which he was granted the name "Son" (1:4), the author is asserting that Christ is above all imaginable powers. This is far from idle speculation. For angels were the invisible powers, usually good, but not always, who the ancients believed hovered above the world and had the power and influence to determine destiny. People translated their vulnerability to the vicissitudes of politics and power into the heavenly realms, so that an assertion that Christ is above and beyond such powers is a confrontation of competing claims and a confession of faith to which to hold fast in troubled times ("Hold fast to your confession" 4:14).

The second section of our reading picks up a further development of this thought. Not only is Christ above the powers, but he has got there by travelling the same road we travel. Here the author exploits Ps 8. Traditionally, "you have put all things under his feet", was one of the Old Testament texts, which people used to describe Jesus' heavenly enthronement after Easter (see also 1 Cor 15:27-28; 1 Pet 3:22; Eph 1:22). Our author now expands that reference backwards so that we have the words which begin with the question: "What is man that you take notice of him?" (I use the non inclusive form in which the Greek appears for reasons which will become obvious as you read on). He reads this as a question not about human beings in general (as the NRSV, for instance, with its plural of inclusive language inevitably suggests), but about this human being, Jesus, in particular (2:6-8). The effect is that the author invites his hearers to reflect on what it was about Jesus that God wanted to crown him with glory and put all beneath his feet (2:8-9).

The answer comes in what follows: this is the one who was just like us and experienced the same kind of vulnerability, temptation and suffering, as we face. It was in fact very fitting (2:10 and 17) that he be made like us, because it now means he understands our plight. Hebrews sees life as a journey through this world into the next. Jesus has completed the journey, the first to complete it successfully. He is the finisher as well as the one who started it all (12:2). In making his sacrifice, a theme to which the author will return later, and in overcoming death (2:14-15), this Son of Man had to travel the same path which we travel. This enabled him not only to become a hero who made it to the end and opened the way for us, but also to become a sympathetic supporter for people on that journey (2::17-18). As leader and high priest of the new people of God, he is sympathetic to our needs (2:17). These themes will be expanded in the chapters which follow, but we see them already in chapter 2, where they are first developed. Chapters 3 and 4 use the imagery of Israel making its way from Egypt to the promised land in a way that transfers the hope of the promised land to the hope of the heavenly world. Hebrews 11 elaborates this even further, seeing faith as believing that there is such a destination and sticking to the path.

A very human image of Jesus emerges. The hearers can imagine Jesus being concerned about them and asking God to help them. He prays for them (7:25). Our images of Jesus in the church have often developed to such a degree that we have difficulty thinking of Jesus needing to pray to God like that. We may see God's engagement in our human plight in different ways. Nevertheless Hebrews underlines that God is indeed engaged and involved and that God's love does meet us in our vulnerability. We may be less enthusiastic about seeing faith as a journey out of this world (or only through it). We tend rather to use the image of journey less with the goal of escape in mind and more as a metaphor for growth and development and for engagement and belonging in this life. The hearers of Hebrews were faced with a situation where escape and relief had to fill their minds. Nevertheless Hebrews holds together a profound image of Jesus as God's very reflection with a very earthy and human figure just like us. That reinforces also our understanding of God and of the spiritual life not as something from or in another world, but as something which fully enters the here and now of flesh and blood.

Gospel: Pentecost 19: 4 October Mark 10:2-16

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