I’ve often enjoyed the disctinctive theology of the Letter to Hebrews. It provides the Episcopal daily readings this week. The headline reminds us of our human capacity to sacrifice another person or group as a scapegoat for our ills.
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11For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father.* For this reason Jesus* is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters,*12saying,
‘I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters,* in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.’
‘I will put my trust in him.’
‘Here am I and the children whom God has given me.’
14 Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil,15and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.16For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham.17Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters* in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people.18Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.
The writer of Hebrews doesn’t make his letter easy for the modern reader! Here he quotes from various passages in the Jewish Bible, which he understands as being “spoken” by Jesus, the Son of God. These confirm that Jesus looked on human beings as his brothers and sisters. Then he moves on to indicate his radical understanding of Jesus Christ:
1. Jesus shares the flesh and blood of those he came to save. In this way he can be the”pioneer of a new humanity” suffering death but conquering it through the power of his resurrection. Those who hold to Jesus need never be scared of death. He, the brother of humanity has blazed the trail through death to life.
2. Because Jesus shares human flesh and blood he understands human frailty and can therefore be “a merciful high priest” whose perfect offering of his own life re-unites (“at-ones”) humanity and God.
These are this writer’s special insights which he goes on to develop in the rest of Hebrews. As regards the pioneer image I can only repeat wha I wrote the other day in blog 963:
“There are many images of Jesus in the bible-shepherd, saviour, king, lamb; I find that of Jesus the pioneer, the one who goes ahead of people, breaking a trail for them to follow, tasting the dangers, never giving up and until he finds the city of goodness, very helpful from day-to-day and when I reflect on the course of my own journey. I’m in my eighth decade of life. Given my capacity to wander from the true way, I find it astonishing that I’ve not lost it altogether. Without knowledge of Jesus, I would have been lost. Most of my suffering has come my way as a result of wandering, a little as a result of holding to the true way; and the taste of death is not as distant a prospect now as when I was fifty. Still I trust the pioneer and I believe there is a city.”
As regards the image of Jesus as merciful high priest, I recognise that it comes from the action of the Jewish high priest on the day of atonement entering the holy place to offer a blood sacrifice for the sin of the people. Priest and people identify with the lifeblood of the sacrificed animal, offering themselves to God, who in his kindness receives the sacrifice, forgives the sins and re-admits the people to his temple which has thus been purified . They also identify with the “scapegoat” which is symbolically loaded with the sin of the people and driven out into the wilderness to die. For the author of Hebrews, Jesus, on the cross, offers his own life blood, his whole self, to God, on behalf of his sinful brothers and sisters. As they identify with Jesus, their own inadequate offering is lifted up into his perfect offering; and they are re-united with God.
Yes, I guess this thinking seems a little cumbersome to most contemporary readers inasmuch as it uses a concept of sacrifice with which they are unfamiliar. But when I think of the offering I would like to make to God , the full richness of my body, soul and spirit, and see what a mean, pathetic travesty I’ve made of it, I’m more than glad that I can attach myself to the life and death of Jesus and so be drawn into the splendour of his offering.
This is the day when the Church remembers the reformer Martin Luther. He said some terrible things about the Peasants Revolt and even worse things about Jews, but he also said many wonderful and encouraging things: