Lectionary Commentaries for August 18, 2019
Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 12:49-56

Matt Skinner

This passage offers a test for preachers — really for any Bible readers. What will we do with it?

The test is: to what other passages will we turn to make sense of Jesus’ words? Many will experience these verses as uncharacteristic, but that is simply because other texts and other portraits of Jesus have been more influential to them in defining what is characteristic. In other words, passages like this one test our hermeneutics.

If such passages test our hermeneutics, then they test our theology. If we do our jobs well, hermeneutical tests should lead us to talk boldly about how we — as individuals and ecclesial/theological communities — answer questions such as: Who exactly was Jesus? What was his message? How worried should we be?

Do not run quickly past or away from this passage as if it doesn’t belong in Luke. But tend carefully to what other passages you will turn to, even if only in your own preparations to preach. Pay attention to where you look and which wells you draw from in your efforts to announce good news and also to explain the serious business that Jesus is talking about here.


When Jesus speaks of bringing “fire to the earth,” I suggest you avoid connecting it to images of destruction or cataclysm (as in 2 Peter 3:10, 12) and images of hellfire or retribution (as in Mark 9:48; 2 Thessalonians 1:7-8). Luke has already told us, through John the Baptist, that Jesus is coming with a fire of purification and refinement (Luke 3:16-17; also Malachi 3:1-3). Fire also connotes God’s presence (Exodus 14:24; 19:18; Isaiah 30:27), and therefore it represents the power of God to effect change in the face of formidable resistance (Jeremiah 23:29) as well as the power to overwhelm God’s enemies (2 Kings 1:2-14). No wonder fire becomes symbolic also of judgment, because judgment is another way of speaking about how unrighteousness, idolatry, and injustice cannot exist in God’s presence.

The fire Jesus wants to kindle is a fire of change, the fire of God’s active presence in the world. No wonder he is so eager to strike the match.

We do well to hear Luke 12:49 in connection to Mary’s and Zechariah’s canticles in Luke 1. And in connection to John’s preaching in 3:3-14. Jesus yearns for “the kingdom of God” to break forth into the world in all its fullness. The transformations and justice that the saints of Luke 1-3 envisioned are the things that he wants, too. That means that oppression has to go. Greed has to go. Idolatry has to go. Same with exploitation, dehumanization, narcissism, and any other evils you can name that prevent the flourishing of all people and all creation. Those contagions are rendered powerless in the presence of God (see Jesus’ words about his determination to overpower Satan, the “strong man” in Luke 11:21-22).

Bad popular theology has done so much to train congregations to hear Luke 12:49 as a description of a God with an itchy trigger finger who just can’t wait to smoke some sinners. As a result, people duck their heads and wait until Jesus calms down and a nicer passage comes along. Isn’t the Parable of the Prodigal Son coming soon?

Instead, help your congregation see that Jesus reveals some of his intense desire here — desire for the world’s well-being. If any of us can’t appreciate that desire, even with the harsh image of a consuming fire, then it’s likely we need help in perceiving the world from the perspective of the suffering, the powerless, and the sinned-against. They pray “thy kingdom come” with a different kind of longing.

Division and baptism

Of course, the world’s well-being doesn’t just spring into existence because everyone wants it. First, the truth must be told. Fire is, after all, about refining. And refining hurts, especially for those of us who have a lot of impurities sticking to us.

Because we mistake those impurities for purity, and because we lie to ourselves that self-protection is a form of justice, we resist Jesus. Therefore he also speaks of the division his message brings (12:50-53).

He isn’t against peace (see, for example, Luke 1:79; 2:14, 29; 7:50; 8:48; 10:5; 24:36). Rather, he points out that his message of release and transformation (e.g., Luke 4:18-19) is bound to be divisive. His words about fractured families may have spoken poignantly to Luke’s original audiences who themselves might have included members who were estranged from kin because of their commitment to Jesus Christ.

Jesus experiences repudiation throughout Luke, and especially when he gets to Jerusalem. There we see the ultimate division occur, when he experiences his final “baptism,” which in this case refers to his rejection, suffering, and death.

What time is it?

In Luke 12:54-56, Jesus himself says there really is a hermeneutical test going on: do you know how to interpret the present time? What does it indicate, the time of his ministry, the time of the in-breaking of the kingdom of God?

