First Thoughts on Year B Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 22

William Loader

Pentecost 22: 28 October  Hebrews 7:23-28

The central statement comes in 7:25. Jesus exercises a permanent ministry in God's presence, praying for us as we face the challenge of suffering and, under such duress, of temptation to give up our faith. It has been the theme since chapter 2. Surrounding it are some other concerns which reveal that it is important to the author to put the old covenant in its place. There is an energy in the way he does this which suggests that somehow the old covenant is still very much alive and a threat. Probably this took the form of the resurgent Judaism of the 80's.

When in some areas Christianity was moving into its third generation - as was the case with the 'Hebrews' - it was very disturbing that the representatives of the old covenant were undergoing something of a revival. In the light of this it became necessary to counter their claims. That was a delicate operation, because Christianity also used the scriptures of the old covenant to argue for their own position. Some forms of Christianity chose the simpler position of abandoning the Old Testament altogether. Others reduced it to little more than a source of illustrations and a book of prophecies always directly or indirectly pointing to Christ. This is the position in John's gospel, but it is careful to maintain that the old order was nevertheless something given by God and never disparages it. It is just no longer in force.

Hebrews is similar to John in seeing the old as no longer valid, but as once having been given by God. It develops some elaborate techniques to prove that the old in fact deliberately foreshadowed the new. This is certainly the case with the old order of the priesthood. We began to see this happening in last week's passage. It becomes a major theme in chapter 7. Next week we shall see that it leads to a very creative way of seeing Jesus as the fulfilment and replacement of the Atonement Day festival.

In chapter 7 the author returns to Psalm 110:4, which he introduced in last week's passage (5:1-10). Hebrews has a way of dropping hints of later themes. In 7:1-3 he returns to Psalm 110:4 with its allusion to Melchizedek and picks up the only other reference to this figure, in Genesis 14. Using speculation which appears to have been around at the time and that we see also reflected in the Dead Sea scrolls, the author speaks of Melchizedek as being like the Son of God in that he 'remains forever'. In other words he is not a mere human being, but rather an angelic figure. That makes him like Jesus and makes his priesthood like the priesthood of Jesus. It is a permanent order of heavenly priesthood, because both have permanent existence. They are of a different order of being and therefore of a different order of priesthood.

In the verses which follow, the author reinforces the superiority of this heavenly order of priesthood over the priesthood of the old covenant by exploiting the reference to Abraham's giving tithes to Melchizedek (according to the story in Genesis 14). He is also pushing the contrast between the two orders by concentrating on the human nature of the Levitical high priests. It meant that they died and so had to be replaced by others. It also meant that their human frailty led to their sinning, so that they were forever having to re-purify themselves. No such thing with Jesus, who has been raised from death to be permanently in God's presence. The argument against the old order becomes so strong that the author even describes it as "useless" (7:18). This might make some readers wonder why it was ever instituted in the first place. Here the author goes beyond John and comes closer to Mark, who was also prepared to argue that some parts of Old Testament scripture never were of any use (Mark 7:15-19).

It is in the light of these contrasts that we must read our passage. The permanent priesthood guarantees permanent help (7:25). In 7:27-28 the author recaps the arguments of the chapter and brings us back to the "word spoken with an oath" (7:28). This is Psalm 110:4 which reads in full: "The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind: you are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek". In 7:28 we find an echo of 5:10 where we left off last week. The next verse, which opens chapter 8, continues the summary by restating the main point: "we have such a high priest, who has sat down at the right hand of majesty on high in the heavens, as a ministrant of the holy place and the true tabernacle, which God pitched, not a human being".

The intricacies of the argument with Judaism and the creative reclaiming of the old covenant as a mere foreshadowing of the true and real which was to come is unlikely to excite readers today as it would have in the situation of Hebrews. But we can see through it all a determined effort to assert that with God there is one who cares about us on our journey. For Hebrews that is the person, Jesus, who keeps speaking up for us, reminding God of our plight and our need for help. We might need to transform this, too, but in ways that affirm that in the heart of God there is engagement with our humanity and with all humanity in compassion; and we know that because of Jesus.

Gospel: Pentecost 22: 28 October Mark 10:46-52

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