Lectionary Commentaries for August 11, 2019
Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 12:32-40

Matt Skinner

We expect the gospels, perhaps Luke especially, to reassure us that we find security in Jesus Christ.

What we sometimes neglect is that the gospels also speak about our condition and obligations in ways that make us fear for our security. Luke is no exception to this.

Such is the case with Luke 11-13, which interweaves teachings about the way of discipleship, the certainty of divine judgment, and the transformative yet divisive character of the salvation Jesus provides.

To understand the urgency and volatility of this part of Luke, think back to the upheaval that Mary and her fellow prophets spoke about in Luke 1-2. The promise and terror embedded in their declarations about a God who remembers God’s people and turns the status quo on its head continue here as Jesus continues his journey to Jerusalem. We may react with similar joy and concern when we read this week’s gospel lesson.

Sorting the passage

There are a number of movements in the passage. They are not disconnected, but neither are the transitions smooth.

The passage begins with a delightful statement found only in Luke: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32). While some congregations will appreciate a preacher who can apply nuance to the verse’s paternal God-language and the reasons why speaking of a “kingdom” sounds a little antiquated, no one should miss a larger point: these words speak an unqualified promise about God. They root God’s generosity in God’s desire. Jesus has just spoken (in 12:22-31) about trusting God while also seeking (or striving for) the “kingdom”; now he reminds everyone that the point isn’t to coax a grumpy or frugal deity into being nice to us. Rather, God eagerly wants the “kingdom” — a whole new set of affairs reflecting God’s intentions for human flourishing — to take root in the real, lived experiences of Jesus’s followers. Why? Because that’s God’s good pleasure. This good news and reassurance set a context of confidence before Jesus moves on to the more disquieting material in 12:39-40 and in next week’s lection (12:49-56).

The second piece of the passage appears in Luke 12:33-34 — compact teachings about cashing in one’s possessions, giving alms, and securing treasure in heaven. Parts of these verses have parallels in Matthew 6:19-21, but the emphasis on selling possessions and using the proceeds to give alms is distinctively Lukan (see also Luke 11:41; 14:33).

Third, Jesus tells a parable about slaves who wait vigilantly for their lord to return home (12:35-38). This is not passive waiting but assiduous preparation.1 Imagery in this parable resembles what we find in Matthew 25:1-13 and Mark 13:34-37, but it goes too far to call those other passages parallels or versions of the same teaching. Luke has its own points to make. Jesus’ basic point is that faithfulness demands diligence, but the parable also accentuates the surprise of a master who chooses to serve dinner (diakoneo) to his slaves (see Jesus’ description of his own behavior as “one who serves” in 22:27). Normally the opposite would be expected. Even the slaves in the parable appear to be caught unaware by their master’s hospitality, since presumably they have done what Jesus tells his audience to do: gird their loins in preparation for service (12:35).2 The inversion of social roles between lord and slaves illustrates the new relationships envisioned through the almsgiving mentioned in the preceding verses (and explained in greater detail below).

In the final movement, Jesus continues to discuss the need for readiness, but the imagery shifts dramatically from what came immediately before. Jesus speaks of a householder who needs to remain alert because a thief will not let him know when the break-in will occur (see a parallel in Matt 24:43-44; also 1 Thessalonians 5:2, 4; Rev 3:3). If anyone has grown too complacent with Jesus being compared to a lord who serves dinner to his slaves in the preceding movement, now something about Jesus’ return resembles an act of breaking and entering. Surely Jesus’ emphasis here is on the surprise of a theft and not the violence attached the image of a thief, but that does not scour all the frightening connotations from the metaphor. This isn’t a surprise like walking into your favorite restaurant to discover all your friends gathered to throw you a fortieth birthday party. There is risk involved. Jesus doesn’t calm every fear. Some things remain fearful, theologically speaking. Security therefore remains elusive in this passage, at least if we define it as egocentrism or try to measure it by our usual terms and self-promotional logic.

Security, possessions, and solidarity

There’s a lot happening in this passage, but I think Jesus’ focus on wealth and generosity (Luke 12:33-34) deserves additional attention, especially since this is such an important topic in Luke, most notably throughout chapters 12-19.

At least Jesus is not very ambiguous in 12:33-34. Relinquishing possessions and giving alms results in security — an escape from the deterioration (see the image of worn out purses) that is part of our perpetual economic anxiety. This escape correlates to depositing “treasure in heaven” that is securely held.

