October 26, 2015
Author: Scott Hoezee
Today Jesus would be seen surrounded by reporters and cameras, with a half-dozen microphones being shoved toward his face. Today Jesus would be hounded by paparazzi as the center of a small media blitz. Passersby would be leaning in, camera phones held out in front, to take a selfie with the rebellious rabbi from Nazareth. Jesus had made quite a splash, after all, entering the city to fanfare and then causing a huge kerfuffle at the Temple. He was, for the moment, famous.
And everybody wanted to ask Jesus a question, too, starting with the movers and shakers of the religious establishment in Jerusalem who tested Jesus’ theological mettle with a series of inquiries that clearly had just one ultimate purpose that went beyond idle curiosity.
They wanted to get Jesus into trouble.
“By whose authority do you do these things?”
“Should we heed the Roman IRS and pay taxes to the Caesar or does God come first?”
“When the resurrection happens, who gets the girl in case she married seven guys from the same family?”
Calmly and deliberately Jesus answers each question. Reporters scribbled down what he said. Camera shutters went click-click-click. And the wise in the crowds around Jesus smirked at how well he was getting himself off each hook with which the authorities were trying to snag Jesus.
Finally one teacher of the law asks the ultimate question, especially for religious folks whose sole focus is keeping the Law of God perfectly: “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” People today hear that question and think of just Ten Commandments. But the people in Jesus’ day knew better. The strictest folks among the Pharisees paid heed to—and punished infractions of—somewhere in the neighborhood of 613 commandments.
So when a teacher of the law asked Jesus about “all the commandments,” it was a pretty big list to ponder (the whole list is found here: http://www.jewfaq.org/613.htm ). But Jesus goes for a couple near the top of that long list in quoting the Shema from Deuteronomy 6 and its call to know that God is one and that our highest duty is to love this God with everything we’ve got. And oh yes, right next door to that commandment is the one that says to love your neighbor, too, because—as the Apostle John will point out in his first epistle—you can’t say you love God but then hate all those little images of God that surround you in your daily life.
Now if you look at the list of the commandments, you might think in one sense this was a fairly obvious choice for Jesus to make. You would, after all, be rather taken aback had Jesus elevated to Commandment #1 something like “Not to eat chametz after mid-day on the fourteenth of Nissan” or “The King shall not acquire an excessive number of horses,” which are two of the 613 commands on the master list. But Jesus was not simply selecting a commandment that was somewhat high on the list. Instead he selected a commandment that in one fell swoop encompassed the entire list because it upholds the entire list.
In the above paragraph I purposely chose two semi-obscure laws from the big list (there are lots of others like those, however!) but the fact is that whether a particular law is obscure or not, your heeding any of those laws makes no sense unless there is a real God behind those commands. (If there is no God, then these are all random hoops through which we’re told we must jump.) What’s more, you will not feel the least bit motivated to heed any law—much less the whole lot of them—unless you truly love that same God. And since a good many of the things God had to say in the Bible looked toward the welfare of neighbors—a group of people that included strangers within your gates and most anyone else you ran across anywhere in life—your love for God had to transfer to those people, too, or you’d find all kinds of ways to skirt your obligations toward also those people.
But as the rest of the gospel makes clear, precisely that kind of skirting of the law was a commonplace among the hyper-religious of Jesus’ day. Or as Jesus put it on another occasion, they found ways to keep the outside of the cup looking nice while on the inside the cup was filled with horrid stuff. Real love could never countenance such a thing, which is Jesus’ point here. Jesus meant what he said about love being our highest obligation but at the same time Jesus was offering an unhappy critique of the very nit-pickers who had been trying to trip him up with that recent string of questions lobbed his way. Their own efforts to use the Law as a bludgeon revealed their own lack of love.
Preaching on this text today, however, tempts us to locate that sad state of affairs only in the distant past. As Robert Farrar Capon once wrote, it’s too easy to make the Pharisees the black-hat-clad bad guys in some ancient hiss-and-boo melodrama. What we need to remember is that those folks were—in the opinion of most people back then—actually the guys in the white hats, the good guys. Surely they thought of themselves that way. But so did others. Today we think of ourselves this way pretty often, too. That is, most of us who gather in churches each week are pretty sure we have our pious act together. We love God. And we love our neighbors.