It’s not a difficult test, he says. You already know enough to observe the weather and predict accurately what’s coming next. With those kinds of basic powers of observation you should be able to tell, from the things that Jesus has been saying and doing, what’s going on and what you need to do. So, what is it?

Time’s up. Pencils down.

Jesus doesn’t tell us the answer. Preachers get to do that. But preachers can look ahead a little in Luke to figure it out.1 In Luke 13:1-9 Jesus teaches about repentance and the urgent circumstances in which humanity currently finds ourselves, as we stand at the thresholds of our own mortality and the promised arrival of God’s kingdom. Right now is a time of repentance, because God is coming and our days are frightfully few.2 Because Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) has to come to full flower. Because basic aspects of this corrupted world system have to change, God willing.

Jesus in Luke speaks of repentance as a changed mind. It is what happens when we look at ourselves and our world from God’s perspective — according to God’s commitment to justice, God’s multifaceted shalom, and God’s pledge to meet us in the love and solidarity we share with our neighbor. The more we do that now, while we still can, perhaps the less hot the fire will feel when we encounter God face-to-face and become made new by the truth.

Luke enjoys using language of sight — perspective and perception — to indicate our ability to grasp Jesus and what he is all about. When we repent and perceive “the present time” for what it is, as an available but diminishing opportunity to align ourselves with God’s priorities, then we ourselves will join others in pursuing “the things that make for peace” (see Luke 19:42). Of course, in the current time we do that work in the midst of divisions created by a sharply conflicted society, but at least we’re following someone who knows the way.


  1. I’m grateful to Rev. Dr. Jon Walton for showing me the need to read Luke 13:1-9 in connection to what precedes it in chapter 12.
  2. For more on what I think about Luke 13:1-9 and how it imagines repentance, see what I’ve written on that passage: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=530

First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 23:23-29

Brennan Breed

The prophet Jeremiah likely delivered this oracle in the terrifying last days of the Judahite kingdom, during the reign of King Zedekiah.

It comes near the end of a section of the book focused on issues of leadership in which God repeatedly condemns the Davidic kings, the temple priests, and the royal prophets for abusing their power (Jeremiah 21-24).

Throughout this section, God paints a picture of the community that God is trying to build: one in which people “act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor … the alien, the orphan, and the widow” (Jeremiah 22:3). And yet to the king, God says that “your eyes and heart are only on your dishonest gain, for shedding innocent blood, and for practicing oppression and violence” (22:17). God then tells the people, “See, I am setting before you the way of life and the way of death” (Jeremiah 21:8). They must choose whom to follow. God’s desire is that “Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety” (23:6), but for that to happen, God declares that first “this house shall become a desolation” (22:5). The “house” can refer to the royal mansion, to the temple, or to Jerusalem — all are linked in a theological and political system that Jeremiah reveals is toxic to the core.

Influential prophets like Hanahiah son of Azzur worked hard to convince the people that YHWH would soon destroy Babylon and save Jerusalem, restore the Davidic monarchy, and enrich the temple on Mount Zion (Jeremiah 28:1-4). His message is essentially royal propaganda meant to keep the people excited for Zedekiah’s reckless, death-dealing policies. Jeremiah knew that prophets like Hananiah were more interested in fulfilling their own dreams than in faithfully reporting YHWH’s thoughts. By telling the king what he wanted to hear, the prophets kept themselves both safe and prosperous. Jeremiah, on the other hand, narrowly escaped the death sentence several times for condemning the king and temple, which amounted to treason against the state (26:10-15).

This passage, Jeremiah 23:23-29, issues a scathing denunciation to the state-sanctioned prophets who deliver a fake message designed to prop up a system that exploits the weak for the benefit of the powerful. The hyper-nationalistic assumptions of these prophets construct a false god who is consumed with the success of Davidic kings and seems to care little for ethics, let alone those outside the borders of Judah. This false god allows the royal system to ignore the big picture.

Through the prophet Jeremiah, YHWH asks a rhetorical question: “Am I a God near by, says the LORD, and not a God far off?” (Jeremiah 23:23). One of the fascinating claims of ancient Israelites is precisely that their God is both near and far off, and cares about both the high and the lowly in society (see Psalm 138:6), as well as the fate of people who live outside the borders of Israel (see also Amos 9:7). YHWH is not so powerful as to be remote and uncaring for the weak, but neither is YHWH so close as to be ignorant of what happens outside of Jerusalem’s halls of power.

