October 12, 2015
Author: Scott Hoezee
They just don’t get it. Period. The disciples do not understand.
Readers of Mark know the by-now all-too-predictable pattern: Jesus predicts his death and so commends humble and sacrificial living and the disciples respond with an argument over rank, power, and position.
Even as readers we are getting a bit weary of this by now. Jesus tells the disciples what is on the docket for him and what do we get from James and John? Angling for cabinet posts in the new Jesus Administration. You can almost see the big cartoon bubble overtop of Jesus’ head containing just one word: **SIGH**
“Can you drink from the cup I am going to drink?” Of all the questions Jesus ever asked, this one deserved a careful, sober answer. It’s not a question to answer too quickly. Unless, that is, you happen to think the way James and John thought. They answered Jesus’ question with a very quick, “You bet we can!” That’s the kind of answer you give when you envision the “cup” in question to be a bejeweled golden goblet filled with good wine at the feast of Jesus’ inauguration as the replacement for the Caesar.
As is typical of the biblical/gospel mode of writing, Mark does not tell us the tone of Jesus’ voice when he tells James and John, “Yes, one day you will drink from it at that.” Jesus had every reason to be upset with these two for such a brazen request (and, again, this is now the THIRD time in a row this kind of thing has happened in recent days) but perhaps, as Jesus peered ahead into the dimness of the future, perhaps his answer to James and John was tinged with sadness. Maybe Jesus’ chin was quivering as he said it. Yes, they would drink from Jesus’ cup. Problem was, ONLY Jesus had a clue as to what that would involve. Knowing what he did, Jesus could not help but feel sorrow for what his dear friends would one day have to endure for his sake.
“You will drink it, you will be baptized in the way I will be baptized,” Jesus sadly replies. “But it’s not up to me to assign cabinet posts.” The story doesn’t end here, however. It didn’t take long before Bartholomew or Matthew or someone said to the other disciples, “Did you hear what James and John just asked Jesus about!?” And the ten disciples started to cut their eyes sharply in the direction of James and John, grumbling about such brazen jockeying for position (and anyway, THEY had been hoping for such honors themselves!). So Jesus huddles them together and says, “You just don’t get it, do you? Do you think that my ministry is about nothing more than merely re-treading the business-as-usual power plays of the rest of the world? Have I ever seemed interested in Roman-like power and privilege? I am all about servanthood. I came to serve not be served, and so if it’s greatness you’re looking for in the kingdom that is coming, you’d all best start grasping for the bottom-most rung of the ladder!”
“Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” Jesus asked James and John. “We can” they replied confidently, and in some ways we reply with equal confidence today. Every time we approach the Lord’s Table—whether that is every week in worship or once a month—that exact same cup of suffering and humility stands right before our very eyes. Each time we celebrate the feast, we grasp a cube of bread and intinct it in a cup or we eat the bread and then drink a small cup of juice. As we do so, we perform a sign that we believe in Jesus. We believe in his program. We believe in his gospel. We believe in his self-proclaimed path to true spiritual greatness.
But how often does our drinking of Jesus’ cup in this way transform our lives? Or are we about as likely as James and John to turn right around and, come Monday morning, start angling for power (in the world, in the church, in our business, in our family . . . wherever)? We affirm Jesus’ cup. But do we join Jesus in trying to seize the bottom rung of the ladder? Does that characterize our living? How would our day-to-day lives be changed if it did?
Questions to Ponder / Issues to Address:
“You know how those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them and how their high officials exercise authority.”
Yes, they did know. And so do we. Just cue Donald Trump. Cue any high-powered CEO or Executive. Cue lots of members of Congress.
“You know how those regarded as rulers exercise authority.” Yes, the disciples did know. And so do we. And like the disciples, we pine for just that kind of clout, muscle, cache, prestige, and authority in our own lives. We enjoy watching TV shows about powerful lawyers because we wish we had that kind of sway over things ourselves. We ingest politics like an addictive snack food because the next best thing to being powerful ourselves is to thrill to the antics, words, and deeds of those who do have their hands on the levers of power in our society.
