Lectionary Commentaries for October 18, 2009
Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Mark 10:35-45

Matt Skinner

This passage plays a key role in the Gospel according to Mark’s understanding of why Jesus dies and what his death means.

It describes the Christian gospel and the community it creates as utterly different from the “business as usual” we encounter all around us. At the same time, Jesus’ words in 10:45 are often misconstrued and made to support theological proposals that are foreign to Mark’s Gospel. Preachers therefore find themselves given a choice opportunity to get to the heart of the matter of Jesus’ death and what it means for our discipleship.

James and John (10:35-40)
In the preceding scene (10:32-34), Jesus gives his final and most detailed prediction of his trial, suffering, death, and resurrection (compare the less formal references to death yet to come in 14:8, 17-28). He is about to enter Jerusalem (11:1-11) and confront the temple-based aristocracy. James and John request privileged places of authority in seats at Jesus’ right and left. In doing so, the sons of Zebedee appear to have missed everything Jesus has said and done since 8:27, except maybe for the transfiguration in 9:2-8. They recognize that glorification awaits Jesus. The authority he has exhibited in his ministry will lead to something big, perhaps to a royal rule, and they conspire to capitalize on that.

When Jesus softly chastises the two for their ignorance and speaks about “the cup” he must drink (see 14:36) and “the baptism” he must undergo, he reiterates that violence and death await him in Jerusalem. Such is his role, corresponding to the paradoxical nature of his kingship, according to which he will die as an utterly despised and powerless “king.” Mark’s Gospel emphasizes that such rejection and death are inevitable and required, because of who Jesus is, because of the boundary-breaking character of his ministry, and because those who wield power in the world will do all they can to protect themselves and their prerogatives from the implications of that ministry.

Tyrants, Servants, and Freedom (10:41-45)
Although James and John affirm their willingness to endure suffering with Jesus, he waits until later to explain that they will fail to do so in the immediate future (14:26-50). Instead, in 10:41-45, he addresses their desire for power and prestige. He comments on the nature of human power–the kind of power that will soon crush him in the political spectacle of his trial and execution–and on the meaning of his death. He puts his life and death, along with the lives and sufferings of his followers, in complete opposition to such expressions of power.1

James and John are not the only disciples enticed by visions of a triumphant reign, for the rest of the Twelve fume over the brothers’ bid to outflank them in prominence. Jesus corrects their vision by holding up the conventions of gentile (Roman) sociopolitical authorities as negative examples. They regularly “overpower” and “tyrannize” others (10:42). They rely on coercion and control to maintain their dominance and prerogatives. Mark has already provided a stark example in the story of John the Baptizer’s death (6:14-29), in which self-interest and self-protection trump justice to ensure John’s demise. Jesus’ trial in 14:53-15:15 will manifest a similar kind of strong-armed political theater.

In absolute contrast, greatness among Jesus’ followers is measured by their ability to live as servants and slaves, even if that life means suffering oppression at the hands of those who wield power. Jesus has spoken in similar terms in 9:33-37, where he compares himself to a child, an image of powerlessness and vulnerability. He will embody such subjection in his passion, when he affirms the promise of his glorification (14:62) but nevertheless forgoes the power to control his fate or to prevail over others.

Jesus’ final line — “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” — connects to his preceding words about service and enslavement, indicating that his death will be exemplary for such a way of living. His death will exemplify the violence and resistance his teaching and ministry elicit from those who hold power over society, and it will exemplify a radical renunciation of authority and privilege, as these things are normally constructed (see 8:34-36). What makes the renunciation so radical is the identity of the one who does it: Jesus, God’s own uniquely authorized agent.

At the same time, Jesus’ mention of a “ransom” indicates that his death will be more than just an inspiring example or a martyr’s tragic protest against an unjust system. The word in question (in Greek, lytron) indicates that his death does something; it secures a release. This verse often sparks lively debates, and it has a history of, in my opinion, being misunderstood by those who take the notion of a “ransom” to mean a specific type of payment. In those readings, Jesus’ death is transactional, a payment made to satisfy the penalties accrued by human sin or to repay something owed to God.

