Lectionary Commentaries for October 11, 2009
Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Mark 10:17-31 

Matt Skinner

Nearly irresistible is the urge to soften this passage’s demands.

That urge has been around a long time. For example:

  • An ancient scribe added words to make 10:24 read “how hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God” (see the King James Version), as if the problem highlighted by the rich man is not being rich but putting faith in the wealth a person has or craves. This solution ignores the overall thrust of 10:23-25, where Jesus speaks quite plainly about the real obstacle that wealth presents.
  • A ninth-century interpreter made up the idea of a low gate into Jerusalem called “the eye of the needle,” through which camels could pass only if stooped and unladen. Presumably, then, Jesus criticizes only the proud rich, or only the rich who are not extremely determined to enter the kingdom. Unfortunately, no such gate ever existed, and Jesus’ words in 10:23-25 fail to recognize such distinctions about wealthy people’s attitudes.
  • Countless preachers have told us Jesus omnisciently perceived that wealth was this particular man’s special “weak spot,” and so he zeroed in on it only to expose the man’s distinctive shortcoming. This gives us permission to assume that Jesus would not ask us to part with our possessions, just those things that we really do not want to give up–only our aggressive driving or fried foods, for example.
  • Other preachers assert that Jesus only tests the man by issuing a demand meant to expose the futility of his supposedly self-striving piety. But such an interpretation makes a mockery of Jesus’ love for the man (10:21) and the man’s grief (10:22). If Jesus is not serious, why does he not chase after the crestfallen man, saying, “Wait! Here comes the good part! Let me show you grace now!”?

Jesus’ explanation is rather clear: just as large animals simply do not fit through tiny openings, so the wealthy do not fit in the kingdom of God. Even a rich man who has successfully kept all the Decalogue’s laws governing social responsibilities, as this devout man has, cannot fit.1 

Instead of trying to measure Jesus’ place among socioeconomic theorists or questioning his commitment to Protestant theology, we should note additional aspects of this passage, which beckon us to consider its nuances without denying its shocking message:

  • This is the only time in Mark’s Gospel that Jesus makes such a demand about possessions. Although he calls everyone to radical renunciation (8:34-37; 10:28-31), the particularities of the call vary across the Gospel.
  • According to 4:19, wealth and its deceptions are not the only things capable of choking the word of God. Being rich is not the unforgivable sin; perhaps neither is it an entirely unscalable obstacle.
  • Jesus’ primary call is a call to a life of discipleship, not to a life of poverty. His words come and follow in 10:21 recall other calls to discipleship (1:16-20; 2:14; 8:34; 15:41), and they stem from his love for the man.
  • In Jesus’ context, despite the legacy of the biblical prophets, many people viewed the wealthy as specially blessed by God. The disciples call attention to this in 10:26 when they gasp, “Then who can be saved?” If Jesus has categorically ruled out the rich, then can anyone make it into God’s kingdom? When we consider all that commends the rich man in this passage, Jesus stuns us by putting the kingdom of God so far out of reach. But, by contrast, this emphasizes his subsequent promise that all things are possible for God (10:27), a promise that will act itself out in the Gospel lection assigned for two weeks from now, the story of Bartimaeus’s salvation (10:46-52).
  • In 10:21, Jesus does not tell the man merely to separate himself from his possessions, to burn them or to walk away from them. He goes a step further by instructing him to redistribute his wealth among the poor. Jesus calls for more than a change in the man’s bottom line and more than a permanent relinquishment of his acquisitions; he tells him to change his relationship to the poor–to help them, to identify with them. This may contribute to the man’s grief and apparent inability to do what Jesus asks. He resists surrendering not only wealth, but also status and power. He resists participating in economic justice and handing power over to his poor beneficiaries. The financial, social, and political costs are too great.
  • By contrast to the man, Jesus’ disciples–despite their repeated demonstrations of spiritual obtuseness–have already renounced much of their lives, security, and identity. At the conclusion of the passage, Peter does not boast of his sacrifices but continues to panic about the difficulty of securing eternal life. What hope is there for him? In response, Jesus explains that he does not call people to asceticism, but into a new community with its own benefits. He reassures Peter that privation is not the hallmark of God’s kingdom. Authentic community and care are the same kind of community and care that Jesus asked the rich man to promote by giving his wealth to the poor. Notice, in 10:30, that persecutions accompany such life; as if it were not difficult enough on its own, a life of authentic discipleship also contravenes the world’s values and thus arouses the world’s ire.