When Jesus declares “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” he says that we can train our wills and our ways of thinking (for that is what the heart symbolized in his culture) through the ways we use our money. Spend it all on yourself, guess where your heart will go. Give it to those in need, your heart will go where God wants it to go. Moreover, your heart will find God in the process. For there is a sacramental aspect to charity, in which God becomes present to givers through those who receive and need their gifts.3

Church people fret about how to connect with God in their daily lives. The answer isn’t so complex, according to these verses. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. Yet why do we reject Jesus’ plain answer and seek other ways?

To appreciate the difficulty, it is also vital to note that Jesus is speaking about more than writing checks. According to him, “almsgiving” involves more than charity in a condescending or transactional way, in which the wealthy half give their excess to the poorer half. Almsgiving is an expression of true solidarity with others. This is a solidarity that refuses to turn let inequalities stand, even if kind people might try to soften the razor-sharp edges of our economy’s systemic inequalities with their regular generosity. Jesus is not interested in correcting abuses or disadvantages that tend to pop up in the current world order. His vision is much more radical — in the sense of elemental — than that. Jesus wants his followers, in their radical dependence on him (recall Luke 12:22-31), to enact nothing less than “a reversal of the world as it is presently known and legitimized.”4

In other words, Jesus calls for a shift away from a world in which some people survive only because more privileged people chose to act morally from time to time. He has in mind, instead, a different world — or “kingdom.” With Jesus, that kingdom has arrived. If indeed “the kingdom of God is among [us]” (Luke 17:21), then that reality entails the destruction of old categories and demarcations. Almsgiving isn’t about offerings that help those with less money; it must be about sharing power and advantage. Such transformative solidarity creates “unfailing treasure in heaven” (cf. 18:22).5


  1. Justo L. González reminds his readers that keeping a large home illuminated the first century required tending multiple lamps that needed oil replenished and wicks adjusted (Luke [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010], 163-64). It’s active work.
  2. “Gird your loins” or “belt up your waist” is a more literal translation than the NRSV’s “be dressed for action.” The image here is active effort to serve another.
  3. Gary A. Anderson, Charity: The Place of the Poor in the Biblical Tradition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013).
  4. Halvor Moxnes, The Economy of the Kingdom: Social Conflict and Economic Relations in Luke’s Gospel (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988), 168.
  5. These views on almsgiving require us to take account of the social stratification and patronage systems that characterized life and economic relations in Jesus’ time. Those dynamics are very much on display in how Luke portrays Jesus’ teachings on hospitality, status, and wealth. For a deeper dive, see Moxnes, Economy of the Kingdom and Joel B. Green, The Theology of the Gospel of Luke (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 113-17.

First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 15:1-6

Callie Plunket-Brewton

Genesis 15:1-6 is one of two profound exchanges between Abraham and God that we encounter in the Abraham Saga of Genesis 12-25.1 

These exchanges mark high points in the career of this ancestor of the Israelites. Take a look at Genesis 18:16-33, when Abraham boldly argues with God about the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham’s concern for the innocent inhabitants of the doomed area is exemplary and his subtle negotiating skills are both clever and courageously insistent — he is arguing with the divine, after all, and, so, is taking his life in his own hands when he engages in this back-and-forth with God.

The conversation between God and Abraham in Genesis 15 is of a more personal nature that of Genesis 18: Abraham and Sarah’s continued childlessness. From the very beginning of Genesis 12 — when Abraham is called to leave his home and head out to parts unknown in response to the promise of God’s blessing — the absence of an heir looms large in the stories of Abraham. In his (mis)adventure in Egypt in Genesis 12:4-20, he saves his own skin and places his wife’s in danger when he tells the pharaoh that Sarah is his sister and not his wife. Upon Sarah’s removal to the house of pharaoh, not only is she at risk but any heir produced at this point in time would be of uncertain parentage. The next two chapters of Genesis see the amelioration of Abraham’s character following the debacle in Egypt as he generously allows his nephew to take the more verdant land of the plain of the Jordan when they decide to part ways (Genesis 13) and then becomes a war hero in Genesis 14. Through all of these adventures, Abraham and Sarah remain without children.

When God appears to Abraham in a vision here in 15:1, Abraham is looking to the future and doesn’t see this unsatisfactory childless state changing. The promise of God’s provision and protection is all well and good, but Abraham is concerned about the bigger picture: what of his posterity? What will ultimately become of any reward God might give him?