We know that Jeremiah criticized a widespread belief among the Judahite elite: namely, that YHWH’s presence in the temple meant that the elite could do whatever they liked without fear — because YHWH was always there to bail them out of any trouble (Jeremiah 7:1-15; see Micah 3:9-12). But Jeremiah tells the leaders of Judah that YHWH is not stuck inside the temple waiting to serve the elite — rather, YHWH is the lord of all the earth, and the one from whom no secrets are hid (23:24). God is not narrowly nationalistic, nor is God remote and disinterested. Rather, God is a sovereign committed to justice (see also 22:3), and is committed to uprooting the systems that stand in the way (see Jeremiah 1:10).

But how does one tell the fever dreams of a false prophet from the rightly spoken word of God? A true preacher tells people to “amend your ways and your doings” and “act justly one with another,” and never to “oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood” (7:5-6). False prophets are known for telling those in power whatever they want to hear (1 Kings 22:10-13).

In contrast to false visions of nationalistic rhetoric and human ambition, Jeremiah reminds the leaders of Judah about the fierce power of YHWH’s true word. While many voices try to make people forget God’s mission to “execute justice and righteousness in the land” (23:5), and lead them to idolatrous worship, YHWH continues to speak a word of life. In verse 28, God proposes a competition: let the nationalistic prophets spout their nonsense, and then let the follower of YHWH speak the divine word. One will be without substance and worthless like chaff, and the other will be, like wheat, durable and sustaining (see Isaiah 40:8; Psalm 1:3-4). YHWH reassures us that the divine word is active, creative, and fearsomely powerful (Jeremiah 23:29), generative enough to bring worlds into being (see also Genesis 1:3) and to dismantle systems of oppression like fire or a hammer can break down a solid building (Jeremiah 23:29; 31:28). The word of YHWH may not work on our timetable, but it is nevertheless the most reliable and powerful message in the midst of a culture of deception.

Surprisingly, after the traumatic events of the fall of Jerusalem, Jeremiah changed his tune. He offered words of comfort to the suffering people of Judah (Jeremiah 30:1-31:40). Jeremiah tells the people that a new covenant is on its way — and that with this covenant, God will inscribe divine instruction directly on the people’s hearts (31:31-34). Like a God so near, the people will know YHWH intimately, Jeremiah says, but like a transcendent God of the universe, YHWH will unilaterally forgive all their sins. 

It is no coincidence that, when he was hosting his final meal, Jesus lifted the cup and reminded his disciples of Jeremiah’s promised new covenant (Luke 22:20; see Jeremiah 31:31-34). Yet again, in a time of hopelessness and desperation, a prophet called for an unexpected transformation that could only be brought about by a God who is near and yet fills heaven and earth: namely, a sudden explosion of newness and revived life amid a world that could not even imagine such a change. This is, of course, the gospel message in miniature, and it remains our proclamation today. Like Jeremiah, we remain hopeful as we wait for our shepherd to arrive and announce that the time of building and planting has come (Jeremiah 23:1-4; 31:10-14).

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 5:1-7

Anathea Portier-Young

In the Bible’s most famous collection of love poems, an exuberant lover declares, “I have come to my garden, my sister, bride … I have drunk my wine with my milk. Eat, friends! Drink, lovers!” (Song 5:1).

The sensuous delights of food and drink mirror and amplify the intimacies of love, even as they orient the lovers to a social landscape wider than the intimacy they guard. Flower, spice, and fruit provide visual, tactile, and aromatic pleasure as well as the raw ingredients for food and drink that unite lovers and companions alike.

Isaiah’s audience enjoyed feasting long into the night, mixing music and wine in their revels (Isaiah 5:11-12). But their feasting was disconnected from broader social realities, drawing them not outward but inward. Seduced by songs of self-indulgence, they did not “regard the deeds of the Lord” (5:12). What kind of song would focus their eyes on God’s deeds and remind them of their bonds to God and one another?

The preacher can delight in and even emulate Isaiah’s playfully transgressive use of genres. The poet turns an oaky chardonnay into a burning shot of vinegar. He uses half of it to clean the floor and the other half to tenderize the stew-meat. The love song is strange enough to begin with. The object of affection is not a person, but a vineyard. But soon the song shifts shape, becoming invitation, oracle, parable, and accusation. The poet is not shackled by the constraints of familiar genres, but uses them to create and subvert expectations and to elicit first participation (5:3), then frustration (5:4), and finally conviction (5:7).