However, the explicit context in which this statement appears is about power and servitude, not the problem of sin or the need to secure forgiveness. Furthermore, the Old Testament (Septuagint) usage of lytron and its cognates, while sometimes referring to a redemption or purchased freedom, just as frequently refers to God’s acting to deliver people. A lytron is a liberation wrought by divine strength, not by payment (see examples of lytron cognates in Exodus 6:6; Deuteronomy 15:15; 2 Samuel 7:23; Psalm 69:18; Isaiah 43:14).

Jesus therefore declares (without stopping to clarify precisely how) that God, through Jesus’ death, will free people from oppression and captivity to another power, restoring them to membership in the community that corresponds to God’s reign.

All this provokes a few questions:

  • From whom or what does Jesus’ death deliver people? According to the immediate context, it delivers from the constellations of social and political power that human beings concoct to control each other. According to the wider sweep of Mark’s Gospel, it delivers from demonic powers that enslave the world and resist God’s purposes (1:23-24; 3:27). According to the story of the passion and resurrection, God defeats the power of death itself.
  • What about sin and forgiveness? The Gospel of Mark promises forgiveness, to be sure. Repentance and forgiveness are part of Jesus’ proclamation and ministry (1:4; 2:5; 3:38). But Mark presents these topics as subordinate pieces in a more comprehensive apocalyptic showdown that sees the cosmos and human existence transformed by the incursion of God’s reign and the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
  • Who benefits? The mention of Jesus as a ransom on behalf of many emphasizes the contrast between many and the one who acts on their behalf. Here, “many” has the sense of “all” or “everyone,” which is in keeping with the cosmic scope of Mark’s apocalyptic drama.

Sunday’s Readings and Sermon
Some interpreters have insisted on reading Mark 10:45 alongside Isaiah 52:13-53:12 and thereby made the lytron of Mark 10:45 imply that Jesus bears humanity’s sins on the cross as a kind of vicarious atonement, a payment for sin. There are multiple problems with importing such a theology into this verse. First, these Markan and Isaianic passages share hardly any language in common (for example, neither lytron nor the Greek words Jesus uses for “servant” and “slave” in Mark 10:43-44 appear in Isaiah 52:13-53:12). Nothing indicates that Mark writes (or Jesus speaks) with Isaiah 52-53 in view.

Second, the context of Mark 10:41-45 describes Jesus as a servant in an exemplary sense. That is, he instructs his disciples to follow suit. But nothing about Isaiah’s description of the suffering one calls readers to follow his example. It can be easy to assume that that servant acts as he does so we do not have to do so. Mark presents Jesus’ sufferings otherwise.

I dwell on Isaiah 52:13-53:12 because some lectionaries assign a portion of it as the so-called “complementary” first reading for this Sunday. This reflects those lectionaries’ clear preference for a certain, yet deeply problematic interpretation of Mark 10:45. Probably a single sermon is not the place for preachers to parse the differences between Mark’s notion of Jesus as lytron and Isaiah’s notion of the servant.

Moreover, since the idea of a vicarious atonement — Jesus as a sinless sacrifice carrying the full burden of human sin to satisfy God or cosmic justice — is so deeply imbedded in various streams of Christian belief and practice, I strongly recommend preachers choose a different first reading. This will allow them to focus on the specific contours of Mark’s understanding of Jesus’ death, and it will help congregations hear this passage on its own terms.

The brief, suggestive quality of Mark 10:45 speaks against preparing a sermon that tackles atonement theories or tries to explicate Mark’s presentation of the cross in all its detail. Consider that Jesus makes this brief comment within a wider context, one that acknowledges the lure of power that ensnares all of us, not only James and John. Note that this passage and the wider Gospel of Mark acknowledge various kinds of oppression that afflict us and that we employ to afflict our neighbors.

What does it mean for the church, for congregations, and for individual Christians to imitate Jesus, who becomes relinquished to the designs of his powerful enemies? And how do we, where we live, experience the realities of the multifaceted liberation that God has accomplished for us through the death of Jesus Christ, and not through our own success or failure at adopting the role of a servant to others?

1 For a very good concise analysis of Mark’s treatment of Jesus’ death, see: Sharyn Dowd and Elizabeth Struthers Malbon, “The Significance of Jesus’ Death in Mark: Narrative Context and Authorial Audience,” Journal of Biblical Literature 125 (2006): 271-97; available online: https://www.jstor.org/stable/27638361. My reading of 10:41-45 shares much in common with this essay’s.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 53:4-12

Dennis Olson

The central movement of the Suffering Servant poem in Isaiah 53:4-12 is from humiliation to exaltation, from shame to honor, from weakness to greatness.