His complaint is in two parts. The first is: “O Lord God, what will you give me, seeing that I continue to be childless and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” His words make clear that it is not just the absence of a child in his life that is on his mind; he’s thinking of his death. Implicit in his words is the fact that he views anything that God might give him as a potential waste because he has no offspring to inherit these divine gifts. When God does not immediately reply to this first statement of dissatisfaction, Abraham goes on and is more pointed in his speech: “Look, you have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is my heir.”

In both parts of Abrahams’s complaint, he uses the word “give:” (1) what will you give me” (verse 2) and “you have given me no offspring” (verse 3). God’s appearance and ringing promise in 15:1 is clearly not at all reassuring to Abraham. He’s looking to the future, to the time after his death, and it looks bleak because he has no heir. He doesn’t want God to give him a reward. He wants God to give him a son.

The courageous persistence he demonstrates in Genesis 18:16-33 is on full display in this exchange here in Genesis 15. He is respectful, yes, but he is also direct, and he doesn’t give up when an immediate response from God is not forthcoming. He presses his point until God responds.

God’s response, however, is not to proclaim that Sarah is pregnant. God responds with a promise and an invitation: “This man shall not be your heir. No one but your very own issue will be your heir.” Then, Abraham is invited outside to consider the impossible task of counting the stars and is promised that his offspring will be just as numerous as the stars. God does not give Abraham what he is asking for at this point. Rather, God invites Abraham to imagine what the future might be like if God is faithful to the promise. “Trust me,” God says, and Abraham does.

The fact that Abraham has expressed himself so directly highlights what a tremendously difficult thing God is asking Abraham to do. He has said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, seeing that I continue to be childless.” And God responds by asking him to continue in this state and trust that there will be an end to it eventually. Abraham chooses to trust the promise and take heart in the vision of the stars. The narrative suggests that God was struck by his willingness to do so: “And he believed the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness” (verse 6).

I find myself struck by Abraham’s trust, too, and I suggest that a preacher might be well-served to invite a congregation to enter into the narrative and imagine themselves in Abraham’s position. The most difficult thing about faith is that it requires a level of patience and persistence that does not come naturally to us. This narrative does not make light of the effort involved in a life of faith, but it does suggest that honesty and imagination are the two keys to living such a life. Hold up those values to your congregation. Remind them that they’re not the only ones who find a faithful life to be an enormous challenge. Invite them to consider, too, how many generations have declared that a life of faith is difficult but is, ultimately, the most satisfying way to be and how many generations have born witness to the faithfulness of God.


  1. At this point in the story line of Abraham, “Abraham” is still “Abram” and will be until Genesis 17. I’ll be referring to other stories in the Abraham saga throughout this commentary and will use the name “Abraham” for the sake of consistency.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 1:1, 10-20

Anathea Portier-Young

“Leaders of Sodom … People of Gomorrah!” (Isaiah 1:10): For a moment, the audience might convince themselves that Isaiah is talking to someone else.

It sounds like the prophet has flashed back to an era long past, to cities buried in ash before Sarah had given birth to her first child (Genesis 19:24-27). But Isaiah’s imagined interlocutors are people in the present moment who have used Sodom and Gomorrah as a collective consolation. We have been battered (Isaiah 1:5-6), but not obliterated. Our earth has been scorched (Isaiah 1:7), but life still takes root here. When God brought judgment on those ancient cities, none survived. But some of us are still standing, so at least we are not like them (Isaiah 1:9).

The prophet-poet cuts through a rationalizing self-assurance that has failed to reckon with the seriousness of the crimes of Judah and Jerusalem (Isaiah 1:1, 4, 15-16, 18). Isaiah counters their self-deceptive logic with an unexpected appellation: you can stop consoling yourselves. You are Sodom. You are Gomorrah.