Maybe, then, this passage is not so unique in its demands, for it is not that dissimilar from others in which Jesus describes a life of discipleship, such as 8:34-37. The rich man’s story and Jesus’ hyperbole remind us that all aspects of what it means to follow Jesus rankle our deeply ingrained instincts toward self-preservation and security. Jesus does not try to deprive the rich man of his money and power. He asks for more. He tries to claim the man’s very own self.

Jesus does this, of course, out of love. Perhaps he believes that wealth, like a competing deity, treacherously constrains people from serving God (as in Luke 16:13). Getting rid of wealth might then move the rich man to a point where he might truly be receptive to God…

…But, of course, there is a danger in following an interpretive route like that one, by trying to get too far inside the man’s head or speculating about Jesus’ evangelization strategy. Preachers do well to stick to the biblical text and avoid conjectures that make the rich man appear too different from most of us in church. Lack of receptivity is not his problem. His approach and words to Jesus are not arrogant or self-righteous.

Here is a deeply religious person so well-attuned to his practices that he can sense that there is more out there than what he has experienced so far. He asks Jesus about the “more,” but his question focuses on what needs to be added. He seeks the limit, or the next step, but discovers instead that eternal life entails the surrender of one’s whole self.

In the end, this story is untamable. That is, like a parable, it resists simple explanations and denies loopholes, making us so uncomfortable that we are liable to talk circles around it in hope of stumbling upon a basis for softening its message. This story, again like a parable, intends to be experienced rather than explained–experienced not in a simplistic manner or with a belligerence that violates the spirit of the narrative, but in a way that keeps a congregation focused on the real-life demands of discipleship, on the seriousness of the new community envisioned by the kingdom of God, and on the foundational promise that God makes salvation possible.

Congregations will hear this story in diverse ways, depending upon the social class and economic situation of individual members. Still, given our current cultural context, in which so much of our collectively ingrained assumptions about financial security have been uprooted and have further exposed our runaway consumption, people will have new ears to consider the gospel’s perspective on discipleship, possessions, and abundance. The preacher’s challenge is to show that the kingdom of God confronts us with a vision of life and identity quite incompatible with so many of our core presuppositions about wealth, prerogatives, and selfhood.

1Nothing about the narration or Jesus’ response suggests that the man is anything but sincere in 10:20. Why Jesus replaces the prohibition against coveting with one about defrauding is a conundrum no interpreter has successfully solved.

First Reading

Commentary on Amos 5:6-7, 10-15

Dennis Olson

Amos worked full-time for much of his life as “a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees” (Amos 1:1; 7:14) in the village of Tekoa in the southern kingdom of Judah.

One day God called this rancher and arborist to leave his vocation in order to become God’s mouthpiece and prophet to the people of the northern kingdom of Israel. Amos came as an outsider with strong warnings of God’s imminent judgment upon the king, the politically powerful, the wealthy and well-connected, and the religious establishment.

A Funeral Dirge: Israel Is Already Dead!
Amos chapter five begins with the prophet singing a mournful funeral dirge, a lamentation for one already dead. The opening lines of the chapter set the stage for the lectionary reading for this Sunday. The funeral dirge is not for a person but for a whole nation:
Fallen, no more to rise, is maiden Israel;
Forsaken on her land, with no one to raise her up (5:2).

Amos spoke at a time when Israel seemed to be flourishing. The economy was prospering, at least for some. The king maintained law and order, however skewed to the rich and powerful. Worship attendance at the king’s houses of worship was high. The prophet, however, shattered this veneer of prosperity and religiosity. If you look deeply into this society and system, all God sees is death, not life, the prophet said. No hope for a turnaround here: Israel is “fallen, no more to rise.” To add insult to injury, Amos delivers this shocking and dispiriting news at the doorstep of one of Israel’s holiest sanctuaries, the king’s favorite place of worship at Bethel.

Maybe a Chance to Turn It Around
It is in this context of inevitable death that Amos’ next words in the beginning of our lectionary reading are equally jarring. Amos exhorts his hearers, “Seek the LORD and live” (5:6). Wait a minute! Didn’t Amos just tell us we are all as good as dead and without any hope? Now Amos insists that God may still be open to consider a deep and heartfelt repentance followed by dramatic new ways of living in accord with that repentance. Of course, Amos’ audience thought they had been “seeking the LORD” by attending the worship house at Bethel. Clearly, they must learn a new way of “seeking the LORD.”