From Weakness to Greatness: Individual Servants
This movement is a recurring pattern in the ways of God throughout Scripture. God chose a humble elderly immigrant and his barren wife to be the primary vehicle of God’s blessing “to all the families of the earth” (Genesis 12:1-3). God regularly chose the younger and less likely sibling over the usually preferred elder brother as God’s specially chosen and exalted servant: Isaac over Ishmael (Genesis 17:15-19), Jacob over Esau (Genesis 25:22-26), Joseph over the other sons of Jacob (Genesis 37:1-11; 50:15-21), Judah over the first-born Reuben (Genesis 49:3-4, 8), young David over the other sons of Jesse (1 Samuel 16:10-13), King Solomon over his older brother Adonijah (1 Kings 1:22-40).

God was in the habit of raising up the weak and unlikely to lead God’s cause against the strong. God called a humble and reluctant shepherd named Moses (Exodus 3:1-11; Numbers 12:3; Deuteronomy 34:10-12). God tapped Gideon, the weakest member of Israel’s weakest clan, to save Israel from its oppressors (Judges 6:11-16). God appointed an insecure teenager named Jeremiah to be “a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:1-10).

God called other leaders and activists for God’s cause from among those whom society often considered less likely candidates on the basis of their gender or ethnicity: the Hebrew midwives in Egypt (Exodus 1:15-22), the Egyptian princess and daughter of Pharaoh (Exodus 2:5-10), Moses’ sister Miriam (Exodus 2:4, 7-8; 15:20-21; Micah 6:4), Rahab the Canaanite prostitute (Joshua 2:1-24), the prophet and judge Deborah (Judges 4:4-10), Jael the Kenite (Judges 4:17-24), the queen mother Bathsheba (1 Kings 2:19), the prophet Huldah (2 Kings 22:11-20), the Moabite Ruth, ancestor of King David (Ruth 4:13-22), or the Jewish Queen Esther of Persia (Esther 4:12-17; 6:14-8:2). The song of Hannah (1 Samuel 2:1-10) and its New Testament echo in Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:48, 52-53) testify to God’s characteristic habit to use the weak in order to upend the strong.

From Weakness to Greatness: Collective Israel
God’s appointment and use of these many unlikely individuals and servants stands against the backdrop of the most unlikely choice of all in the Old Testament: God’s selection of the people of Israel as God’s own special people and “treasured possession” among all the nations (Deuteronomy 7:6). Israel was the most unlikely of candidates for this exalted vocation. Lowly Israel was the “fewest of all peoples” (Deuteronomy 7:7). Many other nations could claim much older and grander pedigrees as powerful and venerable empires with deep roots in history: Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia and Greece. Each of these empires considered Israel an insignificant outpost, a weak province to be plundered, a humble upstart who needed to be crushed and taught a lesson from time to time.

The Servant of Isaiah 53: Individual or Collective?
All of this is important background to the suffering servant poem of Isaiah 53:4-12. Scholars debate the identity of the humiliated, marred, sick, and suffering servant who is then dramatically exalted by God. Some say the “servant” could be an individual. The suffering servant could be an anonymous and persecuted prophet of Israel. Or could the servant be Cyrus the Persian who elsewhere is called God’s anointed “messiah” and “shepherd” and who overthrew Babylon and freed Israel from its exile (Isaiah 44:28, 45:1, 13)?

Others argue for a collective interpretation. The suffering servant is the whole people of Israel who suffered in exile. In exile, they were despised by the nations, but then God exalted them by freeing them from exile and returning them to their home in Jerusalem. Evidence for this position is that the people of Israel or Jacob are often called God’s “servant” throughout Isaiah 40-55 (Isaiah 41:8-9; 44:1-2, 21; 45:4; 49:3). At other points in Isaiah 40-55, the “servant” seems to be an individual or a sub-group within Israel, perhaps a persecuted disciple or group of disciples of a prophet, who work to redeem and restore Israel (Isaiah 42:1-9; 49:1-6; 50:4-9).