“I will sing,” begins the poet, inviting himself into the banquet hall with a decisive and determined na’ (Isaiah 5:1).1 As he introduces his song, Isaiah sounds like he may have been enjoying some strong drink himself. Fuzzy repetitions summon intimacy but also confound it, as the listener struggles to identify the lover and the beloved in this song “for my yedid, a song of my dod, for his vineyard, a vineyard my yedid had.” Yedid and dod are terms of endearment, perhaps to be translated lover, beloved, darling, or dear friend. Immediately the hearer wonders what the relationship may be between the singer, the dear one, and the vineyard.

An arresting turn of phrase hints at a history between dear one and vineyard, mapping it onto a landscape of election and blessing well-known to Isaiah’s audience. The vineyard is “on a horn, a child of oil” (literal translation, 5:1). As translations go, NRSV’s less literal “fertile hill” is idiomatically correct: “horn” connotes vertical prominence, “child of” translates a Hebrew idiom that introduces a characteristic feature, and “oil” can function metonymically for the rich produce of the land. The phrase thus suggests that the vineyard is situated on a vertically prominent landform characterized by rich produce. But the poet’s vivid imagery and unusual phrasing also hint at a backstory.

Nowhere else does Isaiah use this word “horn,” though it is common enough elsewhere in the Hebrew scriptures. A horn is a crowning adornment and a weapon. It evokes strength, victory, and bounty, but also pride and aggression. Isaiah’s word choice digs up a history of salvation and spills forth blessings of abundance. It may also sound an alarm, for arrogance has led Judah’s people to wreak violence upon one another.

“Oil,” too, is rich in symbolic meanings. The stereotyped triad of grain, wine, and oil functions as shorthand for the evidence of God’s blessing upon the land for the benefit of God’s people (Deuteronomy 7:13; 11:14; Jeremiah 31:12; Hosea 2:8; Joel 2:19, 24). It also designated the first fruits that should be tithed for the welfare of others, calling to mind mutual obligation (Leviticus 18:12).

“Horn” and “oil” occur together in four other verses of the Hebrew scriptures. In three instances, a “horn of oil” is the material means for anointing God’s chosen king, first David, then his son Solomon (1 Samuel 16:1, 13; 1 Kings 1:39). In a fourth passage, the psalmist testifies to God’s lavish care: “you have exalted my horn like that of the wild ox; you have poured over me fresh oil” (Psalm 92:10 [MT 92:11]). In combining these words, Isaiah activates in the imagination of his audience a framing awareness of blessing and election, not only of king, but of people (Israel and Judah, 5:7) and place, especially Zion, the peak that crowns Jerusalem (see Isaiah 4:2-6).

The verse that follows hints that God’s choice was more than a momentary act of will. God did not choose a people and place and then withdraw. God chose them with a view to relationship between God and people and among the people. God anticipated that the fruits of that relationship would be justice and righteousness (Isaiah 5:7; see also 32:16; 33:5; Psalm 85:10-13). And to this end God invested God’s own labor. In a verse densely packed with strenuous activity, the dear one digs, clears away stones, plants, builds, and hews (Isaiah 5:2). The dear one plans ahead, from the soil structure that will allow roots to spread and take nourishment, to the machinery of wine production and storage. Determination, foresight, and solicitous care accompany an optimistic expectation of divine delight in the fruits of intimacy with God’s people (5:2, 4, 7).

Isaiah’s audience has known this intimacy but are so numb they “do not … see the work of [God’s] hands” (Isaiah 5:12). Now the prophet poses a rhetorical question: what did the dear one leave undone? (5:4). The implied answer is that there was nothing more God could have done to prepare the ground for justice and flourishing. God wasn’t the one who should have done more. A love story without mutual care and self-giving is bound for disaster (5:6).


  1. H. G. M. Williamson, Isaiah 1–5, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Isaiah 1–27, vol. 1, International Critical Commentary (London: T & T Clark, 2006), 316.


Commentary on Psalm 82:1-8

Rolf Jacobson

Clint McCann has said that Psalm 82 is “the single most important text” in the entire Bible.1

While this assertion may seem strange, as McCann acknowledges, he nevertheless has a very good reason for defending this theological claim: Justice. Because Psalm 82 asserts that justice is constitutive of divinity—God cannot be God, divinity cannot be divinity, without the characteristic of justice.

I will return to McCann later. But first, a look at the psalm.