Justice into Wormwood
True worship profoundly influences what God’s people do during the rest of the week. That was not happening in Amos’ day. Supposedly religious Israelites had been “turning justice to wormwood” (5:7). Amos-style justice had a special focus on the city gate (Amos 5:10, 12, 15). The city “gate” was the area just inside the main entrance to the walled city, a public gathering place for all kinds of hearings and disputes (Ruth 4:1, 10-11). God was very interested in what happened “in the gate” because it was the key public arena for negotiating fairness, compassion, and social order in accord with the values, nature and history of God and God’s people. The Torah reminded Israel that God “takes no bribe,” “executes justice for the orphan and the widow,” and “loves the strangers.” Israel was to be a mirror of God’s justice in its own life and social relationships (Deuteronomy 10:17-18).

God’s justice, Amos said, had been turned to “wormwood.” Wormwood was a plant in Palestine that had an exceedingly bitter taste and was a frequent metaphor for the poison and bitterness of disaster and destruction (Amos 6:12; Jeremiah 9:15; Lamentations 3:15). Israel had turned justice into a bitter and destructive poison of greed that trampled on the poor, stole their grain, afflicted the righteous, took bribes, pushed aside the needy, and resisted “the one who speaks the truth” (Amos 5:10-12).

Seeking God = Seeking Good
The lectionary text continues with an exhortation, a plea from Amos that parallels his earlier plea to “Seek the LORD and live” (5:6). This time Amos gives some content to what such seeking for God looks like. It is not just attending worship at Bethel on the Sabbath. No, seeking God means seeking “good and not evil, that you may live” (5:14). Seeking God means doing good for others, especially the poor and vulnerable in the community and the society at large. Loving God and loving neighbor are an inseparable pair.

Moreover, doing good and loving neighbor are not just for God’s sake but for our own sake: “that you may live.” It is ultimately in our own long term self-interest to turn around, radically change our ways, seek the wellbeing of our neighbor, “love good,” and “establish justice in the gate” (5:15). Seeking good is the key to seeking God: only then will Israel have any hope that the LORD “will be with you” (5:14).

Hope for a Remnant
Our text ends with a hopeful word, however tentative: God “may be . . . gracious to the remnant of Joseph” (5:15). “Joseph” is another name for northern Israel. Amos offers a glimmer of hope that a small remnant may yet respond to the prophet’s call and be spared the wholesale destruction and exile of the nation that seems all but inevitable. The prophet’s warnings eventually did come true with the Assyrian invasion and exile of northern Israel in 722 BCE. A small remnant preserved the prophet’s words and came south to Judah where the words of Amos were again read, reinterpreted and applied one hundred thirty four years later with the Babylonian invasion and exile of southern Judah in 587 BCE.

Amos’ words and warnings have continued to speak powerfully and truthfully across the centuries even, wherever the poor are trampled, the distribution of wealth is out of whack, and justice is perverted. In a world like ours threatened by economic collapse, global warming and disparities in which twenty percent of the world’s population uses eighty percent of the world’s resources, the words of Amos continue to bear witness. Is there a glimmer of hope for us as well?

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Job 23:1-9, 16-17

Karl Jacobson

The last line of Job 2:1-10 (last week’s first reading, 18 Pentecost) reckons Job’s behavior, above all his speech, as righteousness:

“In all this Job did not sin with his lips.” This evaluation is not flat approval of Job, nor does it necessarily imply that Job may have sinned on the inside (in thought, if not word). Rather this is a bit of foreshadowing for what happens in Job 23. We might take “In all this Job did not sin with his lips…” as the ‘open mouth’ to “Today also my complaint is bitter…”‘s ‘insert foot.’ If Job did not, at first, give voice to sin in response to his suffering, now he is about to do so.

While, in the scheme of the whole of Job, the move is not as abrupt as the lectionary jump from chapter 2 to 23, Job is not able to maintain his stoic response to suffering and pain. He moves from apparent acceptance to challenging God, demanding answers to his mouthful of arguments, and assuming justice in a court-of-law style case to be his due. Job appeals to reason and fully expects that his judge will hear him favorably (7). “Brief” in hand, Job is ready to register his complaint.