Well, most of them. We like most of the people we work with. And the shank of our own congregation is pretty OK, too. Not everyone, mind you. Some of our fellow believers can be real jerks, after all. There must be some legal loopholes that get us out of our obligation to love those people, right? Can’t we “love” people without being obligated to “like” them? Can’t I love the person I refuse to talk to? Maybe my not talking to him is the most loving thing I could do, after all! Maybe.
And maybe not. Jesus says that there is a strong cord, a golden thread that connects God’s every desire for our lives in his creation with a fundamental love for both God and neighbor. In our everyday actions, we can either trace what we say and what we do along that thread and so let it lead back to the love that is supposed to permeate our every action and word or we find that the thread snaps at some point and we’re left with just a frayed edge that doesn’t end up being loving at all.
The bad news is that we run into that kind of fraying on a pretty regular basis. And if preaching is supposed to do no more than make people feel bad about themselves, then you as a preacher could point that out and leave it at that. But assuming you think preaching is supposed to deliver Good News, grace, and hope, you may want to point out that what undergirds our love is God’s great Love. And that even as that Love was able to reach out to us “while we were yet sinners,” so there is more than enough grace in that Love to forgive our failures of love now too. We don’t rest cheaply on that grace, nor treat it as “cheap grace,” but we take comfort that the divine Love that lies at the heart of everything is always ready to assist us and goad us toward a greater faithfulness in our desire to love God above all and our neighbors as ourselves.
Probably the only real mistake we can make in all this is precisely the thought that since we are mostly loving toward most people, we’re all set on that front. The Pharisees, after all, were aware that they were not quite loving toward everyone but found clever ways to skirt all that as a way to avoid fixing what was broken in their heart of hearts. They didn’t take comfort in God’s grace so much as they convinced themselves they didn’t need any grace unto forgiveness in this area to begin with.
And that is a difficulty that may well prevent a person from even being interested in entering Jesus’ kingdom (itself a gift of grace) much less dwelling happily within the kingdom.
In both Matthew 22 and here in Mark 12, when Jesus quotes the Shema, he changes it just a touch. Deuteronomy 6:5 says to love the Lord your God “with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” But in the gospels, Jesus adds “and with all your mind.” As Neal Plantinga has noted, surely people took note of this. If some night at bedtime your toddler prayed, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my BRAIN to keep . . .” well, you’d notice! A welter of possibilities exist to explain this change. But for now just one possibility to ponder: the religious leaders in Mark 12 were using their minds to cook up clever ways to trip Jesus up. Did Jesus think to throw in loving God with also our minds as a subtle rebuke to these people whose own minds were, just then, in the service of something profoundly UNloving!?
Writer and poet Kathleen Norris sometimes gets asked to come into schools to help students learn a little bit about writing poetry. One day Norris was in a 5th grade classroom where she asked the kids to write a poem using some similes. To Norris’s surprise, one little boy wrote a strikingly good poem entitled, “My Very First Dad.”
I remember him/like God in my heart, I remember him in my heart
like the clouds overhead,
and strawberry ice cream and bananas
when I was a little kid. But the most I remember
is his love
as big as Texas
when I was born.
Norris was impressed with the poem but this little boy’s teacher was stunned by it. For one thing, the teacher said, this boy was not a very good student. But what was really surprising for Norris to discover was this child’s history. Yes, he had been born in Texas but he had never known his father–the man had skipped town on the day this boy was born. “I remember him like God in my heart,” the little boy wrote. But what he really meant was there was nothing to remember–no father, no love, and maybe no God either.
A second story comes from the life of Winston Churchill. When Churchill was still very young–seven or eight years old–he was packed off to boarding school. Not surprisingly, he quickly became enormously homesick. So he would write pathetic letters home to his mother, begging her to come visit him, pleading with her to arrange it so he could come home for the weekend sometime. But Winston’s mother had never really had much time for her son–she was far too wrapped up in a busy social life.
So when she received her son’s earnest letters begging for some love and attention, she usually just tossed them aside. Indeed, Churchill biographer William Manchester once made a sad discovery. While looking through some boxes of Churchill’s old letters and diaries, he ran across one of those letters in which young Winston begged his mommy to come visit him at school. But not only had his mother ignored this plea, she had even used the backside of the letter as scratch paper on which she scribbled out a guest list for a party she was planning to throw the next month!