“Not so with you” Jesus goes on to say, and like James and John and the others, that’s the point where we want to throw up our hands to say back to Jesus, “Now hold on there just a second!”
At its worst, the yen for the limelight is selfish pride on our part, pure and simple. But sometimes our motives are a bit purer, a bit more noble (or at least we can make it sound noble). After all, wouldn’t grabbing the reins of power for ourselves be a great way to influence the world for good? Think of how much kingdom work we could accomplish if WE were the ones passing the laws or adjudicating court cases. Just imagine all the bad behavior we could stamp out if the right people had the muscle to act as this nation’s moral cops. Sometimes having some authority to lord over others may just be the way to go!
Well, Jesus takes a different view. Now, of course it needs to be admitted that if a follower of Christ serves as a judge, a Senator, a President, or some other such powerful position, then of course that person’s faith would come into play in how he or she exercised the office. Christians who serve in positions of power can and must find ways to bring the kingdom perspective into play. But what Mark 10 tells us for sure is that even for these people, they cannot expect that it will be their lording (or even just wielding) of authority per se that will make the difference for the kingdom but only their conformity to the humility of Christ and his ethic of sacrificial service above all.
If that is true for even individual believers who are in positions of power, it is deeply true for the followers of Christ as a group. Jesus was not aiming for the kind of rough-and-tumble political kingdom that James and John so clearly had in mind in asking their question about the power arrangements in the coming kingdom.
So the question that every generation of the church needs to ask of itself is: Why do we so often seem to have aimed for precisely this in so much of church history right up to the present moment? Is it that we trust what we can see with our eyes—power politics and influence peddling DO work in this world after all—more than we trust on faith that Jesus’ vision of going a different way is the true path to the “greatness” of which Jesus speaks?
It’s interesting to note that Mark does not leave any temporal gap between Jesus’ grim words about his impending death and resurrection and the request from the Zebedee boys. In the Greek of Mark 10:35 we have the word KAI as the first word. KAI can most straightforwardly mean simply “and” but can carry with it the sense “and then” or “and so.” In any event, it’s the kind of word you use when stringing together incidents that followed closely one on the other. Indeed, it’s the same word used at the head of verse 46 when we are told that the other disciples swiftly got wind of what had just transpired between Jesus and the disciples. Clearly Mark is highlighting here the absolutely startling fact that despite Jesus’ repeated predictions of his own death, the disciples continued to miss the boat in order to focus on their own preconceived notions of Jesus’ ushering in an earthly kingdom in which there would be cabinet posts for which the disciples would have to compete.
Most people, if they are honest, admit that they like power, they like influence, they like perks. According to Robert Caro, in the mid-twentieth century, the United States Senate was a haven for power-hungry men in love with prestige. Senator Carl Hayden of Arizona was known to enter the Senate cafeteria and lay his cane on whatever table he chose to sit at for lunch. Often that chosen table would already have a clutch of secretaries or Senate staffers sitting there eating, but everyone knew that if Hayden laid his cane on your table, you had all better be gone by the time he returned with his lunch a few minutes later.
Most Senators also insisted that when they wanted the elevator in the Senate Office Building, they wanted that elevator IMMEDIATELY! To let elevator operators know that it was a Senator waiting, the Senator would buzz the elevator’s call button three times. When that signal was heard, the operator was to skip all other stops (even if others already in the elevator needed a certain floor) and pick up the waiting Senator without delay. Once when Senator McCarran of Nevada heard the car pass him by after he had rung three times, he turned on his heel, stomped back to his office, called the Sergeant-at-Arms, and ordered the hapless young elevator operator fired on the spot (which he was).
“Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” If you wish to reply, “Yes, I can,” then it makes no sense to turn right around and devote your days to the kind of power-brokering and social wrangling that can often be seen in government, business, and elsewhere. Living that way after taking Jesus’ cup makes no more sense than when James, John, and ultimately all of the disciples, responded to Jesus’ prediction of his death by squabbling over power and prestige.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Why did this happen? Why didn’t God prevent this? Or, very often it’s “Pastor, why did this happen? Pastor, where is God?”
