Pentecost 12: 7 August Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
The author has just reminded the people to whom he is writing that they were courageous in the early days after their conversion, when they faced trouble from the authorities (10:32-33). Now they apparently face similar problems and they need to keep on in the same spirit. He reminds them that they put up with the plundering of their property, because they had a more secure possession (10:34). By this the author meant the world of God, thought of especially as a heavenly world into which one day they would enter. In Hebrews 3-4 he had spoken of heaven as the promised land, the place of rest. He wants them to hang on and remain faithful and warns, as he often does in his sermon, that failure to do so would lead them into hopeless isolation from God (10:36-39).
This is the immediate context of the famous statement in 11:1 about faith with which our passage begins. It is about believing there really is something greater and permanent towards which we are heading and that gives us the confidence to go on. Yet, as he shows in what follows, such faith is much wider. It includes the belief that God is creator. It also includes a sense of solidarity with ancient heroes of faith who stuck with confidence to what they believed and remained faithful to it.
Our lectionary selection of verses jumps to Abraham's example. It cites Abraham's willingness to set out for a land which God promised him, even though he had no idea what it was (11:8). This was an act of courage and risk. The author gives the biblical story a twist by indicating that the promised land was not really Canaan at all, but a heavenly city (11:10). This was another of his images of the world of God. Sometimes he speaks of it as a temple. Sometimes he speaks of it as a land. But here and elsewhere he can also speak of a heavenly city.
At one level we must acknowledge that this is not correct. Nothing in the Abraham story in Genesis suggests that Abraham would have shared the viewpoint of the author to the Hebrews. On the other hand, we need to understand what the author is doing. He is claiming that what Abraham really yearned for (and Moses and all the others as well!) was something they could not articulate for themselves. It was the God given yearning to want to be in the place where God is, in the world of God's heavenly presence. That is the ultimate hope promised to us. This is a kind of existential interpretation. The author dares to claim that he knows what was really driving them - even of they didn't know, themselves. Many people have interpreted religious quests in this way, however diverse and strong they have sometimes been. They claim that deep down people have a yearning for God and express it in all kinds of different ways including the motion that they must travel somewhere or be in a particular place.
It is a surprise that Sarah joins the list of heroes of faith for her response to the announcement that at a legendary age she would have a child, because, in fact, according to the story, she initially scoffed at the idea. The result, anyway, according to the story is that Abraham had a son and descendants and these went on to fulfil the promise that they would be as numerous as the stars and as sand on the sea shore. This, too, is poetic exaggeration, but it does remind us a little of chaos theory. One little thing can trigger major events.
11:13 continues the rather daring slant on Jewish history. All these (including those before Abraham, mentioned in the verses we omit) only glimpsed the true goal from a distance. That true goal is the heavenly world. On earth they were not satisfied. They were just passing through and on to the hope of the real world, namely the world of heaven. 11:14 speaks of it as a fatherland (or mother country). l1:15 offers some argument: if they were seeking something on earth (which in historical reality we know they were - despite the author's claims otherwise), they could have found satisfaction by reaching their goal. No, insists the author. They were really reaching out for heaven and that is why God was proud to identify with them as their God and prepared them a city (11:16).
This really is a very creative re-interpretation. It has serious limitations. What does it do to us if we feel we can never belong in this world? Some would go on to say that this world is just a material prison created by an evil demigod to trap our souls and hope lies alone in getting away from present reality. This can be speculative. For some people, life here really is hell. Our author still sees this world as God's, but his position does tend to produce an understanding of life in the here and now as just a regrettable phase through which we must pass. He is not really addressing the situation of people in desperate pain. Is God really not able to find some joy in this world? Is this not still God's creation and good? Is our present form of human life something from which we must escape or is it something we can embrace? Has sin really spoiled everything so that life here is just for passing through? Is this a pilgrim model that sees progress simply as avoiding danger so we can reach a heavenly city? Why should we not label this sheer escapism? It often is and accounts also for lack of care for this world in which we live, the people in it and ourselves, except as potential recruits for another world. It is often very, very religious.
Yet, while acknowledging these dangers, we can also find something inspiring and challenging here. The author offers a daring interpretation of religious tradition, which might apply to many human religious pursuits. It is as though he is taking the surface meaning of texts and translating them into what he believes underlies them, whether or not that is known to the person using such language. So the deep grammar of this kind of religious language is a basic yearning to move from here to there, from not belonging to belonging, from alienation to being with God. His frame of reference frames that movement in terms of earth and heaven, but if we follow his method and give it our own frame, we can learn a new way of listening to religious language.
The author was not the first to suggest that Israel's hope for the land should not be reduced to literal occupation of parts of Palestine, but was something much deeper. Otherwise why did people living in the land still cherish the hope of the land? That needn't be escapist. It may be a way of accessing deep human yearning. Faith is then the confidence that it is OK to yearn and that when we yearn deeply there is a God shape to our hope and that God is real. When we set out on that journey we will, of course, find there is always further travel, but that at many points along the way we find the end of the journey, who walks beside us. The end and the beginning meet, as it were, in the midst of our journey. Knowing that and living in that confidence is faith. The author might sense that we are singing a similar melody.
Gospel: Pentecost 12: 7 August Luke 12:32-40
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