Sodom and Gomorrah were a byword for Isaiah’s implied audience (Isaiah 3:9; 13:19; see also Ezekiel 16:56). The names “Sodom” and “Gomorrah” evoked for biblical writers complete and utter destruction (Amos 4:11), “a land possessed by nettles and salt pits, and a waste forever” (Zephaniah 2:9 NRSV) with no inhabitant (Isaiah 13:20; Jeremiah 49:18; 50:40). The destruction of these cities and their inhabitants was viewed as an act of God (Isaiah 13:19; Amos 4:11) and as punishment (Genesis 19; Lamentations 4:6). But contrary to a prominent stream of medieval and modern Christian biblical interpretation, the prophets of Israel did not identify the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah with sexual activity, and preachers today would do well to resist interpretations that would twist Isaiah’s oracle into a tirade directed at sexual minorities.1

Instead, Isaiah focuses on matters of justice, and contrasts the people’s failure to advocate for marginalized members of their community with their enthusiasm for costly sacrifices: “Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:16d-17). Isaiah’s implicit critique of Judah and Jerusalem in 1:17 closely matches the summation of the crimes of Sodom in the book of Ezekiel. Ezekiel declares: “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy” (Ezekiel 16:49). For Ezekiel, prosperity numbs the elites among God’s people to the demands of justice. Isaiah’s critique unfolds along similar lines, with a vivid twist.

Like the people of Sodom described by Ezekiel, Isaiah’s implied audience seems to have access to substantial resources. Sacrificial offerings of rams, bulls, lambs, and goats (Isaiah 1:11) were costly; to fatten animals prior to slaughter was more costly still. But to provide costly resources for the sacrificial cult without correcting systemic injustice means the community cherishes the appearance of righteousness over the reality. Worship has become for them an iterative self-deception that reinforces what the people want to believe and requires no uncomfortable change.

In this sense, for the people Isaiah addresses, animal sacrifice was not costly at all. The blood of bulls was too cheap. The life it held was a means to an end. For the prophet-poet Isaiah, the blood of sacrifice accuses God’s people of a different slaughter, namely their violence toward fellow humans. Blood clings to hands now spread in supplication, and no amount of prayer will dispose God to ignore the evidence of systemic violence, injustice, and oppression (1:15).

Israel’s sacrificial system was not in itself opposed to the demands of justice, but rather had a strong orientation toward reparation of wrongs, including restitution for damages from economic crimes such as fraud and theft (Leviticus 6:1-7). Moreover, not only was the temple the centrally designated locus for such sacrificial worship, but it had a wider role in relation to economic and social justice. The sanctuary was an important depository and distribution center for tithes, offerings from the bounty of the land that would feed temple personnel as well as widows and orphans throughout the land (Deuteronomy 14:29; Nehemiah 10:39; 12:44; 2 Chronicles 31:5-6; such tithes could also be collected and distributed locally: Deuteronomy 26:12-13; Nehemiah 10:37). In Deuteronomy, Moses promised that, when the people faithfully distributed the tithe, the Lord would look down from heaven and bless not only the people but also the land (Deuteronomy 26:15), ensuring that the land would yield further bounty.

Isaiah’s logic is similar to the Deuteronomist’s. If the people will learn and commit to shared ways of living that promote the welfare and safeguard the rights of all members of society, including the widow and orphan (Isaiah 1:17; see 1:23), then they will “eat the good of the land” (1:19; see also 3:10). And if not, in another startling twist, those who have refused the demands of justice will themselves become food, to be devoured by a conqueror’s sword (1:20; see 1:7).

In preparing to preach this passage, it would be helpful to ask, what are the ways this community vaunts its faithfulness, prosperity, or piety? How has worship propped up the status quo? Does the display of virtue mask complicity in systemic violence and injustice? For Isaiah, the antidote to complicity is threefold: “leading oppressors,” that is, confronting powerful perpetrators of systemic violence; enacting justice for children who are not one’s own; and advocating for women whose social and economic status makes them vulnerable to poverty and abuse (Isaiah 1:17). These are not vague ideas but concrete actions necessary for achieving systemic change.


  1. On the history of interpretation that conflated the crimes of Sodom and Gomorrah with forms of male same-sex intercourse, see Michael Carden, Sodomy: A History of a Christian Biblical Myth (London: Routledge, 2004).


Commentary on Psalm 33:12-22

Casey Thornburgh Sigmon

Preaching Psalm 33 is likely to be a challenge for any preacher who has an American flag in the sanctuary.