The Shimmering Identity of the Servant
Like all poetry, biblical poetry is often elusive and open to multiple interpretations. The dense imagery and allusive language of the suffering servant poem make it susceptible to a variety of possible understandings within the rich literary environment of Isaiah 40-55 and the Old Testament as a whole. The servant’s identity shimmers in the poem between an individual and a group, a prophet and disciples, Israel and a sub-group within Israel. The identity of this servant is hard to pin down; the individual and the group seem to blur into one another.

The Suffering Servant: Jesus and His Community
Jesus, the suffering servant of God, was humbled on a cross and then exalted above every name (Philippians 2:5-11). In his death and resurrection, Jesus represents the culmination of a recurring biblical pattern of God’s servants moving from humiliation to exaltation. The ministry of Jesus, like the suffering servant in Isaiah 53, shimmered between the unique individual, Jesus, and the community who followed Jesus. From the beginning of his ministry, Jesus was not alone. Jesus called together a community of twelve disciples, a communal re-constitution of ancient Israel’s twelve-tribe community. The life and mission of this chosen and beloved community of Jesus’ disciples was to reflect the life and mission of their leader and teacher (see the Gospel reading for this Sunday, Mark 10:35-45).

The world may wonder how much real effect the ministry of Jesus and his community can have. What good is it to preach the gospel, sing a hymn, pour water over a baby, offer a bit of bread and a sip of wine, hold a hand, speak a forgiving word, stock a food shelf, fold hands in prayer, fold clothes for the homeless, visit the sick, comfort the grieving, negotiate a conflict, advocate for the poor, carry out a daily vocation with integrity, all in the name of Christ?

The nations may scorn and despise these seemingly humble and weak ministries of Christ’s church. Yet Scripture testifies that it is through such seemingly weak and foolish means that God chooses to do God’s work (1 Corinthians 1:27-31). For the long and unbroken chain of God’s quiet, humble and faithful servants stretching from ancient Israel to all the hidden corners of the world today, we give thee thanks and praise.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Job 38:1-7 [34-41]

Karl Jacobson

“Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers,” drawled Garth Brooks.

“Then the Lord answered Job….”
While Job may not have been thinking in terms of a girlfriend, a longed-for high school crush, still he might have agreed. I wonder what surprised Job more, the content of the answer he received, or the simple fact he received one. For almost ninety percent of his book, Job has struggled with God’s apparent absence, God’s distance, God’s silence. And now God answers him.

Gird up your loins
The first part of God’s answer is one of several connections with Job 23:1-9, 16, the first reading from last week (19 Pentecost). “Who is this,” God asks Job, “who darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” This answer refers to Job’s despairing cry that he wishes he could disappear and “vanish into darkness” (23:17). God’s words make it clear that Job speaks in ignorance–an ignorance that is profoundly theological. It is out of darkness–confusion, ignorance, foolishness about God–that Job accuses God. Now God will answer, just as Job had asked. Sort of.

The second part of God’s answer to Job is a simple enough call to action: “Gird up your loins like a man,” God says to Job, in effect telling him to “hike up that diaper.”

“Gird up your loins” is an idiom, one that is used in the Bible when the situation calls for courage, commitment, and perhaps an end to complaining. Elisha told one of the “members of the company of prophets” to go anoint Jehu as king over Israel, never mind that Ahab is currently king, never mind the danger, as though to say “Stop dragging your heels, hike up that diaper, and do what you’re told” (2 Kings 9:1ff). In the same way, God called the prophet Jeremiah to deliver the word to the kingdom of Judah, never mind the ways God’s prophets are typically received there, never mind this “I am only a youth” business; quit your half-steppin’, hike up that diaper and tell it like I tell you to tell it (Jeremiah 1:6, 17).

The sense here in Job is a little different. Job does not have to face unruly kings or disgruntled parishioners; Job has to face God, and God’s answers to his complaints. You wanted answers, Job; well here they come, so gird up your loins like a man, hike up your diaper, and listen.

A reversal of pronouns
With a bit of rhetorical flourish, God reverses the field on Job. God does this with a switcheroo of the pronouns, the questioner becoming the questioned. In 23:4-5, Job was anxious to bring his case against God: “I would learn what he would answer me,” Job brashly declared, “and understand what he would say to me.” But God turns the tables on him. “I will question you,” God says, “you shall declare to me.” When reading this text in worship it might be helpful to highlight this reversal of pronouns, emphasizing each one as it is read, and thus emphasizing what God does with Job’s questioning, namely turn it right back on him.