A child dies, a good person is killed, a freak accident takes the life of someone who was unspeakably precious to us, and we are left to wonder why.
And if we’re honest as pastors, we just don’t have an answer.
If ever you needed to find something that symbolizes the cruciform nature of ministry, this is it: We pastors cannot give definitive answers to the hardest questions our people ask of us.
Oh, we can give general answers, philosophical answers. We can give overall reassurances about God’s abiding care for us despite the tragedies that come as well as about the overarching goodness of God. We can talk about how in a world that is both fallen but also endowed with free will, God cannot and will not pre-program every event. Even as God did not pre-program Adam and Eve to make them incapable of a bad choice, so God does not pre-program the postlapsarian world today to head off every bad thing that could happen.
But even if that makes sense in general to the hurting soul on the other side of the pastor’s desk, it does not touch the raw wound that festers on the level of specificity. “I know God doesn’t head off every bad thing but he surely heads off some bad things, pastor, and so I want to know why my Jimmy’s getting run over by a drunk driver was not one such thing.”
Oh dear. Lord, have mercy.
Thankfully, there’s nothing wrong with asking why. Nothing wrong with screaming a bit at God. He’s heard it before and he can take it. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!?” That may be history’s most shattering plea for a divine explanation in the face of suffering. But even if so, the person who remains history’s most famous poser of the question must be the man called Job.
Having quite literally lost everything in a series of calamities that befell Job from out of the blue, Job famously sits on his ash heap and scrapes the pus out of the boils that afflict his body and he bawls out his why to God. None of the answers stemming from conventional wisdom satisfies Job. His friends assure Job that there is a reason for everything and that, in Job’s case, the reason for all this suffering is obvious: Job had sinned. Job had, wittingly or unwittingly, done something really lousy, and this was the result.
But Job wasn’t buying the pop theology these various friends were peddling. He was convinced that there was nothing in his past that could even begin to warrant the misery of his present moment. In fact, at times he says that he was “blameless.” On the other hand, he admits at one point that compared to the upright splendor and superior holiness of God, no person would come off looking very good. Compared to God we may all look at least a little shabby. But relatively speaking, Job was quite sure he was more than just a pretty good person–he was just about perfect, at least in human terms.
What was it finally that settled the matter for Job? Was it that he had been vindicated as a perfect and righteous man after all? Was it that God had stepped in, refuted the arguments of Job’s would-be comforters, and so demonstrated once and for all that Job had been right all along? Was it that God fully and completely and clearly answered the many questions that get posed in this book?
In other words:
Does the Book of Job, perhaps history’s single most famous example of the so-called “problem of evil,” provide us with a theodicy, a way to explain the relationship between a good God and the bad things that nevertheless happen in this world?
Oh, there is a sense in which Job’s relative innocence is proven. There is a sense in which the miserable comforters are shown to have been themselves too arrogant and also finally incorrect. But after nearly thirty long, almost interminable, chapters of doubts and questions and complaints lodged before God’s throne, when Yahweh finally speaks to Job out of the whirlwind, what Job got could hardly be called a philosophical argument, a theological reply, or in any way the kind of answer you’d expect.
What we get from God is a celebration of creation cleverness. We get frolicking whales, powerful hippos, storks who treat their young in odd ways. Job asks why is there evil and in response, God takes Job on a safari.
Most folks would find this kind of reply to be merely puzzling at best and downright frustrating at worst. This line of reply begins in chapter 38 and continues right on through chapter 41. God does almost all of the talking here with Job now and again managing to do no more than sputter out a few pathetic lines to the effect that he doesn’t know what to say now and he also realizes that what he had said earlier had quite probably been all wrong, too.