This psalm is a call to worship, a hymn of praise for Yahweh who is the one and only sovereign creator over all nations, all humankind, and all creation. Lynn Jost states the thesis of this psalm:

Because Yahweh rules with righteousness, justice, and unfailing love, we must worship Yahweh with songs of praise and by rejecting all false sources of salvation.1

God sees all

Our lectionary pericope for this Sunday begins in verse 12, at the conclusion of a stanza that began in verse 10. It is a stanza that sets in scale the happiness of “the nation whose God is the Lord.” For this nation is not the only nation God cares for. Verses 1-9 describe the creation story in song, a reminder to Israel and all nations that one God, one Creator, fashioned all of humanity. Only one ruler is sovereign in such a way that by speaking, “it came to be … and stood firm” (verse 9).

So, this is the message in our next stanza (verses 13-15): Yahweh watches over all of the earth from the throne. And what does Yahweh search for?  What is the measure Yahweh uses when looking down to observe humanity’s deeds (verse 15)? The measure was mentioned earlier in our psalm, back in verse 5: righteousness and justice. This is the expected behavior for Israel, or any nation that claims to worship and/or be chosen by Yahweh.

Yet in the story of Israel, the cry of the prophets, we know the conditionality of being chosen, and how Yahweh will punish even this chosen people when they no longer reflect Yahweh’s heart for righteousness and justice. If indeed King David wrote this psalm, he himself could speak to what it is to be chosen and anointed by Yahweh but punished for not practicing righteousness and justice (2 Samuel 12).

The danger of vain hope

Scholars debate whether or not this psalm, found in Book One of the collection, is pre or post exilic2; whether it is truly a psalm of David or a song that emerged out of a nation that learned the frailty of placing its hope in kings or military might.3 Does this contrast between Yahweh’s empire and the nation’s empire foreshadow the fall of the United Kingdom or is it a liturgical reminder from a post-exilic time that trust in nationhood was not enough to save Israel from destruction? Is it a call back to Yahweh’s warning to Samuel when the elders of Israel demanded him to ask Yahweh for a king (1 Samuel 8:7)? This history of Israel is a history of undermining the kingly rule of Yahweh with the frail rule of humankind.4

Whatever context in Israel’s history this psalm was composed, we see in these two verses the theological core. In wilderness wandering, in the oppression of slavery, in times of persecution, the psalmist calls on the assembly to remember: no nation, no government will save you and feed you; only Yahweh can deliver, only Yahweh can keep you alive. The psalmist cautions the conflation of Yahweh’s strength with a nation’s military strength. And yet the propensity of humanity to link the two in pursuit of greater power over perceived threats to that power is a myth as old as time.

The promise of hesed hope

Investment in war horses and armies for defensive strategies is the result of a fatal heart condition in a nation — fearfulness. In this condition, the heart that fears (fill in the blank all sources other than God) hopes in defense mechanisms to keep bad out and good in. It’s a losing battle if indeed all of humanity has hearts fashioned by the same creator (verse 15). It’s a losing battle if indeed the measure of goodness according to Yahweh is righteousness and justice (verse 5).

The way to victory begins in a different heart condition — fearfulness, yes, but fear of Yahweh only. In other words, trust in Yahweh, remembering Yahweh’s steadfast, unfailing love throughout our lives and history. Do not put your trust in anyone or anything else. So, we are back to the summons in verse 8 of the psalm “Let all the earth fear the Lord; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him.” Now our hearts are glad and expectant. Now “the eye of the Lord” is on us, a far more intimate expression of God’s looking than was described in verse 13.


Preaching into your context this week, what do you see? Is your nation proclaiming its divine chosen-ness in words but in every single action placing trust (money, resources, praise) in war horses, a President, or any other “vain hope for victory” that cannot save us from ourselves (verse 17)? Or, is your nation revealing its kinship with Yahweh in its acts of righteousness and justice for those who are most vulnerable in the land? Psalm 33 should humble in nation with its sweeping scale of the cosmos and its reminder that, ultimately, no one nation is the hope of creation.

But I wonder if this psalm has something to say also to any congregation or denomination that boasts in its chosen-ness? While not investing in war horses per se, perhaps its investing in the latest technology or maintaining a crumbling building or using missions money to clean up a parking lot … more common ways in which a church might be paying to cheat death, placing energy in a “vain hope for victory” that cannot save a church. The psalm asks the congregation: in whom do we trust? For whom do we wait for direction?


  1. Lynn Jost, “Psalm 33, America, and Empire,” in Direction 35/1 (2006).73.

  2. Most of the psalms in Book One of the Psalter have superscriptions that attribute the psalm to David. There are exceptions (See Psalms 1-2, 10). According to J. Clinton McCann, Psalm 33 may actually be a continuation of Psalm 32, a penitential psalm associated with David. See J. Clinton McCann, “Psalms” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, David L. Peterson, ed. Vol. 4. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994), 809.

