First Thoughts on Year B Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 21

William Loader

Pentecost 21: 21 October Hebrews 5:1-10

The first four verses have an "academic ring" to them. Why all the detail about the high priests? It was not that the hearers of this message were inhabitants of Jerusalem with a special interest in temple procedures, nor even necessarily located nearby. The focus is less what actually happened in the real temple - which had probably been destroyed by the time Hebrews was written - but the biblical image. Jesus is being compared and contrasted with the way the Law of Moses portrays the high priests of the old order.

The author almost cannot help himself introducing so much detail. In chapters 9 and 10 he will give a very daring interpretation of Jesus' death, where he pictures Jesus both as the high priest and as the animal sacrifice. That broader role is certainly in mind here, although the main point in the present context is the solidarity of the high priest with the people. He was one of them! So he was able to empathise with their situation (5:1-2). That brought some problems because the high priests also had his own sins to deal with. This makes the comparison with Jesus slightly complicated (5:3). Later the author will exploit this difference to argue that the new is much better than the old. That will be in a context where asserting the superiority of the new to the old is the main agenda (in chapter 7). But that is not the case here.

The author is still using the old pattern of the high priest to illustrate what he wants to say about Jesus. As the old high priests could empathise, so can Jesus. That had already been the point of chapter 2:17-18, which in essence 4:14-16 repeats. As they were not self-appointed, so Jesus was not self-appointed (5:4). It was not that people were worried that Jesus in some way might have appointed himself. It is rather that the author wants to emphasise that God appointed Jesus to his present role. These two points: Jesus as empathetic and Jesus as appointed by God become the main point in 5:5-10.

In 5:5 the author reuses Psalm 2:7, which he had already quoted in 1:5. It belongs to the old royal coronation imagery which formed a mainstay for some of the first Christian claims about Jesus as people interpreted the resurrection. In the resurrection, they affirmed, God appointed Jesus as the kingly messiah. It was like a coronation. He was enthroned: he sat down at God's right hand. That was an image taken from another Psalm. "Sit at my right hand, till I make your enemies the footstall for your feet" (Psalm 110:1). He was given a throne name: God's son. "You are my Son; today I have begotten you" (Psalm 2:7).

According to Psalm 110 something else also happened. The king was addressed as a priest. "You are a priest forever" (Psalm 110:4). In the early days of kingship Israel's king, like the kings of surrounding cultures, had a priestly role and so could be called a priest. In Jerusalem before the conquest there had been a king called Melchizedek (Gen 14:17-20). So the king in Jerusalem stood in his succession. That is why the Psalm speaks of the king being hailed a priest "after the order of Melchizedek". The author will make a lot of this in chapter 7 where he plays off the order of Melchizedek against the order of the Old Testament priests who looked back to Levi and Aaron. That argument is to come. Melchizedek's name means "king of righteousness": that would lead the author to make all kinds of claims about the priestly order of Jesus.

For now the emphasis is on Jesus' appointment by God as high priest. Like his appointment as royal messiah (5:5), it happens at his resurrection (5:6, 10). The author says much more about Jesus than that. For him Jesus was Son of God from the beginning (5:8 reflects this broader sense of sonship). He will also show that he was high priest from the beginning. He came and took on a body, which he would then sacrifice (10:5-7). All that is still to come. For now he stays with the royal messiah idea and the way it gave extra meaning to Jesus' resurrection.

Having, then, picked up this element in Jesus' job description given him after his death within the framework of ideas about Jesus as royal messiah, the author moves in 5:7-8 to reinforce what he has been saying about Jesus' empathy with us. He leaves us in no doubt that Jesus suffered. He almost pictures Jesus as despairing of hope in 5:7. It reminds us of Jesus in Gethsemane. Perhaps the author knew that story. Jesus was under pressure to give up. The author knows that his hearers are facing similar pressures. Jesus does not despair completely. In his desperation he asks God to save him. God heard his cry.

What was Jesus praying for? In the Gethsemane story he was praying not to have to die, but then gives in, because he sees it as God's will. Here in Hebrews it is more likely that Jesus is praying to be saved from the realm of death which he was about to enter. That makes sense of the statement that God in fact heard him because of his devotion ("godly fear" rather than being scared) and did exactly that. He was brought to the end of his journey. The end station was God's presence. Journey is a big theme in Hebrews. Jesus made it to the end. God appointed him high priest. He will be the reason why others will make the journey through to the end ("the cause of their salvation" 5:9).

The translators of this passage have difficulties, because the Greek can be understood in different ways. It uses the notion of perfecting. Some take that to mean that Jesus was imperfect morally and needed to be made mature by suffering: "he learned obedience through what he suffered" (5:8). It is much more likely to mean that he learned what it is like to stay obedient in the face of suffering and God brought him to the end of his journey (perfected/completed him in that sense). In a similar way Hebrews speaks of Christians being perfected by being brought to the goal (11:40).

The point of the striking description in 5:7-8 is that Jesus went through the hard times and stuck with it. Therefore he knows what it is like when we face hard times. That had already been the point in 4:14-16 and 2:17-18. It is worth repeating. The Jesus who knows what it is like is the Jesus who can be an effective high priest, because he can represent our plight to God. That is the author's pattern of thought (see comments on this in previous weeks).

Some might have thought that God's Son should not have to suffer. He should be privileged. On the contrary: though he was God's Son he still needed to experience what is means to be human and face adversity (5:8). So now Jesus is there with God, bringing a real understanding of what it means to be human, right into the heart of God. We might have other ways of saying it, but the message is clear enough: right in the heart of God there is empathetic love for each of us on our life's journey.

Gospel: Pentecost 21: 21 October Mark 10:35-45

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