In both of these stories it is not difficult to imagine how much damage was sustained by the hearts of these boys. And in both instances it was a failure of love that did the damage. There is so much that we can deal with in a context of love. We can forgive people easier where love is. We can put up with foibles and faults where love is. We find it flat out possible to go on with life in a rough world when love is present.
But take away love and we wither. We can’t go on. We’re damaged maybe beyond repair. There’s a reason Jesus chose what he did as “the greatest commandment.”
Ruth 1:1-18 (22)
Author: Scott Hoezee
To my mind—and for reasons I will spell out more below—stopping the reading of Ruth 1 at verse 18 is the narrative equivalent of ending the movie Field of Dreams just before the moment when Ray encounters his long-dead and estranged father on his magical Iowa baseball diamond. Why stop short of the scene that brings the whole thing together!?
So trust me: read the whole chapter of Ruth. Preach the whole first chapter of Ruth.
To see why, let us now turn to our story . . . and a sad story it is. Commentators on the Book of Ruth have often noted that the trajectory of this story can be summarize as “From Emptiness to Fullness,” and this first chapter is definitely the “empty” part. Or better said, it’s the emptying part. We begin in Bethlehem, the “house of bread” only to discover the bread in the house is gone. There’s a famine. People are hungry and when they get hungry, they soon become culinary refugees who go off in search of sustenance.
For a while Elimelech and Naomi find that sustenance in the land of Moab. Things look up but only briefly because soon enough the family’s breadwinner dies. That’s bad, but things brighten up a tidge when the remaining sons get married. And for ten years life goes on before disaster strikes yet again and the two sons turn up dead, too. Even in Israel – where the laws of the land were supposed to protect widows and other vulnerable members of the society – things did not always pan out so rosy for widows. One can assume that Moab did not have those safeguards in the first place and so three widows equaled triple trouble.
The two young widows, Orpah and Ruth, have a shot at remarriage at least. They might yet have children. But Naomi sees no future. If you were a woman in the Ancient Near East, the simple (albeit sexist and patriarchal) fact of the matter was that the best way out of economic calamity was to get married. Men got all the breaks. Women without men got overlooked if not mistreated. But Naomi’s marrying days and child-bearing days were long gone. Her best shot was to go home and hope for some merciful extended family to take her in.
But given the wariness in Israel of marrying foreign women, Orpah and Ruth really were best off staying in Moab. Orpah is the more sensible of the two young widows and does just that. Ruth, on the other hand, is completely irrational. She goes against common sense and decides to stick it out with Naomi, come what may. Now Naomi had yet another mouth to feed in addition to her own and so although we usually hold up Ruth’s loyalty as a noble thing—isn’t that text about “Where you go I will go” riffed on at many’a wedding these days?—Naomi probably regarded Ruth’s stubborn loyalty as one big pain in the neck. This was going to make things more complicated for her, not less so.
Because make no mistake: Naomi still saw but one solution and that was re-marriage. She was so focused on this that she even made up the ridiculous scenario of Orpah and Ruth possibly waiting around to marry Naomi’s future sons, not that she’d ever have another child, mind you, and not that Ruth or Orpah could wait around for a couple of decades while such kids—who would never exist anyway—grew up!!! Naomi’s throwing out of that scenario is the kind of silly and loopy thing you say when you don’t know what else to say and are in any event quite literally at the end of your rope.
Again, Orpah sees the sense of it all. Ruth refuses. She is going to stick with Naomi. She will as good as become an Israelite—religion and all—if that’s what it will take to stay with her bereft mother-in-law.
What a sad pair they were that day they shuffled back into Bethlehem. Things had not been great the day Naomi had left in the midst of a famine but at least she had her husband at her side and two handsome young boys trotting along behind her. But now here she was coming back looking like forty miles of bad road and with some equally sad-looking Moabite woman tagging along to boot. People felt sorry for her, but Naomi would not have any of their pity. What she wanted was for them to get as angry with God as she was.
And so she lights into Almighty God pretty good. “Time was my name meant ‘Pleasant’ and I used to be a pretty pleasant person, too. But that was before Yahweh messed with my life. Now just call me ‘Bitter,’ because that’s what I am. And it’s all God’s doing! God has only himself to blame for moving me from Pleasant to Bitter. So come on, folks, and join me in shaking an empty fist in the direction of Almighty God!”
