Pentecost 26: 18 November Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18) 19-25
The creative, new exposition of Jesus acting like the high priest and the sacrifice on the day of atonement comes to its conclusion in this passage. See last week's and the previous week's comments for an outline of that exposition. The author has applied the image of Jesus as high priest not only to his heavenly ministry in the sacred temple of heaven, as had tradition before him, but also to his death.
Heb 10:11-14 draws together the main points which have been made. These verses allow us to see why the author developed this idea. On the negative side, it allows him to dismiss the old covenant as inferior and, by implication, anyone who insists on living according to the old covenant. This is doubtless geared towards assuring his hearers that they should not be worried by the resurgence of Judaism in the 80's and after, and for any who might be in direct contact with Jews, not to fall to their arguments. There is no need for the old sacrificial system and everything that went with it if we have assurance of forgiveness of sins through Jesus. Heb 10:18 seems to make that a main conclusion.
Some people think that this could only be of relevance before the temple was destroyed and so date Hebrews before 70 CE and somewhere in the vicinity of Jerusalem. This overlooks the fact that Jews continued for decades, indeed, centuries to be concerned with the details of the law concerning the temple and often spoke of its rituals in the present tense while knowing they were no longer practised. For our author they are all part of one system, identified with the old covenant. His information seems to be based not on knowledge of Jewish traditions and the Jerusalem temple but on the record of scripture. In that sense it is an academic argument.
So this writing comes at a time when many churches had separated from Judaism and were feeling they must differentiate themselves from Judaism, partly to survive. This is always a dangerous situation, because inevitably claims are made about the other which are exaggerated or at least somewhat too simple and frequently ill-informed (especially when based on selective reading of the sacred texts of others with little knowledge of their actual use and practice). The assumption that before Jesus forgiveness of sins was not possible rests in part on arguments which Christians made about this time. It is as though people had forgotten the wonderful psalms which promise God's compassion and forgiveness. Christianity's efforts at survival verged at times on self-congratulatory propaganda. We need to look carefully and critically at such arguments. Often the strength will be more in what is asserted about the good news than in what is denied about the other.
On the positive side, 10:11-15 want to assert in the strongest possible terms that all that people need for salvation has been accomplished. The emphasis is on completeness. Nothing is missing. There is no need for an additional mediator. You don't need a priest as broker before God. You don't need additional rituals which only they can perform - which serve to legitimise their status as brokers. Nothing needs repeating. The mass or eucharist is not a re-performing of Jesus' act of sacrifice, as though it happens again each time the eucharist is celebrated. Not even the church itself is a broker in that sense. These used to be the substance of fierce argumentation between Protestants and Catholics. These days, we recognise from both sides the distortions on both sides - another example of defensive propaganda creating distortions.
We are able these days to return in unity to Hebrews and recognise that it has developed its own very special way of asserting that God's grace and compassion is totally sufficient. God does not hold back. Love is there for all of us. "Once and for all!" This catch cry can simply mean: once for all time; or it can mean: once and to the benefit of all or on behalf of all. Hebrews would expound it especially in the latter sense, because it favours the image of sacrifice. Even if we do find its elaborate imagery of Jesus as high priest and sacrifice somewhat strange, we can affirm what it clearly intends: God's compassion is enough. And even if we cannot join with the argument that such once and for all-ness came only with Jesus and was not present earlier, we can affirm that this is the truth which we celebrate in Jesus: his life poured out in compassion for others was indeed the pouring out of God's life, the life we recognise as being active wherever people are attuned to it - in the church, in ancient Israel, in many and various ways throughout the world and throughout history where God has been before and beyond us.
The arguments concluded in 10:18, Hebrews turns in 10:19-25 to some direct implications. In a very compressed summary of all the arguments thus far, 10:19-21 says we have confidence because we have access to God and support with God in the person of Jesus, the high priest, who pioneered the way to God and speaks up for us before God. On the basis of this confidence we need to approach God (10:22). There is a similar encouragement to prayer in 4:14-16. We don't need to have self-doubt or be troubled by guilt. God doesn't want us to grovel. The word, parresia, ("confidence"), means being free to speak one's mind, not being ashamed. That's the approach! Like 4:14-16, 10:23 reminds us of our "confession" (homologia). This most likely included a kind of statement of faith which accompanied conversion and baptism of adults who came to faith. Notice the allusion to baptismal imagery in 10:22.
Another ground for confidence comes in 10:23 - you can rely on God. God means well. It is an affirmation of who God is. Faith includes believing that God really is reliable and to be trusted and that God really does care. Most of us learn love not through abstract contemplation or even necessarily in private prayer, but in relations with other human beings. This is a basis for confidence. We need to support each other. We need community. That takes effort, even some discipline. It is easy for some people to slip into solitude. Christianity is not about people being happy solitaries, but about being dissatisfied and passionate together about change. Plenty of religions, including many forms of Christianity serve the former. The image which Jesus creates is not of serene individuals who have found the meaning of life and can let life go by unruffled, with peace in their hearts and a kind of sterile morality which never does wrong and never does any good.
Heb10:25 brings us another odd little reminder that these people really did imagine that their history as they knew it would soon change because of the second coming of Jesus. We know that Paul at one stage thought he would see the day, when he spoke of "those of us who will be alive" at the great trumpet sound (1 Cor 15). It is hard to whip this up as a motivator after 2000 years and it shouldn't be tried. Ultimately the reasons why we want to share the life and passion of God in the world are much more profound. Hebrews has its own cultural way of engaging the issues. If we can listen across the cultural divide which separates its world and ours, we can sense that it is very much about the totality of divine love and the rejection of the power-mongering of those who want to set themselves and their systems up as a form of control between us and God. We don't need them in our world - nor in ourselves - but they are as populous and popular as ever.
Gospel: Pentecost 26: 18 November Mark 13:1-8
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