  3. Jost, 71.

  4. Jost, 76.

Second Reading

Commentary on Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16

Mary Foskett

One of the most humbling and uplifting congregational milestones one can experience is the celebration of a church’s anniversary, whether it be the 2nd, 20th, or 200th year since the community’s founding.

Because of the human tendency to see the events and challenges of our time as being particularly difficult or momentous, it is easy to overlook what generations before us had to face and overcome. Occasions like church anniversaries provide us opportunities to look back and learn from those witnesses to the Gospel who preceded us. Truth be told, every community experiences a season of discouragement or listlessness at one time or another. In such a season, calling upon the memories of those who have gone before us can be a powerful source of encouragement and inspiration.

Today’s passage in the letter to the Hebrews is a summons to faith and a word of encouragement (Hebrews 13:22) to a community who appears to have grown weary of the Christian life.

Seemingly caught up in the challenges of their day, it may have been difficult to see a way forward. Some were struggling with their faith and others were neglecting to meet together (10:25). At the time of the letter’s composition, things seemed even more fraught than when the community had faced explicit external pressure and duress, including the confiscation of property (10:32-34). In the time since, they had become less confident and their energy for the faith seems to have waned (10:35). The letter is written with the intention of offering encouragement and in the hope of reawakening the community’s faith.

In chapter 6, the writer articulated at length the certainty of God’s promises and covenants, recalling the divine fidelity shown to Abraham (Hebrews 6:13-20). Here in chapter 11, the text shifts away from emphasizing what God has promised to focus on the human experience of faith in that promise. It moves from emphasizing the power of God to underscoring the vital and empowering nature of human faith.

Here the text is filled with pathos, moving the reader because its well-known opening verse which signals, concisely and effectively, both the potential and problem of religious faith: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (11:1). Here faith is synonymous with assurance and conviction, but it pertains to that which is hoped for and, as such, remains yet unseen. The verse is among the most beloved in all of scripture because it connects readers across the ages to our deep longing. While the letter does not wrestle with the problem of human suffering, per se, it implicitly acknowledges the threat of human despair. For the writer, faith is the certitude that what humans most need, want, and hope for, is real and on the way.

Just when the writer has gotten our attention and has us listening closely, the text proceeds to render visible the hope that can all too easily appear beyond our reach. Drawing on collective memory, the writer reminds us that, “Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible” (Hebrews 11:2-3).

Invoking the memory of those who have come before us is no less powerful now than it was for the audience of the letter to the Hebrews. The writer’s litany of examples of those in ancient Israel who lived “by faith” (11:3, 8, 9, 11, 13) brings to visibility and life the hope that his readers carry in their hearts.

After reviewing briefly the examples of Abel, Enoch, and Noah, the author settles on the case of Abraham, to whom Israel traces its beginnings. Verses 8-12 highlight how Abraham acted on his faith in the absence of any real knowledge of where he was going or how things would work out. Thus the writer gathers together for us the “great cloud of witnesses” to which the letter explicitly alludes in the next chapter (Hebrews 12:1).

What, in the past, could only be hoped for, is rendered visible here through memory. The writer uses traditions about the past to enable the reader to see what can be realized in the future. Just as the hopes of our forebears were brought to fruition, that which is seemingly impossible will be fulfilled in overwhelming abundance, like the descendants of Sarah and Abraham who “were born, ‘as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore’” (11:12). By invoking their memory, the writer also manages to subtly weave together the stories of Sarah and Abraham with those of the letter’s readers. The writer creates for the audience a sense of lineage and belonging.

The passage closes with the reminder that those who came before did not see the complete fulfillment of the promises to which their faith held firm, as they were “strangers and foreigners on earth” (Hebrews 11:13), ones “seeking a homeland” (11:14). Abraham sought after a new homeland that he did not know, in order to respond, by faith, to the promises of God.

So, too, do the readers of Hebrews belong to another realm and way of being. Letting go of conventional norms and values, or even losing social standing, can make sense to those who live by faith, for they know they belong to “a better country, that is, the heavenly one” (11:16). The letter buoys those who feel marginalized or oppressed by their faith, by reminding them that they belong to a larger reality that binds them to the promises of God and to those women and men of faith who have come before.