This blog offers a meditation on the Common Lectionary daily readings along with a headline from world news:
Palestinians remember the naqba (conquest by Israel) by renovating a destroyed township at Iqrit, North Israel.
I’ve placed this excerpt from Hebrews 5 here because today’s reading is incomprehensible without it.
(A High Priest must be duly qualified and divinely appointed
5 1-3 Note that when a man is chosen as High Priest he is appointed on men’s behalf as their representative in the things of God—he offers gifts to God and makes the necessary sacrifices for sins on behalf of his fellow-men. He must be able to deal sympathetically with the ignorant and foolish because he realises that he is himself prone to human weakness. This naturally means that the offering which he makes for sin is made on his own personal behalf as well as on behalf of those whom he represents.
4 Note also that nobody chooses for himself the honour of being a High Priest, but he is called by God to the work, as was Aaron, the first High Priest in ancient times.
5 Thus we see that the Christ did not choose for himself the glory of being High Priest, but he was honoured by the one who said: ‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you’.
6 And he says in another passage: ‘You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek’)
The mysterious Melchizedek: his superiority to Abraham and the Levites
7 1-3 Now this Melchizedek was, we know, king of Salem and priest of God most high. He met Abraham when the latter was returning from the defeat of the kings, and blessed him. Abraham gave him a tribute of a tenth part of all the spoils of battle. (Melchizedek means “king of righteousness,” and his other title is “king of peace”, for Salem means peace. He had no father or mother and no family tree. He was not born nor did he die, but, being like the Son of God, is a perpetual priest.)
4-10 Now notice the greatness of this man. Even Abraham the patriarch pays him a tribute of a tenth part of the spoils. Further, we know that, according to the Law, the descendants of Levi who accept the office of priest have the right to demand a “tenth” from the people, that is from their brothers, despite the fact that the latter are descendants of Abraham. But here we have one who is quite independent of Levitic ancestry taking a “tenth” from Abraham, and giving a blessing to Abraham, the holder of God’s promises! And no one can deny that the receiver of a blessing is inferior to the one who gives it. Again, in the one case it is mortal men who receive the “tenths”, and in the other is one who, we are assured, is alive. One might say that even Levi, the proper receiver of “tenths”, has paid his tenth to this man, for in a sense he already existed in the body of his father Abraham when Melchizedek met him.
The revival of the Melchizedek priesthood means that the Levitical priesthood is superseded
11-14 We may go further. If it be possible to bring men to spiritual maturity through the Levitical priestly system (for that is the system under which the people were given the Law), why does the necessity arise for another priest to make his appearance after the order of Melchizedek, instead of following the normal priestly calling of Aaron? For if there is a transference of priestly powers, there will necessarily follow an alteration of the Law regarding priesthood. He who is described as our High Priest belongs to another tribe, no member of which had ever attended the altar! For it is a matter of history that our Lord was a descendant of Judah, and Moses made no mention of priesthood in connection with that tribe.
15-17 How fundamental is this change becomes all the more apparent when we see this other priest appearing according to the Melchizedek pattern, and deriving his priesthood not by virtue of a command imposed from outside, but from the power of indestructible life within. For the witness to him, as we have seen, is: ‘You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.’
Although the author of Hebrews wants to teach that the new faith of Jesus Christ is superior in all respects to Mosaic Judaism, he also wants to show that everything in the new faith was foreshadowed in the old one. Phrases from the Old Testament are applied to Jesus as prophecies. In this case Melchizedek who appears in Genesis 14 and Psalm 110 is used as a an image of an everlasting high priest appointed directly by God, superior to Abraham and the Jewish priesthood. He appears from nowhere to bless Abraham and accept tribute from him and is used by the author of the Coronation psalm 110, as an image of the priest-king of Israel. Perhaps, through Psalm 110, Melchizedek had been used in Jewish theology as an image of the coming Messiah. This would have aided the Hebrews author in his attribution of Melchizedekian priesthood to Jesus.
The modern reader tends to ask, “Why bother? Why not just tell us in plain language about the nature and functions of Jesus Christ?”
We may even suspect that by proceeding in this way the author is trying to bludgeon his readers into submission, “If I give them a good whack about the head with Melchizedek they’ll admit I’m an expert!”
I think it’s almost the opposite. His readers are probably Jewish Christians, with a real concern for their ancestral religion. Rather than taking any short cuts, the Hebrews author works patiently through the Jewish scripture, discovering the imprint of Jesus Christ in their holy text. He does not simply reject the Jewish scripture as surplus to requirements. In so doing he provides a model of how Christian evangelism should deal with the previous experience of individuals and cultures, that is , with a respect which finds foreshadowings of Christ in all human experience. Whether I am offering the gospel to a victim of sexual abuse or to a believing Moslem I should be able to point to the Christ who has already walked with them.
The love that arrives in Jesus comes from beyond the stars; it is divine and offers what the world can never give. For that reason it must be announced as news to the world, surprising, sovereign and unarguable At the same time it comes through Jesus, a product of human evolution and culture, carrying human DNA and formed by a human religious tradition, normal, conditioned and controvertible. Christian evangelism should do justice to the divinity and humanity of Jesus. Respect for all human experience is part of that.
Geza Vermes, whose death is noted in today’s news, was a great scholar of Judaism and Christianity and did more than anyone to illuminate for my generation the Jewshness of Jesus.