But in the course of these four chapters in which God does all the talking, God directs our attention to the dimensions of outer space, the depths of the oceans, the shape of the earth, the power of thunderstorms, the beauty of the stars in the Pleiades and in the constellation Orion, the cunning of lions and the loveliness of mountain goats and deer, the giddy power of wild donkeys and the strength of the ox, the unlikely speed of the ostrich, the power of a horse’s neck, the soaring wonder of eagles and hawks, the muscle structure of the hippo, the spouting and sporting of whales. It all seems so unexpected and strange.
Yet the funny thing is that it works. It works because God is clearly re-framing the issue. God is not sweeping it under the rug. He is not denying that there are questions to be asked and maybe by and by answers to be given. But he casts all of this out into the larger arena of the entire creation and somehow this re-framing of it all has a profound effect on Job.
And make no mistake: God is putting Job (and all of us mortals) into his/our proper place. It’s not that there is no explanation, it’s just that we maybe cannot bear it. It’s not that there is no rhyme or reason to life, it’s just that we need to trust the God who is ultimately in charge of all life to do the right thing and to bring matters to their proper conclusion in God’s good time.
Of course, we cannot now help but read Job in the light of the gospel. Now we know God’s ultimate surprise when dealing with sin, evil, and death. If we thought it was a bit bracing to be shown a hippo when we thought we were going to hear a theology lecture, the Bible’s vastly more surprising move is to show us a baby in a manger and then a lowly carpenter’s son when we thought we were going to see the armies of God marching from the horizon to slay the beasts of evil. If in Job we thought it was a touch unusual to be brought to the zoo when we thought we’d be stopping by a seminary to learn deep matters of the faith, it is vastly more earthshakingly shocking in the Gospels to see God deal with death by dying himself.
None of this quite makes sense, and yet all of it seems to be God’s way of operating. But there is something else I want to highlight from Job; namely, the creation matters. This physical world is important to God. The creatures, stars, oceans, birds, and fish of this universe loom large in the divine mind–so large, in fact, that God himself did not deem it at all strange to approach Job’s moral and ethical probes via a tour of the natural world.
As Frederick Buechner once noted, a perennial fault of religious people is the attempt to be more spiritual than God himself is. God’s thoughts may be higher than our thoughts and his ways higher than our ways, as Isaiah observed, but the Bible also bears witness to the fact that God’s thoughts are often more earthy than our thoughts. God often takes care to ponder this earth even at the same time we are focusing an undue amount of attention on the dimensions of “heaven.”
We don’t know all the answers, but we know the Creator God, who has now become the Redeemer God through the surprise that is Christ Jesus the Lord. Considering the wonders this God has already wrought in Creation and Redemption, surely he can and will work one more wonder some day, and that is the satisfying of our every question, the drying of every tear from every eye.
“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations . . . while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?”
Terrence Malick’s brilliant film “The Tree of Life” opens with these verses from Job 38. The film is a wrestling with theodicy, with the “Why, God?” questions that emerge from hardship and tragedy. Midway through the film, the narrative is interrupted with a 15-minute sequence that basically depicts Job 38-41. You can watch this majestic sequence of the creation of all things from the link below. No doubt you will find yourself falling silent—as Job did when God showed him his own version of this sequence—even as the big questions of human life get reframed.
Author: Doug Bratt
Psalm 91 is a profession of God’s protective care. It’s a deeply beloved psalm, particularly by people who find themselves under some kind of duress. In fact, the church father Athanasius reportedly told a colleague, “If you desire to establish yourself and others in devotion, to know what confidence is to be reposed in God, and what makes the mind fearless, you will praise God by reciting the [ninety-first] psalm.”
Yet as Karl N. Jacobson notes, the history of Psalm 91 is a bit “checkered.” People have accused it of making promises that engender either superstition or false confidence. In fact, English pastor Leslie D. Weatherhead publicly concluded that the psalm “just is not true.”
Perhaps, then, those who preach and teach Psalm 91 shouldn’t be surprised that while the Revised Common Lectionary draws attention to it twice, in neither instance does it include verse seven’s most lavish promises that may make some people uncomfortable. It’s as if once again, as some critics have claimed, the Lectionary simply avoids the Scripture’s most problematic verses.