Psalm 82: A mythic, poetic drama

Psalm 82 is a mythic drama, in which the sovereign God “takes his place in the divine council” of other eternal beings—called “gods” in this text, but we might call them “spirits”—and “holds judgment” (verse 1). This mythic, dramatic, and poetic nature of this psalm might trouble some people.

An aside about the suitability of preaching on a mythic drama: My doctor father Patrick Miller told me that early in his ministry he preached on this psalm. After he finished, he noted the shocked look on many people’s faces—God takes his place among other gods? Miller decided that Psalm 82 might not have been the best choice of texts for that setting. But in other setting, Psalm 82 might be perfect. My friend Andrea White preached on this text a few years ago. She reported that the psalm was received very well in her setting. So there you go. Back to the psalm.

Having taken the judgment seat in the midst of the gods, God calls out the leaders of the spiritual realm for injustice:

“How long will you judge unjustly
and show partiality to the wicked?
Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.
Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked” (Psalm 82:2-4).

The speech is both accusation and admonition. Notice the verbs in the admonition: “give justice,” “maintain the right” (better translated as “do righteously by” or “establish righteousness for”), “rescue,” and “deliver.” And notice the direct objects: “the weak,” “the orphan,” “the lowly” (better: “the poor”), “the needy.” The Old Testament—in the Torah, in the Prophets, and in the Psalms—consistently expresses God’s passionate concern for this constellation of vulnerable people: the widow, the orphan, the family-less person (resident alien), the poor, the weak, the needy, the sick, the elderly, and the dispossessed.

The message could not be more clear: Those with power—including those with power in the spiritual realm—must use their power to help, save, and deliver the powerless.

And the gods—the spirits—were not doing so: “How long will you judge unjustly?”

The drama continues as God utters—in an apparent aside; a divine, galactic stage whisper that all can hear:

They have neither knowledge nor understanding,
they walk around in darkness;
all the foundations of the earth are shaken (Psalm 82:5).

That is, the gods themselves have “neither knowledge nor understanding.” The prophet Hosea uses similar language when he condemns the human spiritual leaders of Israel: “there is no knowledge of God in the land” and “my people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” (Hosea 4:1, 6). And again, “because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest for me” (Hosea 4:6).

The point wasn’t that the priests and prophets failed a confirmation quiz—as if they couldn’t recite the Ten Commandments and the Great Shema. The point was that they were not attending to the core work of the faith. As Hosea said, “I desire steadfast love not sacrifice! The knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings!” (Hosea 6:6).

The punishment in Hosea for the human spiritual leaders—priests and prophets—who rejected divine knowledge? Dismissal. And death in the coming exile.

The punishments in Psalm 82 for the divine spiritual leaders—the gods, the spirits—who rejected divine knowledge and understanding? Dismissal. And death by removing from them the cloak of immortality.

I say, “You are gods,
children of the Most High, all of you;
nevertheless, you shall die like mortals,
and fall like any prince” (Psalm 82:6-7).

The gods, because they did not judge justly and protect the most vulnerable were made mortal. The gods, because they did not live up to the very standard, the true characteristic of divinity—justice—were to die.

The psalm then ends with a plea—an admonition?—to God to show up:

Rise up, O God, judge the earth;
for all the nations belong to you! (Psalm 82:8)

The final plea is echoed by the petition in the Lord’s Prayer: “Your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.” I will paraphrase: “God, since you’ve shown your power in heaven by judging the unjust spiritual leaders and casting them down, how about doing the same on earth? Since ‘all the nations belong to you,’ how about you show up and judge the earth as you have the heaven?”

Justice on earth as it is in heaven

So back to Clint McCann. McCann writes that

according to Psalm 82, what it means to be God—what characterizes divinity—is to protect and provide for the lives of the most vulnerable, not be offering charitable handouts but rather by what Hossfeld and Zenger call “comprehensive alteration in social and political conditions”—in a word, justice, understood systematically as transformative opposition to “the hand” or “the power” of oppressors, named here by the repeated term “the wicked” (verses 2, 4).2

There it is. The single most important text in the Christian Bible.

But one word of warning: Please do not assume that your pre-existing ideological commitments about justice are identical with those of Psalm 82 or the rest of the Bible. Too many interpreters of the Bible assume that the biblical admonitions for “justice” (quotations marks are necessary here) automatically line up with their personal views on contemporary justice. And please note that many of the mechanisms for establishing justice that have been tried over the centuries have in fact led to great injustice. It’s an easy word to say—justice. But it’s a hard concept to understand and an even hard reality to achieve. So the prayer remains:

Rise up, O God, judge the earth;
for all the nations belong to you!


