First Thoughts on Year B Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 20

William Loader

Pentecost 20: 11 October Hebrews 4:12-16

This extraordinary and oft quoted piece about the word being sharper than a two edged sword is almost an aside within Hebrews. It is an example of the author reflecting on what he has just said and making a statement about why people should listen to it. In fact, it echoes the theme of Psalm 95, as he has interpreted it. "Today if you hear his voice" - his word! The Psalm speaks directly to the hearers with a little help from the author. It warns them about the need to remain faithful on the journey through this life to the heavenly world, pictured as the land of rest, the eternal sabbath. The threat is clear: as the Israelites who left Egypt failed to enter the promised land, so those who have begun their Christian journey will not make it if they weaken.

To reinforce these warnings the author brings this additional piece about the word penetrating like a sword and being able to cut through all sham and pretence to the real thing. A similarly threatening warning is dropped in after the first exhortation in 1:5-14. As disobedient Israel did not escape when it ignored the divine law given through angels, neither will we if we neglect the word given through the Son - to reject the Son is even worse (2:1-4)!

Perhaps it achieved the desired effect. Matthew is another who makes frequent use of warnings of judgement to motivate people. Does it work? It used to be common and formed part of the regular repertoire of preachers. In some ways it is a form of violence which does not sit well with the message people are really meant to heed: that God cares and invites them to wholeness and renewal. Not infrequently those who threaten God's judgement come to be very judgemental and violent themselves. Pointing out dangers is one thing; employing threats of judgement another.

At the same time it is good to be reminded of the folly of kidding ourselves - let alone others. Believing in God does mean believing in truth. It does mean a certain nakedness, the willing to face up to who we really are and to stop pretending. When someone loves us as we are, it can be very challenging, because it means we need to face ourselves as we are. Refusal of such love can sometimes be very violent and love itself can be felt to be a threat - even a sword. People who love like that are liable to get killed, metaphorically or literally - Jesus himself being a prime example. Love which goes along with pretence is no love at all, not of the real person who is usually hurting and lonely behind it all. It, too, is a form of violence.

In 4:14 the author swings back to an empathetic mood. It recalls the theme of 2:5-3:6, which focused on the benefits of Jesus having travelled our human journey before us. So, like 3:1-6, it is a recapping of the point of 2:5-18. The passage 3:7 - 4:11, with its sharp ending in 4:12-13, functions as warning to take heed. Now in 4:14 we are back to the good news we need to heed. As the leader of God's people and therefore high priest, Jesus is not a remote appointee out of touch with reality. He suffered and he was tempted.

And he was successful: he didn't fail. Failing would have meant turning aside from the path under the pressure of suffering. Being 'without sin' is not a statistical summary of Jesus' 'sin count', as if the author is contemplating a whole lifespan from baby Jesus, through the vicissitudes of adolescence to young manhood. He would doubtless have declared him sinless in those respects also, but that is not the focus here. It is his faithfulness - in contrast to those Israelites who left Egypt and failed to reach the promised land with Joshua ('Jesus' as he is called in the Greek, offering a splendid ambiguity).

Heb 4:16 is also a favourite verse. We can approach "the throne of grace". Its meaning is almost lost in our familiarity with it. 'Grace' means something. It means sympathetic compassion which is prepared to reach out even to the undeserving. 'Throne' is a typical image of God's being, derived from projecting one model of human greatness onto God: that God is a king. In this muddle of metaphors and values, the message is that God is compassionate. Our author relates that to the fact that God is keeping close company with someone who has 'been there and done that'. This one knows what it is like to suffer and be tempted. God is under the influence of Jesus, as it were. Jesus nudges God and reminds God through intercession how hard it really is. Later generations will develop  more sophisticated ways of saying this and merge such thoughts into a relational trinity.

Compassion and kindness, grace and mercy, are there when we face our times of need. This is not so much about when we fail, as it is when we face hard times and are confronted with  temptations which threaten to overwhelm us. That is the message the author is wanting to bring through. Next week we shall see how he develops it further by presenting an image of a Jesus who sustains his faith, but only in the midst of brokenness and near despair.

Gospel: Pentecost 20: 11 October Mark 10:17-31

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