Yet Psalm 91’s difficulties aren’t limited to verses 7-8. As Old Testament scholar James Mays notes, the psalm as a whole can be viewed in a superstitious way. For example, some deduce from it that God gives each person an individual angel. Sometimes that results in that angel rather than the living God becoming the object of devotion.
So those who preach and teach Psalm 91 have an opportunity to help hearers reflect on the appropriate use of Scripture. It gives them a chance to reflect together on proper (and improper) hermeneutical principles for interpreting the Bible. Such an approach will help open the way for a more biblical understanding not only of Psalm 91, but also of all Scriptures, including those that are vulnerable to misinterpretation.
The Revised Common Lectionary appoints only Psalm 91:9-16 for this particular Sunday. But a few introductory comments to its first eight verses seem in order. First, verses 1-2 use four names for the God in whom the psalmist urges worshipers to join her in trusting. That’s appropriate because the One who is the Most High, the Almighty, the Lord and the psalmist’s God is clearly this psalm’s central character. Those names tell us something about the psalmist’s God who, in fact, speaks the psalm’s final four verses. This God acts and delivers in ways that render the Lord trustworthy.
The images the psalmist uses to describe God are all protective ones. The poet speaks of God as a shelter, refuge, fortress and large presence who casts a protective shadow. This God rescues those under God’s care and protects them like a mother bird. This variety of images is important because the threats to worshipers that Psalm 91 describes are also diverse. They include terror that threatens 24/7. Those threats include things like war, pestilence and plagues. They even cause great destruction.
The dangers Psalm 91 describes are very appropriate for Israelite worshipers who were constantly menaced by military, political and even religious threats. However, its protective imagery invites those who preach and teach Psalm 91 to reflect on threats to modern worshipers. To what might we compare “the fowler’s snare” and “deadly pestilence” today? What sorts of night’s terrors and day’s arrows menace the Lord twenty first century sons and daughters? On what threats do worshipers “tread” as they follow Jesus?
In the verses 9-16 of Psalm 91 to which the Lectionary calls worshipers’ attention, the poet insists that God protects God’s adopted children from those threats. That protection takes varied forms. In verses 7 and 10 the poet implies that God erects a kind of protective “hedge” around worshipers so that threats won’t come near, harm won’t befall and disaster won’t strike them. In verses 14 and 15 the poet insists that when evil strikes, God rescues and protects God’s children, as well as delivers and honors them. God, the psalmist adds in verse 15, answers worshipers’ calls, stays with them in trouble and grants them both long life and salvation. It’s perhaps worth noting the description of God’s protection is far longer than the list of threats to worshipers.
In verse 13 the psalmist insists that God’s protection extends even throughout the realm of nature. Even when worshipers somehow walk through jungles’ dangers that lions and cobras pose, God protects them. Franz Delitzsch notes that those threats are symbolic of both nature’s destructive power and God’s immense protection. That protection comes, says the psalmist, in the form of ministering angels. They, after all, guard God’s children in all their ways. Angels, in fact, catch worshipers so that they don’t injure themselves.
Psalm 91’s narrator changes in verse 14. It’s no longer the psalmist but the Lord who now speaks. Yet God’s message there echoes the psalmist’s in verses 1-2 and 9. Verses 14-16 use three vivid images to describe the protection that God promises in them. They speak of “deliverance,” “rescue” and “salvation.”
Yet those who preach and teach Psalm 91 must be honest about the extravagant nature of its promises. It’s a message of what Jacobson calls “shade from the heat, of release from the snare, of freedom from fear, of protection from powers bold and powers subtle. It is the message of a refuge promised and a refuge close at hand.” So how might we think about that message in the light of the misery that those who love the Lord sometimes experience?