The specifics of Job’s complaint, bitter as it is, are not central to our reading from chapter 23. In fact we might say that this isn’t yet complaint, not really, but more of a declaration of intent. Still there a number of striking elements here, any of which would offer a homiletically pleasing entre to the text.

Job’s ode to a complaint begins with the heartfelt wish that he could find God and press his case. “Oh, that I knew where I might find him, that I might come even to his dwelling!” (3) The opening phrase is an interesting idiom, literally “who will give,” that I may know where to find God. It is unlikely that Job is literally asking around for someone who can tell him where God is to be found. Translation questions are not necessarily a big deal here, but “Oh, that I knew” strikes me as a soft-sell of Job’s bitterness.

What Job is doing is giving voice to his longing. The key sense of this idiom is a longing for a different reality, a reality as different from the present one as possible. What Job wants, is precisely what Job is not experiencing–God’s presence.1  It might be worth reframing Job’s fervent wish, perhaps with something like, “What I wouldn’t give” to know where to find God. Job has already “given” (read: had taken from him) everything to end up where he is−his family, his wealth, and his physical health, and now he seems on the verge of giving up his spiritual health as well, just to get at God.

This longing, this desperate need for–if not an answer to the whys of suffering, then at least some sense that God is near, concerned, interested, caring, something–is sure to resonate with anyone who hears it.

Job is clearly ready for his day in court. But therein lies the problem; Job can’t find his way to the courthouse.

Heaping up the introductions to a complaint to God, Job adds to the list the fear and frustration that no matter where he goes, there God isn’t. Job 23:8-9, “If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.” This presents an almost ironic reversal of Psalm 139:7-10. The psalm reads,
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?

If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.

If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,

even there your hand shall lead me
and your right hand shall hold me fast.

For Job, the reverse is true. God is nowhere to be found. God’s hand, it seems to Job, neither leads him nor holds him fast.

The final verse of this reading, having skipped 23:10-15 which reiterate Job’s claims to blamelessness and uprightness, address God, the Almighty. El “has made my heart faint,” Shaddai “has terrified me.” The reality of Job’s faint-heartedness, the actuality of his terror, is his desperate theological loneliness.

Finally, we don’t need any other specifics of Job’s complaint; we don’t need details, or arguments, witnesses or affidavits. We can see well enough, what is the heart of Job’s struggle–not the loss of wealth, not the physical pains, not even, perhaps, the mourning for the lost hopes and dreams of family–rather that God is absent. If Job’s question to his wife, “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” may be taken as a foreshadowing or faint echo of Jesus’ cry from the cross, this confession of terror is the raw scream of it.

At the heart of Job’s complaint is neither that he is suffering, nor even that God would allow such a thing, but that God feel’s distant, absent, so far removed as to be unknowable. A longing for a sense of God’s presence, for God’s attention, is what drives Job’s complaint and is its tacit substance. This may not be the easiest of texts to preach. It may be difficult to even read. But we would do well not to leave the text alone, either ignored or left hanging.

Job resonates. Job echoes not just Jesus’ cries, but our very own. Job gives voice to the bitter complaints and terrors that any believer may feel and that no doubt some who will join us for worship this Sunday are feeling. We do well both to let him speak, and to speak with him.

1A similar sense is found in Psalm 55:6 “And I say, ‘O that I had wings like a dove! I would fly away and be at rest….'” and is a relatively frequent idiom to Job: 6:8; 11:5; 13:5; 14:4, 3; 19:23; 31:31, 35. See also Deuteronomy 28:67.


Commentary on Psalm 90:12-17

Rolf Jacobson

This week’s psalm selection is the closing section of one of the great lyrics of the Bible–Psalm 90.

It is the only poem in the Psalter that is associated with Moses; the Hebrew in the superscription literally reads “a prayer to Moses, man of God,” and likely does not refer to Moses as the author of the poem. Most likely the connection with Moses was made because of the wisdom-like theme of the psalm.

In the same way that one can tune into the last inning of a ballgame or drop in for the last movement of a symphony and still enjoy the climax of the performance, it is indeed right and salutary that the preacher or worship planner opt to stick with the lectionary and use only the closing verses of the psalm. Better, however, would be to include all seventeen verses of this poem.

Don’t have time for those extra eleven verses? Here’s an idea–skip one announcement so as to make time for the word of God.