It’s not the kind of thing you would ordinarily say in the company of a young woman who just said “Your God will be my God.” Naomi doesn’t exactly give a nice little promotional piece here for the God whom Ruth just offered to worship. You’d hardly be surprised to hear Ruth say, “Whoa! That is who your God is? I’d like to retract my earlier statement and substitute the line ‘Your God will not be my God!’”
Ruth 1 presents one bleak picture. Naomi and Ruth are as empty as empty can be as the chapter comes to close. To riff on a Paul Simon song they were “She’s a poor girl, Empty as a pocket, empty as a pocket with nothing to lose . . .” Even God comes off looking bad. Naomi surely is not looking to God with much hope. Quite the opposite, in fact!
But then comes that last verse of the chapter (here’s why you need the whole chapter). “The barley harvest was beginning.” If the Book of Ruth were staged as a play, I would imagine that as Act One comes to a close, Naomi and Ruth would exit stage left, their heads bowed, their shoulders slumped, arrayed in tattered dresses. But then just as they step off the stage and out of the sight of the audience—and just before the lights go down between acts—suddenly the audience would hear the crunch of grain kernels beneath the women’s feet.
The barley harvest was beginning. Bethlehem/The House of Bread was going to get some bread going soon as the staff of life—barley and wheat—was brought in from the fields.
Crunch-Crunch goes the sound of grain kernels popping under the women’s sandals. It is the sound of hope. In the midst of great sorrow and after God himself has just endured a full frontal assault from Naomi, getting chalked up as a destroyer or life, suddenly God lets the sound of barely-crunch to be heard, and those of us who read the book and watch the play cannot help but smile. God cannot be counted out just yet.
Something more is in the works.
Stay tuned. Keep reading. Come on, turn that page!
If Ruth 1 is a picture of bleakness, it is also a picture of the human condition writ small. Ruth 1 is emblematic for so much of life. God created us for shalom, for flourishing, for life abundant in his good creation. But our sin unmade so much of what was good. Like Naomi, we may want to blame God for all the unhappy things that happen but as often as not the sad things that happen are simply part of that long chain—that series calamatis that just is human sin ricocheting from generation to generation—that is really to blame. We misuse the environment and then wonder why there are famines and people dying from disease. We enflame hatred and exaggerate ethnic differences among peoples and then wonder why wars erupt and people kill each other so callously. We become selfish and self-indulgent narcissists focused only on our own pleasure and then we wonder why friendships fracture and families fall apart and why even church communities become battlegrounds instead of previews of God’s peaceable kingdom.
“Death and decay in all around I see” as one old hymn lyric puts it. The news on any given day presents us with enough sorrow and mayhem to undo us all if we could really even begin to take it all in. The whole creation started out so full but now often turns up so empty.
But in and through it all God remains God and long about the time we conclude that it’s all over and there is no hope, suddenly some barley crunches under someone’s feet and we being to suspect that there may yet be an Act Two to all this creation drama. We begin to suspect that the God who created us for fullness will not be content to leave us in emptiness.
Ruth will become a distant relative of man from Nazareth named Jesus—with Advent 2015 just around the corner we can recall Ruth’s presence in the Family Tree of Jesus with which Matthew opens his Gospel. You might not have guessed such a thing for a woman who was such a destitute outsider when first we meet her. The prospects just don’t look good. Yet in Bethlehem that day, from somewhere just within earshot, we hear the crunch of barley underfoot.
Many years later in Bethlehem, from the unlikely location of an animal’s feedbox, the sound of a crying infant would be heard. And for those with ears to hear, there was a sense also that night that God was still around, still aiming things to move from emptiness to a very great fullness indeed.
Frederick Buechner once wrote a lovely book called The Alphabet of Grace. Near the end of this volume, Buechner compared life to the Hebrew language. As some of you know, ancient Hebrew contains no vowels but only consonants. So you have words that, all by themselves on paper, look like BRK, GDL, BNJMN. You can’t pronounce such things, of course, without vowel sounds to slide in between those consonants. Native Hebrew speakers know just which vowels to supply where. And so BRK becomes barak, GDL becomes gadol, and so on. Life is a little like that, Buechner suggests. There are lots of hard truths, hard sounds that get jammed together in the tragedies (and even in the ordinary circumstances) of our lives. It doesn’t always make sense or seem even very pronounceable. But it is finally faith that provides the vowels at just the right points, making even for now at least a little bit of sense of things. Life isn’t always very phonetic in some literal sense, but with the Spirit’s help, perhaps grace can supply what is sometimes missing.
