First Thoughts on Year C Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Advent 4

William Loader

Advent 4: 23 December  Hebrews 10:5-10

This passage forms part of the author's argument against the old order and for the new. It is a wonderful example of taking the words of a Psalm and treating them as the words of Jesus. Already Hebrews has understood Psalm 2:7, 45:6-8, 8:4-6 and 110:1 as referring to Jesus when they spoke of enthroning a 'lord' at God's right hand, acclaiming him as king, and crowning him with divine glory. Favourable translations in the Greek version and variants helped stimulate the imagination. The Psalm writers were talking about Jesus! The same thing is happening here with Psalm 40. The words of the psalmist become the words of Jesus.

They are then given a particular twist. The psalm used striking language to assert that God prefers goodness to sacrifices, a prophetic theme, but will not have meant that God dismissed sacrifice. It was a matter of putting sacrifice in perspective. Not everyone would understand such a distinction. Surely whatever God commands must be done - be it sacrifice or ethical instruction! How could one pick and choose? What right have human beings to evaluate what God commands and assess what is more important or less! Such an approach which put everything on the same level was problematic for most biblical writers. It leads to a kind of religious fundamentalism which often follows blindly without much discernment. The prophets and prophetic traditions, including some which influence interpreters of the law, made it very clear that there were priorities. Hosea and Amos are prime examples, as is Isaiah 58, and this Psalm - also Deuteronomy. They all espoused the view that love and justice mattered most. But they never advocated abandonment of the temple system with its roots deep within the instructions given to Moses by God in the Law.

The author of Hebrews turns a serious statement about priorities and preference into an outright denial. The words of the psalmist now serve to make the point that God does not want sacrifices or the temple system at all and has replaced it with Christ and his one-off sacrifice. It was all that people needed. In this way the author takes the words of the psalm as Jesus' declaration, that he was coming to take a body, which he would then sacrifice. The words of the psalmist become the words of Jesus just before Christmas, when he was about to enter the arena of human existence in embodied form. To that point in time he had been the Son of God active at God's side in creation and its sustenance.

These are extraordinary claims. They are strange for most of us, because we do not share the cultic presuppositions of the author. They may also be strange if we no longer make an understanding of Jesus' death as primarily an act of sacrificial atonement the centre of our faith. There is also something estranging in the way we might see this Christian author colonising an ancient Jewish text and making it say what he wants it to to say. It is one thing to assert that one no longer sees anything more than symbolic value in the old order. It is another to hijack its poetry as if to win an argument by citing its authority. Whom is it likely to convince? It would serve only to reassure those who already believe. That will be one of its chief functions here.

On the other hand, this tortuous argument derives from the overwhelming conviction that a system which, it believed, established and maintained boundaries around the holy has collapsed and that now no barriers apply to those who would approach God. There are no hierarchies. No systems which sustain hierarchies can have validity, because the author has become convinced that there is now direct access for all. A generosity has broken down the barriers. Religious brokerage is superfluous - indeed, iniquitous. In his thinking the author locates this revolutionary thought in Jesus and especially in his death. His death is to be seen as putting an end to all dying to meet demands or pay off debts. While frequently distorting the way the cult actually functioned, the author nevertheless follows a rationalising path which refuses to see value in such temple activities.

It is fascinating the way his discourses became the inspiration for the reinvention of hierarchies and cultic activity within Christianity. Our structures to evoke holiness become ambiguous. Height evokes wonder for some; for others it makes them feel small; for some it makes them feel powerful. Mystery evokes awe for some; for others it makes them feel excluded; for some it makes them feel important as the keepers of the secrets. Embodiment of the holy need not be abusive and alienating, as long as the perspective is compassion. Hosea's oft quoted claim, that God said, "I desire mercy and not sacrifice" (6:6) articulates that perspective. Wherever anything other than divine compassion hijacks the agenda, religion becomes abusive and alienating.

At a deep level there is some consistency between the arguments of our author and the spiritual world of the psalmist. What he asserts about Jesus' death, was already lived out in his ministry. What Jesus lived out in ministry was already inspired by the challenges of God's steadfast love in Israel's history. Hebrews stands in the tradition that insists that compassion is so radical that it warrants even setting scripture aside where its instructions functioned to set some at a disadvantage. It is never easy to take that stand. Sometimes its advocates seek proofs and authority for doing so which is at best shaky - like the author's use of this psalm. But, driving it is a defiance of obstacles, a refusal to be sucked back into systems that produce injustice.

Such openness invites conflict and resentment, especially from those who fear what they might lose. Arguments are bound to wobble a bit when things get tough. The stability in any age is to keep returning to what is to receive highest priority. Modern times have seen such turbulence - from debates over slavery, to women's rights. We are now in the midst of working through issues of sexual orientation. In all such struggles we need to be able to discern the 'sacrifices and burnt offerings' and when what claimed divine sanction must yield to a deeper understanding of doing God's will. The starting point must always be: God's goodness and holiness is a gift for all who seek it - no closed doors or curtains!

Gospel: Advent 4: 23 December Luke 1:39-45

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