First Thoughts on Year C Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 15

William Loader

Pentecost 15: 1 September  Hebrews 13:1-8,15-16

The sudden change to a set of brief instructions makes Hebrews 13 seem like an afterthought. Some have even speculated that it might have been added later to the letter, maybe to make it into a letter. The same effect might have been produced by the author, if he had added the material after having completed the main work. It reflects similar values to those in the rest of the writing, even though it employs the cultic imagery differently. It does take the form of closing exhortations which we sometimes find in other letters.

Each short comment is a theme in itself. Mutual love is a fundamental trait of good Christian community and crucial for survival where a community must stick together in face of dangers. Offering hospitality was also a key characteristic of early Christian communities. It was especially vital for communication with other Christian communities. Visiting preachers and missionaries needed to be provided for. The allusion to angels recalls the stories in Genesis about the hospitality of Abraham and also Lot. Hospitality was an essential component of networking.

Solidarity with Christians who had been imprisoned for their faith is also a key value. Earlier the author had reminded the hearers of their own conflicts with the state (10:32-34) and it appeared that such dangers were again on the horizon. State imprisonment and torture were real possibilities. In our day we are all too aware of prisoners of conscience and people jailed for their beliefs, on the one hand, and of abuse and torture of prisoners, on the iother. The abuses in Iraq remind us that our societies are contexts where violence and exploitation flourish. For many people such violence forms the diet of their visual entertainment.

Relationships of mutual love within the community also include marriage. The author uses the traditional language of defilement, probably reflecting that a marriage becomes defiled through adultery, the partners forbidden to remain together and work things out, a notion reflected in Deuteronomy 24 and matching laws promulgated at the time in the Roman world. Our understandings of what is retrievable are different and our options for reconciliation much more open, but we share the concern about stability and security of the nurturing contexts for children, which these texts also assume. Jesus, according to Matthew, sought to move the focus beyond adultery to adulterous attitude, which can take us beyond the restrictive moralising stance which is too focused on acts - and is much more demanding and holistic.

The love of money was as much a god then as it is now and with similar consequences. Hebrews assumes that Christian living does not get caught up into consumerism because that does not cohere with love for others. The promise that God will not forsake us (13:5) is not a guarantee of material security so much as an assertion that this is the relationship which matters most and which should concern us most. It liberates people from captivity to materialist values which create so much anxiety and fuel so much greed. We still have difficulty recognising that the abuse of greed is at least as serious as the more dramatic events of terror (which is usually a response to our greed, even though an irresponsible one). People often worry much more about adultery than they do about the bigger issues of  injustice in the distribution of wealth and resources.

The author has been calling the hearers back to the faith they confessed at their conversion and to which they held firm in the early days (3:1). In 13:9 he quite explicitly warns them to resist the pressures coming from Jewish based groups who appear to have been undermining their morale. This accounts for his consistent attempts to show Old Testament faith as inadequate and no longer valid. In13:7 he appeals to the hearers to remember their leaders. This is a variant of appealing to them to stay with what they have learned. The famous statement in 13:8 about Jesus belongs in the same context. Jesus and the message about Jesus remain the same. Don't be fooled that there has been some change. While people have often lifted it from its context so that it makes a statement about the person of Jesus, its primary focus in the context is 'what is taught about Jesus'.

13:9-14 consists of a final attempt to dismiss the arguments of the pressure groups who are calling the hearers' faith in Jesus into question. Issues of debate are food laws and proper worship. The author dismisses the old system and reasserts that the true worship belongs to heaven and that the hearers belong to that cultic community. They can forget the Jewish claims. In a quaint twist he connects the burning of sacrificial animals outside the camp with the execution of Jesus outside Jerusalem to argue that Christians should remain outside of Judaism. He then throws in the thought that the hearers should also be prepared to suffer outside as he did and then reminds them that they have a true city of their own, namely the heavenly city.

The final two verse of our passage pick up the cultic theme, but use it not of literal temples and sacrifices, but spiritual sacrifices. Already some Jewish writers had spoken of this kind of worship coming from the heart and from the lips as more important than any literal sacrifices. Similar thoughts are also in the Old Testament. There and in Judaism the contrast never meant that one should abandon the literal cult and focus only on spiritual worship. Similarly Deuteronomy spoke of circumcision of the heart, but never implied that one should abandon literal circumcision. Once however Christians began to go much further and abandon circumcision and the cult, these kind of thoughts served them well for claiming that now only the spiritual worship matters.

Notice that the author cannot contemplate worship without adding that it belongs within a context of doing good and sharing (13:16) - which is where our passage began. In a similar way 13:17 will focus again on leadership, as 13:7 had. These few verses offer us snippets of what Christian community meant. It wasn't a holy huddle of worshippers scared for their lives and totally obsessed with religious rituals. It was a community which expressed and shared love and in that context praised God - obviously because God is a God who reaches out in love and compassion.

Gospel: Pentecost 15: 1 September Luke 14:1,7-14
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