As often as not, it’s the providence of God that does this for us. And providence can slide in those vowels in very surprising ways and places sometimes, as the story of Ruth can also remind us.
Author: Doug Bratt
This psalm marks the beginning of the end of God’s peoples’ songbook. It’s one of five doxologies that offer resounding praise to the Lord. It’s appropriate the psalmist should end this way. After all, she sees praise as a lifelong vocation and privilege. After all, Psalm 146’s poet twice vows to praise the Lord throughout her life. Perhaps that’s because she recognizes that praise is something God’s children can still do long after they can do little else. It’s stunning to hear elderly saints sing hymns or recite psalms long after they’ve forgotten virtually everything else.
Yet while the refrain “Praise the Lord” brackets it, Psalm 146 is more than just a song of praise. In it the poet, after all, combines praise to the Lord with a call to also trust the Lord whom he praises. And while we may think of those two activities as somewhat disconnected, Old Testament scholar Raymond Van Leeuwen suggests that part of the psalmist’s praise is such instruction in the nature of trust.
Psalm 146 basically begins with negative instruction. After all, the poet calls God’s sons and daughters not to trust in human beings. They can’t, after all, really save anyone. What’s more, when people, even powerful politicians die, they eventually return to the dust from which God created them. Even such leaders’ grandest plans and schemes largely die right with them.
That’s a theme on which it’s very appropriate for God’s children to reflect, perhaps especially during political campaigns that often characterize North American Octobers and Novembers. It offers opportunities for those who preach and teach Psalm 146 to reflect on the nature of politics and leadership. Some Westerners tend to invest a great deal of both hope and trust in political and other leaders. When those “princes” disappoint us, we tend to completely reject them (or simply vote them out of office).
By contrast, the psalmist is very realistic about human leaders’ limitations. She doesn’t seem suggest that leaders are somehow unnecessary or useless. She’s simply warning worshipers against investing trust in them for any kind of salvation. The poet appears to remind them, as James Mays notes, “Hope based on what dies is doomed to disappoint.” In fact, the poet may even have Israel’s royalty in mind as she writes this psalm. After all, her kings and other leaders proved unable to protect Israel from danger.
As James Mays points out, the psalms often contrast people and God as a way of combating fears of human threats. Here, however, the poet contrasts God and human rulers as a way of directing worshipers’ trust to its only proper Object, the “God of Jacob.” Of course, as one worshiper has noted, that’s somewhat counter-intuitive in the 21st century west. After all, we tend to trust only what we can see, smell, touch, feel, hear or somehow prove. We are, in other words, very materialist. Yet this psalm calls worshipers to trust in a God whose existence we can neither experience with our senses nor prove.
The poet describes the God in whom he calls worshipers to trust in a number of ways. There’s a covenantal emphasis in his description of “the God of Jacob.” There’s also a personal note to the poet’s reference to the “Lord [his] God.” What’s more, there’s also a cosmic scope to the poet’s descriptions of the Lord. He refers to God as “the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea and everything in them.” On top of all that, the poet also speaks of the Lord as the One who “remains faithful forever.” So the God in whom the psalmist invites worshipers to trust not only makes everything that is created; God also cares for everything God creates. God doesn’t abandon what God creates; God faithfully cares for God’s creatures and creation.
This praiseworthy God is both the source of worshipers’ help and the object of our hope. So those who trust in the Lord are what verse 5, echoing Psalm 1’s introductory teaching, calls “blessed,” perhaps better understood as “happy.” In fact, other things link Psalms 1 and 2, among the psalter’s introductory psalms, to 146, among its final psalms. All three, after all, instruct. What’s more, each deals with allegiance to God in the face of competing individual and political claims.
Psalm 146 is very realistic about life on this side of the new creation and, thus, the need for God’s faithful care. It, after all, refers to numerous forms that human misery can take. This psalm, in fact, speaks several times of misery that others inflict, alluding to hunger, oppression and even imprisonment.