What does this have to say to the dad whose wife abandons him and who, as a result, only gets to see his children sporadically? How does Psalm 91 speak to the woman who wrestles with mental illness whose sharp, dark edges medication only softens? How does it comfort those whose family members and friends seem nearly as far away from them as those loved ones seem from the Lord?
This psalm certainly won’t let us take its promises of protection lightly. Yet it seems to offer more than God sometimes delivers. Perhaps, then, worshipers and worship leaders who like their texts cut and dried should do their best to avoid Psalm 91. However, those who are willing to wrestle with it will find messages of hope and comfort, even though they aren’t necessarily unambiguous.
“Angels Online” (http://www.angels-online.com) is a website that refers to itself as a “popular reservoir of stories about extraordinary experiences that are submitted by people from every walk of life and from all over the world.” It includes stories of encounters with angels, spiritual awakenings, self-discoveries and healing miracles.
Yet those who read those stores can’t help but notice the misplaced devotion that some of them describe. While Christians believe that angels are ministers of God’s grace and protection, few of “Angels Online’s” stories reflect any connection between angels encountered and the living Lord.
Author: Stan Mast
In the verse right after our reading, the author admits that what he has just written is “hard to explain.” That is an understatement. It is particularly hard to explain today’s lectionary reading to a 21st century church that isn’t one bit interested in closely reasoned arguments about a “high priest in the order of Melchizedek.” The author of Hebrews thought it was very important to go into this much detail about the high priesthood of Jesus, because, of course, he was writing to second generation Jewish Christians who were being tempted to return to Judaism by, among other things, the attractiveness of the Aaronic priesthood with all its rituals. Hebrews very carefully explains how Jesus is better than anything Judaism had to offer. Unencumbered by the postmodern toleration that is embarrassed by claims of religious superiority, our author says again and again (up to 15 times) that Jesus is better. Here he argues that our “great high priest, who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God (4:14)” is superior to the high priests who serve in the earthly sanctuary.
I can think of two ways to help our listeners care about this passage. The first does not address the political incorrectness of this superiority argument, but it does address the imagination of our 21st century congregations. Let’s paint a verbal picture of the high priest, so our listeners can see in their mind’s eye what these first readers could see with their physical eyes. Lev. 8:7-9 describes the clothing that Moses put on Aaron at his ordination to the priesthood. “He put a tunic on Aaron, tied the sash around him, clothed him with the robe and put the ephod on him. He also tied the ephod to him by its skillfully woven waistband…. He placed the breastpiece on him and put the Urim and Thummim in the breastpiece. Then he placed the turban on Aaron’s head and set the gold plate, the sacred diadem, on the front of it, as the Lord commanded Moses.”
Those last words refer back to that time at Sinai when God gave specific instructions about this clothing. Here’s just one detail, about the breastpiece. “Make it like the ephod: of gold and of blue, purple, and scarlet yarn, and of finely twisted linen….. Then mount four rows of precious stones on it. In the first row there shall be a ruby, a turquoise, a sapphire and an emerald….” (Exodus 28:15ff) In other words, the Aaronic high priest was a sight to behold, elaborately and expensively clothed, as opposed to the invisible Christ who had passed “through the heavens.” Such vivid descriptions might help our modern congregations understand the lure of that old faith and the consequent passion of our writer to prove that Jesus is better.
The second way to help today’s church get into this text is to demonstrate that, even in this postmodern age, we are always concerned about what is better. We want to know which laundry detergent, which car, which stock broker, which college is better. A thoroughgoing postmodernist might point out that we are talking about which college is better for you—not objectively better, just subjectively better. But it’s not that simple. It’s not only a matter of how I feel; there are also facts to consider, like student/professor ratio, scholarships given, majors offered, and money earned by a degree from that college.
Or think about the presidential campaign. People are downright passionate about which candidate is better, the best. So we carefully scrutinize the Clinton email controversy. Does that indicate anything about her honesty? And we tune in to hear Donald Trump. Does his fiery rhetoric tell us anything about his self-control? Such questions about who is better are very important. If we make the wrong choice, the results could be catastrophic, even apocalyptic for America. So we talk endlessly about who has better credentials, who is more qualified, not just for us, but for the country and the world.