  1. J. Clinton McCann, “The Single Most Important Text in the Entire Bible: Toward a Theology of the Psalms,” in Soundings in the Theology of the Psalms, ed. Rolf A. Jacobson (Fortress, 2011), 63. McCann here is agreeing—in an ironic yet sincere way—with New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan, who first made the assertion in The Birth of Christianity: Discovering what Happened in the Years after the Execution of Jesus (Harper, 1998), 575.
  2. McCann, 66.

Second Reading

Commentary on Hebrews 11:29—12:2

Mary Foskett

In recent decades, best seller lists have been tracking the rise of the memoir.

In our high-tech age where the art of conversation has been waning, our hunger for stories has only grown. If book sales are a reliable indication, we long especially for the stories of ordinary people who share from the depth of their lives all the complexity of being human. We want to hear the stories of others because in them we recognize our own experience and discover a greater sense of belonging.

In today’s reading, the writer of the letter to the Hebrews addresses a community needing to hear that it belongs. Seemingly having grown weary of the Christian life and perhaps worn by external pressure put upon the community, some were struggling with their faith and others were even neglecting to meet together (Hebrews 10:25). After previously enduring hardship and having shown great love for one another (6:10), the community had become, over time, less confident, less enthusiastic, and less cohesive (10:35).

In this passage, the letter continues what it began in 11:1, telling the stories of those who had gone before, living out their faith in God’s promises, and laying the path of endurance for others to follow. The letter recounts over and over again how it was “by faith” that Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses’s parents, and Moses endured. The list of names, clearly intended to inspire and encourage the letter’s readers, surely would have caused them to recall the stories of these biblical figures in all their complexity. It is because of their faith alone that the writer sees each of them, these flawed and messy human beings, as righteous (10:38). Along the way, the letter specifically mentions “Rahab the prostitute” who “did not perish with those who were unbelieving, because she had received the spies in peace” (11:31). As a Canaanite woman who welcomed the spies “by faith,” she represents the letter’s insistence that outsiders, like she and Melchizedek (5:6; 6:20; 7:1-17) can also embody the pattern of Christ. Faith is key, above all else.

The letter continues to recall story after story, moving from memories about individuals to recounting how “[b]y faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land” (Hebrews 11:29). Finally, the writer exhorts his hearers, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by a such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles” (12:1). The letter has implicitly connected the community’s story to those of the ones who have come before them, signaling that they, too, belong and that they, too, can live out lives of righteousness “by faith.”

Not all of the stories to which the writer alludes are easily traced or identified. It is not clear who specifically was “stoned to death,” “sawn in two,” or “killed by the sword” (Hebrews 11:37). The figures themselves are left unnamed, making clear that what letter seeks to convey is the accelerating impact of recounting the many who endured great suffering because of their faith. They become the norm, not the exception. Thus it is striking when the writer adds, “Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, without us, be made perfect” (11:39-40). This is so, because the cycle of stories reaches its fulfillment in the example of Jesus. As the letter’s audience is exhorted to “lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely,” (12:1) it is also inspired to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us” (12:1) by Jesus who is “the pioneer and perfector of our faith” (12:2) because he “endured the cross, disregarding its shame” (12:2) and sits “at the right hand of the throne of God” (12:2).

The stories of men and women of faith that the writer summons to mind for the readers not only weaves the community’s own story with those of the ones who have come before, it also connects them to the story of Jesus. For the writer and the community, Jesus is the consummate model of faith. In the same way that he disregarded the shame that accompanied his suffering, so can those who seek to follow “by faith” set aside shame and endure the kind of suffering that can accompany the life of discipleship. It is important to note that Hebrews is not here valorizing any and all forms of human suffering. Rather, it seeks to speak directly to both the cost and the promise that the life of faith entails. What the passage does not do is question why hardship is part of the Christian life. It draws on Jesus’ own example and simply assumes that such is the case. Life is difficult and the Christian life is no exception. In fact, discipleship will likely entail new challenges and unanticipated costs. The key for the author of the letter to the Hebrews is that faith discerns where real life is to be found, knows which values are true and which are counterfeit, and endures hardship in the face of divine promise.