One worshiper suggests that those who preach and teach Psalm 146 might invite worshipers to imagine composing a poetic description of God’s response to misery. Would it imitate Psalm 146’s concerns? After all, western citizens of the 21st century by and large, at least at this point in time, have plenty of access to food. We have medical technology that can deal with many forms of blindness. So all of us are tempted to focus on God’s ability to meet our wants rather than needs.
Perhaps that’s because many of God’s western children find ourselves not on society’s margins, as many of those alluded to in Psalm 146 find themselves, but at its heart. Clearly this psalm directs worshipers’ attention to vulnerable people whom we’re naturally tempted to ignore. It points us to those who are oppressed, hungry, imprisoned and blinded, not just physically but also spiritually.
Psalm 146 describes the Lord as One who lifts up those who are bowed down and loves the righteous. This God watches over those whom others not only are tempted to ignore, but also are tempted to exploit. In the psalmist’s context, after all, aliens, orphans and widows had few means with which to protect and provide for themselves. The psalmist insists that God, however, is a reliable source of help for such vulnerable people who consider the Lord their “help” and who put their “hope” in the Lord. God’s help is, in fact, in ways reminiscent of Jesus’ earthly ministry, always timely and appropriate. It, after all, heals damage done to human creatures.
Psalm 146’s theology has profound implications for human ethics. We naturally want someone else, including various “princes,” to do all those things for the needy that this Psalm insists God does. While worshipers may argue about the extent to which government should care for such vulnerable people, it implies that we dare not ignore our own personal and ecclesiastical responsibilities toward them.
Psalm 146 ends with an emphasis on the Creator and Caretaker God’s eternal nature. This God “remains faithful forever,” “reigns forever” and reigns “for all generations.” This serves to highlight the contrast between the trustworthy Lord and the mortal rulers whom we’re tempted to trust. “Princes” and other rulers, after all, eventually die. The Lord, on the other hand, reigns forever, for all generations.
This week’s Lectionary pairs Psalm 146 with Ruth 1’s account of a world of hungry people, widows and orphans who are aliens. It describes the outsider Ruth who chooses to trust not in human rulers, but in the God of Jacob. By doing so she enters both God and David’s family from whom Jesus, who ministered to people on society’s margins, eventually comes.
The Lectionary also pairs Psalm 146 with Mark 12:38-44. It’s the gospel account of Jesus’ condemnation of religious leaders who seem pious but “devour” the kinds of marginalized people about whom God so passionately cares. There Jesus also praises the widow who, sustained by the Lord, responds by giving everything she has to the Lord’s work.
It’s not just modern “princes” who are “mortal” (3). Their “plans” (4) are also in a sense “mortal.” After all, they too usually die right along with the leaders who make them.
Declassified documents show that U.S. President John F. Kennedy planned, in 1963, to withdraw 1,000 American soldiers who’d been stationed in Vietnam. They also suggest that he intended to withdraw the remaining 16,000 soldiers there after the 1964 election. Because he feared it would draw sharp criticism from his political opponents, Kennedy kept those plans secret.
However, an assassin’s bullet put an end to those plans. Plans to completely withdraw American soldiers from Vietnam died with President Kennedy. In fact, the Vietnam War bloomed into a bloody conflict that took 58,000 American soldiers’ lives as well as those of millions of Vietnamese people.
Author: Stan Mast
Many modern congregants will want to run from this text, and not just because of the strange old priest-haunted world to which it is addressed. More than the unfamiliarity of its cultural background, our text for today is hard for our congregations to hear because it reeks with blood. And we are tired of blood; we are disgusted with blood; we are horrified by blood. As we watch the unending bloodshed in the Middle East, we don’t want to think that the God who revealed himself to the Jews in that part of the world is bloodthirsty. But that is precisely how some people read these words about blood in Hebrews 9.
So it’s no wonder that many scholars and preachers run from this text in embarrassment and disgust. Though the lectionary does include these readings from Hebrews, I’m guessing that few preachers choose them Sunday after Sunday. Even when the few and the brave dare to venture into this strange and difficult world, many of them will be so sensitized by the modern church’s revulsion over blood that they will ignore or explain away that uncomfortable aspect of this text. We want no part of a God who requires a bloody sacrifice before we can be forgiven (verse 22).