That is the concern of our author. Who is the better high priest, not just according to our tastes, but according to God’s plan of salvation for Jews and Gentiles all over the world and for all time? So in our text for this Sunday, our writer spells out the qualifications laid out by God for this exalted office. He begins in verses 1-4 with the Aaronic high priest; he must be thoroughly human so that he can sympathize with the sinful people and he must be called by God to this position.
Then our writer applies those credentials in reverse order to Christ. So first of all, Christ the high priest has been called by God. He “did not take upon himself the glory of becoming a high priest.” Two passages well known to these Jewish Christians are elicited as proof that Jesus is a God ordained high priest. Psalm 2 establishes that Jesus was more than a human being. Though in the next verses the writer will take great pains to establish that Jesus was fully human, by quoting Psalm 2 first our writer is establishing that Jesus was God’s own Son.
The wording of Psalm 2 has caused no little controversy. Some scholars read them as a proof text for an adoptionistic Christology. But the word “become” in the NIV can also (and probably should) be read as “begotten,” fitting in with classic Athanasian Christology. However latter day scholars might read the text, the original intention was to show these second generation Jewish Christians that their Jesus was fully qualified to be the better high priest they needed. He was, after all, called by God to the position, and even called “Son” by God himself.
But that raised a big question in their minds, because they all knew that every high priest had to come from the line of Aaron. That was not only tradition; it was the God given line of succession. And everyone knew that Jesus did not come from that line. So how could he be a better high priest? Well, argues our writer, Jesus actually came from another priestly line, a prior line, a better line, the line of Melchizedek. He creatively applies Psalm 110 to Jesus; “You are high priest forever in the line of Melchizedek.”
Modern readers will be mystified by this reference, so we will have to spend some time with it, going all the way back to the first occurrence of that name in Genesis 14. As our writer will show in some detail in Hebrews 7, Melchizedek had no apparent birth or death; thus, he was a priest forever. Indeed, he was both priest and king. And when Abraham, the father of all Israel, bowed down to Melchizedek and even gave him tithes, it was as though all Israel, including the Aaronic priesthood, had acknowledged the superiority of Melchizedek. The conclusion of this complex argument is that Jesus is not only a high priest appointed by God, but that he is a far better high priest than any Aaronic high priest. “So why would you think of going back to an inferior priest?!”
But our author isn’t done yet, not by a long shot. A high priest also had to be able to sympathize with the people, because he had to be able “to represent them in matters related to God….” (verse 2) A good high priest “is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray, since he himself is subject to weakness.” But how on earth could that be true of Jesus, if he is, indeed, the Son of God? Here the high Christology of Hebrews seems to be an obstacle in this complex teaching about the high priesthood of Jesus. If he isn’t fully human, one of us in every way, then he cannot represent us in matters related to God. If he is so high and lifted up, he is of no use to us.
Hebrews speaks to that very real problem, using language so daring that it challenges our understanding of the Incarnation. If Jesus was indeed fully God, how could he “learn obedience” and be “made perfect?” Presumably God’s will was his own will since he was God’s Son. So how could he obey it? Verse 7 solves this theological problem by pointing not to his eternal divinity, but to his historical incarnation. “During the days of Jesus life on earth” is literally “in the days of his flesh (the word is sarkos in Greek)….” Echoing that great kenosis hymn in Philippians 2, Hebrews claims that something radical happened when “the Word was made flesh.” God in the flesh did not cease to be God, but became fully human. As such, Jesus suffered all that we humans suffer.
A careful probing of these controversial words in verses 7-8 should be very fruitful in helping our 21st century audience see how Jesus is a better Savior. These difficult words speak to the question, “What kind of high priest do you want?” I want one who understands from experience what it’s like to be me. So often in our deepest suffering, we look up to the God is supposedly in charge of this mess and ask, Why? What kind of God lets children suffer? The Gospel according to Hebrews answers: “the God who became one of us so fully that he knows what it’s like to cry out to God ‘with loud cries and fears….’” Some say this refers specifically to the Gethsemane experience, but there is no textual indication that it is limited to that. If Jesus is really like me, then he spent many a night crying out in fear. The God in charge of this world has experienced your life on the deepest level, deeper than a merely human priest ever could.