God, Humanity, and Time (verses 1-11)
Speaking of time, the prayer is an eloquent meditation on God, humanity, and time. It builds a tableau that explores the relationship between God and Human Beings–using the hands of time to plumb the depths of the human condition and then to point mortals back to eternal God.

According to the psalm’s use of this motif, the Lord is the one who is…

  • “Our dwelling place in all generations”
  • The creator since “before the mountains were brought forth”
  • Who has been God “from everlasting to everlasting”
  • And for whom “a thousand years are…like yesterday…or like a watch in the night”

Human beings, on the other hand, are those who…

  • “turn back to dust” at a single word from God
  • “Are like a dream” in the night
  • Perk up like grass fed by morning dew, but who fade and wither before evening
  • And have a lifespan that is “seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong” (I still cotton to the old King James’ Version: “threescore years and ten, and if by reason of strength they be fourscore”)

And, not to put too fine of a point on it, the psalm arrives at the conclusion (judgment?) that all of human life passes under God’s judgment– “we are consumed by your anger. . . our years come to an end like a sigh.”

Half of the battle in preaching a poem as elegant as Psalm 90 is simply to get out of the way of the beautiful poetry, to hit the notes clearly so that they can ring vibrantly in the imaginations and hearts of hearers. (Little surprise, then, that Abraham Lincoln began his most soaring speech–a speech dedicating a graveyard of strong, young men whose flames had snuffed out even before their allotted fourscore years had been counted–with a self-conscious allusion to Psalm 90: “Fourscore and seven years ago…”)

Wise Hearts and Prospered Hands (verses 12-17)
The other half of the battle in preaching such a poem is finding a way to proclaim the psalm’s desperate plea as a message of hope and good news, for the psalm is a prayer. And as such, it is a theological plea written in the key of hope. Making its plea to God, the psalm hopes for what it does not see. Indeed, it hopes for what could not be seen when it was first prayed.

The witness of the psalm–a witness made to God, perhaps even made against God–is that for mortal to find true hope for today and true strength for tomorrow, they can only turn to the eternal Lord.

This is no carpe diem argument–Seize the Day!–as one may find in such secular lyrics as venerable and humorous as Andrew Marvel’s “To His Coy Mistress” (“Had we but world enough and time….”) or as fresh and naïve as Tom Cochrane’s “Life is a Highway” (“Life is a road that you travel on, there’s one day here and the next you’re gone…”). In these songs, the lyricist urges mortals to seize what joy they can, before they die (“The grave’s a fine and pleasant place, But none I think do there embrace”).

Such thinly veiled attempts to deny mortality are precisely the sort of foolishness that the psalm prays against when it begs in verse 12, “Teach us to count our days that we may game a wise heart.” What is a wise heart? One that turns away from human attempts at self-deception and self-justification. One that paradoxically implores the very God who says to us, “turn back, you mortals!” (verse 3) to, in turn, “Turn…Have compassion on your servants!” (verse 13).

The psalm then returns to the theme of time and pleads with God, if not to wind back the hands of time, then at least to reverse some of the more deflating and discouraging effects of human mortality: the burdensome sense that a mortal life is without purpose; the debilitating sense that nothing we do matters, because death comes for all; the horrible fear that there is nothing that can satisfy or give joy.

Thus, weaving back in to the poem the earlier temporal terms such as morning, days, and years, the psalm prays for God to “satisfy us in the morning with you steadfast love” and “make us glad as many days as you have afflicted us and as many years as we have seen evil.” The witness here is that joy, satisfaction, and gladness are not marketable or manufacturable goods that can be seized by the mortal from a creation that would without them. But that they are gifts made freely available, proffered without condition by the creator and redeemer of all.

In this light, even the psalm’s doubly repeated closing plea to “prosper for us the work of our hands–O prosper the work of our hands” is not just a plea, but a promise. The promise that the work done by mortal hands here on earth can make a lasting difference, when the eternal one in heaven blesses it.

That isn’t a bad prayer with which to start every day. Or a bad message on which to center a sermon.

Second Reading

Commentary on Hebrews 4:12-16

Bryan J. Whitfield

In “Glory Days,” Bruce Springsteen sings of that high school baseball player who “could throw that speedball by you.

Make you look like a fool boy.” Not being a gifted baseball player, I dreaded those moments. And my dreams about teaching or preaching in my birthday suit indicate that fear of exposure still runs deep in my psyche.