But there is another way to approach this text. Rather than letting current cultural sensitivities shape our reading of the text and our ideas about God, we can carefully read the text in the light of its ancient context and let it shape our ideas of God. Perhaps this bloody text will help us recover the difficult, complicated, robust, full bodied, dare I say red blooded picture of God we see all through the Scripture. Let’s try to listen to the Word of the Lord.
A cursory reading reveals that its skeleton is an extended contrast between the Aaronic High Priest and Jesus, the High Priest in the order of Melchizedek. This contrast has been going on for some time now, but here our author summarizes his argument one more (but not the last) time. He contrasts the old state of things (“until the time of the new order” in verse 10) with this new time “of the good things that are already here” in verse 11. The earthly tabernacle is contrasted with “the greater and more permanent tabernacle.” The blood of goats and calves and bulls offered by priests is contrasted to “the blood of Christ… offered [by] himself….” Ceremonially unclean and outwardly clean are contrasted to “eternal redemption” and “cleanse[d] consciences.”
The point of the comparison is not that there are similarities between Judaism and Christianity, but that the latter is superior to the former, even though the former was given by God himself. After a brief reminder of the entire sacrificial system, our writer makes his point in verse 14. “How much more, then, will be the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God.” The old system was good, because it was given by God, but the new reality of the Christian gospel is better because it is centered in Christ. We’ve heard our writer say that over and over as he laboriously deals with the High Priest theme. And he will continue to argue the superiority of Christianity using the themes of temple and tabernacle and covenant. Here, in our text, he focuses on something new, namely, blood. Blood is mentioned 4 times in these few verses and up to 12 times in this chapter of Hebrews. Clearly, our author thought that blood was important.
As I said before, that’s a hard sell in our blood soaked world. In a Christian Century piece back in 2006 Tom Long put the problem in his typically intelligent and eloquent way. Referring to Mel Gibson’s bloody portrayal of Christ’s suffering in “The Passion of the Christ,” Long reported on one woman who had just seen the movie. “I left the theater feeling sick,” she said. “What sort of God would let that kind of violence happen to his own son? I guess I was supposed to be moved by the sacrifice of Jesus; instead I was repulsed by the idea of a God who would will such a thing.”
Long responded as follows. “This is not a new response to Jesus death, of course. The cord running through Western theology, from Ambrose to Anselm and beyond, that only a violent sacrifice of a perfect and sinless Jesus could appease a God whose honor has been affronted and whose anger has been aroused is, as Michael Welker says, ‘Nothing less than destructive of faith.’ It has, as Welker continues, ‘propagated a latent image of God that is deeply unchristian, indeed, demonic: The God who is always seeking compensation.’”
This kind of critique stings those who stand in that long line running from Ambrose to Anselm and beyond, but it also resonates with anyone who is sensitive to the violence and brutality that have ravaged human history. How do we deal with all of this all of this powerful biblical language and equally powerful human response? Long has an ingenious way that touches some of the bases in Hebrews, particularly the idea that Jesus lived a perfectly obedient life. He was like us in all ways, sin excepted. Picking up on the famous quote from Iranaeus that “the glory of God is a humanity fully alive,” Long says that what God requires of us is not blood, but a fully human life, a life well lived. That was the offering Jesus presented to God.
I found that lovely and helpful, but I wonder if it fully explains the plain references to blood in our text. And not just in our text. This notion that the shedding of blood is essential to “eternal redemption” is not peculiar to Hebrews or to the Old Testament on which Hebrews is based and to which it responds. The cord running through Western theology can be traced back to the line of red running through the New Testament, beginning with Jesus’ words at the institution of the Lord’s Supper. “This is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mt. 26:28) Paul picks that theme up in his farewell sermon to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:28, where he reminds them that Jesus bought the church “with his own blood.” In Rev. 5:10 we hear church victorious singing the praises of the Lamb “because you were slain and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe… and nation.” In the very clear teaching of Ephesians 1:7 and Romans 3:25 we hear Paul say that Christ’s blood was central to atonement.