Some of the phrases that follow in verses 7-8 are “hard to explain.” Jesus prayed “to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.” But, didn’t Jesus die? Yes, but death could not hold him (Acts 2:24). So his apparently unanswered prayer was, in fact, answered in a more glorious way. This speaks to our “unanswered prayers.”
Again, though he was a/the Son, he “learned obedience from what he suffered….” But wasn’t God’s own Son always obedient from all eternity. Yes, but in the days of his flesh, as a flesh and blood human being faced with temptation and troubles, he learned to be obedient even when it caused suffering. This speaks to our moral struggles. Jesus gets what it’s like to be us in a morally corrupt world.
And once again, our text says that God in the flesh was “once made perfect….” But wasn’t he already perfect. Of course, but this isn’t talking about moral perfection. It is talking about perfectly fulfilling his role as high priest, perfectly completing the task of representing us in matters relating to God. He couldn’t do that until and unless he obeyed and suffered and died. Because he did all that perfectly, he was qualified to “become the source of eternal salvation….”
Note again the superiority of Jesus’ priesthood. The Aaronic priests could offer only temporary salvation; all the sacrifices and rituals had to be repeated again and again. As our writer will say over and over, Jesus did his work once and for all, thus providing a completed salvation that lasts forever. Hebrews speaks also of eternal redemption (9:12), eternal inheritance (9:15), and eternal covenant (13:20). As F.F. Bruce put it, the salvation won by this High Priest is eternal “because it is based upon the once for all, accomplished, never to be repeated, and permanently valid sacrifice of Christ,” the great High Priest after the order of Melchizedek. In a world filled with solutions that work only for a while, with answers that go out of date when the questions change, with a confusing parade of the latest and best way to problems of the human race, this difficult passage points to something better than all that.
After all the indicatives of this complicated text, there is one implied imperative. Writing to folks who were thinking of leaving the Christian faith, our writer says that Jesus is the source of eternal salvation “for all who obey him….” That doesn’t mean that we are saved by our works. After all this talk about the work of Christ, our writer would be horrified if we came to that conclusion. “Jesus paid it all; all to him we owe.” What we owe him is a steady faith, a faith that hangs in there when we are tempted to leave, a faith that works itself out in a life of obedience. Saving faith is not just a head full of complicated doctrine; it is feet faithfully following the One who “in the days of his flesh” prayed, and cried, and feared, and submitted, and suffered, and obeyed unto death, even death on the cross.
Tracing our lineage can be a parlor game (we call it “Dutch bingo” in my tradition), an engrossing hobby (think of all the on-line sites that help fill out your family tree), or a matter of life and death (think of all the bloodshed in the battle between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in the Middle East). Many of our congregants don’t know that the major point of contention between Sunnis and Shiites is simply a question of succession. Who is the rightful leader of the Muslim people? Sunnis say that Abu Bakr, the adviser of the prophet Muhammad, was the rightful successor or caliph. Shiites favor Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and son in law. Ali and his successors are called imams, who not only lead the Shiites but also are considered descendants of Muhammad. Which line is the legitimate one? The world has suffered much over that question. Such things make all the difference in the world and in heaven. That is the claim of Hebrews for that High Priest in the line of Melchizedek, who was called “The King of Peace.” (Hebrews 7:2)
From an on-line site comes this lovely quote from the Taize community. “The gospel does not give us an abstract theory as to why we suffer or why God does not intervene. Rather, the Gospel shows us the life of a human person. Fully human, but also fully Son of God. Fully obedient to God and in total solidarity with humanity. Thus, as the author of Hebrews says, ‘Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.’” (Hebrews 12:2)