And yet that’s the image with which this lectionary reading from Hebrews begins–with a disturbing image, not of a speedball, but of the word of God that slices us open for inspection. The opening two verses (4:12-13) describe the power of God’s word.

The writer lists several characteristics of that word. First, it is “living and active” (4:12). The writer frequently describes God as “the living God” (3:12; 9:14; 10:31; 12:22), and here he uses the same adjective to describe God’s word as one that acts and accomplishes the divine will.

Secondly, the divine word penetrates. The writer pictures the word as a sword (compare Isaiah 49:2; Wisdom of Solomon 7:22, 24; 18:15-16; Ephesians 6:17; Revelation 1:16; 2:12; 19:15). No matter how sharp a knife or dagger one might wield, the word of God cuts with even more precision as it reaches our innermost being.

Third, as the word penetrates, it judges our hearts. The role of the heart is a central feature in the sermon against unbelief (3:7–4:13). The writer quotes the psalmist’s warning against hard hearts (3:8, 15; 4:7), for God laments that the wilderness generation went astray in their hearts (3:10). Since our hearts represent who we are as a whole, the condition of our hearts marks our openness to or rejection of God’s voice. Thus the divine word unmasks and makes clear our faithfulness or unbelief.

The following sentence (4:13) also focuses on judgment, but the focus shifts from the divine word that judges to those of us who are judged. Nothing is hidden from the Creator whose scrutiny encompasses all of creation. God sees and knows all, and we stand accountable before God for our response to the divine word. The term “laid bare” comes from the verb “to grip in a neck-hold,” an image that conveys vulnerability and peril. This stress on our exposure and accountability provides a solemn warning for all of us who hear the word of God.

Given this uncomfortable picture of our nakedness before God, we may rightly ask, “Where is the good news in this passage?” Thankfully, the text does not end here. Instead, the writer affirms Jesus’ high priestly ministry to us in our need (4:14-16). That affirmation transforms the warning of the first section. Even though the word of God penetrates and exposes the deepest recesses of our hearts, we should not despair. We must give an account, a word that responds to the divine word. But in our efforts to speak, we are not left alone. There is one who has come to help us, to be our “merciful and faithful high priest” (2:17).

As the Exalted One seated at God’s right hand (1:3, 13), Jesus has passed through the heavens to occupy a place of honor and glory. That status inspires us in moments of discouragement to hold on to our confession, our hope, and our confidence in God and Jesus (3:1; 10:23). We have an advocate in God’s court.

And there is more. Though Jesus occupies this exalted status, he understands our frailty and suffering from the inside. The writer expresses that truth by means of a rhetorically powerful double negative: “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses” (4:15). The author thus emphasizes the radical identification of Jesus with us, as he has “become like his brothers and sisters in every respect” (2:17), even in every form of testing. Whatever trial faces us, Jesus has faced that test as well. Therefore he is now “able to help those who are being tested” (2:18).

Knowing that the powerful Son is at the same time the Son who knows our lot gives us new courage. However vulnerable we may be before the eyes of God, we can approach the heavenly throne boldly, knowing we come to a throne of grace where Jesus offers help to those who are tested (2:18).

Thus, as we have seen, this brief but theologically rich selection from Hebrews divides into two parts: a warning and an exhortation to boldness. Discerning the connection between the two parts of this lectionary passage and structuring a sermon that honors the movement of the text is central to the preacher’s task.

Thinking about this two-part movement, I remembered H. H. Farmer’s description of God as absolute claim and final succor. On the one hand, Farmer stressed, God sees and knows the innermost chambers of our human hearts. That places an unparalleled demand on our lives. We must render an account of our response to the divine word. On the other hand, obligation is not the end of the story because God moves with compassion to meet our human weakness and need. That compassion proves God is the trustworthy savior of our lives.1 

Hebrews stresses that the Son’s work as high priest joins together these two ideas of claim and succor. As the Exalted One, he participates in the transcendent glory of God. But because the Son also knows our human lot, because he is also a “man of sorrows,” he can connect us to God’s presence and favor. That combination of might and mercy steels our hearts and brings a song of praise to our lips. We do well to sing the words of Philip P. Bliss: “‘Man of Sorrows,’ what a name for the Son of God who came ruined sinners to reclaim! Hallelujah! What a Savior!”

1H. H. Farmer, Revelation and Religion (New York: Harper, 1954), 79.