The whole idea of atonement is central and complex in Hebrews 9. As the old saw put it, it simply means at-one-ment, being made one with God again after sin separated us from God. But for us to be made one with God again, several great existential problems had to be solved. Heb. 9:14 talks about the conscience problem. To varying degrees, all human beings have guilty consciences that must be cleansed before we can willingly and happily relate to God again. We can’t be near to God as long as we feel so guilty and ashamed. We’ll want to run and hide as Adam and Eve did. Our text assures us that only the blood of Christ can cleanse our consciences.
Hebrews 9:15 talks about the hostage problem that must be solved before we can be “at one with God” again. All human beings are held hostage to a host of sins—sins committed in the past that have become a pattern of life, a prison of habits so ingrained and desires so powerful that they won’t let us get close to God. Indeed, we won’t even want to get close to God, not to the “living God” (verse 14) who reveals himself in Scripture. Hebrews assures us that only the death of Christ can set us free from such imprisonment. His blood was like a ransom; it “obtained eternal redemption” for us. (Both ransom and redemption have the same Greek root word.)
But there is one more problem that stands in the way of atonement. It is the God problem, alluded to in Heb. 9:22. Those same sins that stain our conscience and imprison our lives stand as an impenetrable obstacle between us and God. Thought we may not like it, those sins anger God, as Hebrews 10:26-31 so graphically say. So if we are to be one with God again, we must not only have our consciences cleansed and our bondage broken, but also our sins forgiven. And, that, says Heb. 9:22, will require the shedding of blood, because “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.”
Here’s where folks will struggle, including many preacher folks. Why would that be the case? Why couldn’t God in God’s grace simply forgive? Why the blood? To answer, we need to go back to the origin of the sin problem in the Garden. As God walked with his children in covenantal union in the Garden, he gave them great blessings and one stern warning. “In the day that you eat of that tree, you will surely die.” Why did God say that? It sounds so harsh, even mean and petty.
Well, listen to God as he renewed his covenant in the days of Moses in Deut. 30:11-20. Note particularly the last words about “the Lord who is your life.” When humans break covenant with God, separate themselves from God by sinful rebellion, death must result. Why? Because God is so angry that he kills sinners in a fit of rage? No! He is angry with sin. No doubt about that; the Bible says that again and again. But he is angry with sin because it cuts us off from the Lord who is our life. Death is simply the natural result of sin. When we let go of God’s hand and take life into our own hands, we let go of life itself, and we will die. It is inevitable. It is the nature of reality.
So our sins stand between God and us, the source of our death as well as our guilt and bondage. Sin is the center of the human problem. And the fix is forgiveness. But there can be no forgiveness without the shedding of blood. Why must blood be shed? The answer is found in ancient idea that is really quite modern. “The life of a creature,” said God in Lev. 17:11, “is in the blood and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourself on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life.” Sounds primitive, but it really isn’t. Our local blood bank calls for donations of blood with the slogan, “Give the gift of life.” Of course, the life is in the blood. Without it you die. With it you live. And by the shedding of blood, by a true and actual death, the sins that kill us are forgiven. Only by death could death be defeated. Only by the loss of life could life be regained. And rather than requiring our death, God in his grace provided a substitute who was both priest and sacrifice.
Rather than be repulsed by this teaching, let us celebrate the Good News of the new covenant—that Jesus Christ, the great sympathetic High Priest who lived a perfect life offered his body and blood as an unblemished sacrifice to God, so that we could obtain eternal redemption. To help our people celebrate the Gospel, we’ll need to do a little primer on the nature of sin and the nature of God. But if we can regain the complicated, difficult, robust, red blooded biblical picture of God again, we might join the church victorious in that song of praise to Jesus that fills the heavens. “You are worthy…, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God men and women from every… nation.” (Rev. 5:9)
Do you remember how your heart was moved when you saw the picture of that little Syrian boy lying lifeless in the surf? He was part of that vast throng of refugees from the blood soaked Middle East. For weeks we had been seeing pictures of thousands of refugees trudging for miles, crammed into flimsy boats and filthy camps, stopped at the borders, weeping, begging, fighting for a new life. And we were moved a little, maybe more than a little. But that picture of a three year old drowned while he sought a new life with his family—that shook us, disgusted us, horrified us, and angered us. That is how God feels when he sees his children suffering in a blood stained world. Moved by compassion, love, and, yes, anger, the Father of humanity sent his own Son to plunge himself into the sea of blood to redeem us from guilt, and bondage, and death.