Job’s longed for “Q and A” goes very differently than he might have hoped and certainly differently than he expected, as after the fashion of parents and teachers God answers Job’s question with a question, actually a series of them.

Were you there?
God’s first question for Job is, as was Job’s question to his wife (2:10), rhetorical. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” Were you there? Job has no answer, because there is only one possible answer: “Nowhere. No. I was not.” God goes on, pressing the reversal of charges, covering the ins and outs of creation (verses 5-7), the watering of the earth–answering drought with rain (verses 34-5, 37-38), and providing for the cycles of the animal kingdom (verses 39-31).

Of all of this, God makes the case, Job is ignorant. Is it not possible that Job is equally ignorant in his questioning of God? Job’s ignorance of the grand scheme, of the workings of creation from its foundations to its highest heavens to life in between, reveals Job’s theological ignorance–that Job questions God, questions the (in)justice of his own situation, questions God’s apparent absence, is proof positive that Job is out of his depth.

The implication of this reverse-questioning is that while Job may not know or recognize or feel God’s presence, still God is very much at the helm. God is, after all, God; Job is not.

Who’s who? Who has given understanding?
In the whole of Job 38, the word “who” occurs thirteen times. In the selected reading that we deal with here, we get no fewer than nine of those. In the English one occurrence of “who”, miy is missed in verse 36 which might read,
“Who has put wisdom in the inward parts, who has given understanding to the mind? (NRSV has “or has given”)

And this “who’s who?” in God’s questioning of Job provides another rhetorical edge to the reading. “Who’s who?” God seems to ask. “Not you,” is the answer.

But more than this, and in one last connection with last week’s reading from Job, one particularly important use of this “who” is worth noting. God asks Job, “Who has given understanding to the mind?” And therein is Job’s earnest, even aggressive longing to have an answer from God met.

The phrase “who has given” is mey- naton in Hebrew. This phrase, easily missed in English translation, recalls Job’s longing to know where God might be found in 23:3, “Oh, that I knew where I might find him,” or more literally, “Who will give [that] I may know” where to find God. The Hebrew phrase here is mey-yiton, “who will give.” Job’s plea for knowledge of the Almighty is answered, finally, by the only one able to share such knowledge–the Almighty–the one who gives knowledge; knowledge which Job, as he questions God, and seeks for God, lacks.

The Lord’s answer to Job may not, on the surface, seem particularly satisfying. But at the heart of this passage lies what is, finally, the only possible answer to theological ignorance–Job’s or ours–that it is God who is God; God who created the earth, who orders the heavens, who sustains life in their midst, and who, even when it is difficult for us to see or feel, we can trust is there with us and for us.


Commentary on Psalm 91:9-16

Rolf Jacobson

The psalm text for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost is the “promise” section of the famous Eagles’ Wing poem, Psalm 91.

The concrete, particular promises that this ancient liturgy proclaims provides a perfect opportunity for the preacher to reflect on the nature and quality of God’s promises and then to proclaim these promises anew.

Making God One’s “Refuge”
In a section that the lectionary committee opted not to assign, the psalm begins with an invitation for the one (the Hebrew uses masculine, singular forms throughout the psalms, which the NRSV pluralizes to “those” for the sake of gender inclusivity) who lives “in the shelter of the Most High” to “say to the Lord, ‘My refuge (shm) and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust'” (verses 1a, 2).

The psalm’s opening invitation is relevant to the week’s lectionary selection because it sets up the concluding cascade of promises with which the psalm baptizes the believer. Verse 9 of the psalm continues, “Because you have made the Lord your refuge (shm)….” The basis for the promises that ensue is the relationship that the psalm’s liturgy establishes (or reestablishes or reaffirms?) as existing between the worshiper and God–God is the one in whom the psalmist takes refuge.

The key word here is “refuge.” This little word may well slip past today’s casual reader or worshiper, but for the ancient psalmist, the word packed a powerful theological punch. In fact, Jerome Creach has argued that the word “is a filter through which the Psalter in its entirety can be viewed theologically.”1 In Creach’s view, if you want one handle by which to grasp the Psalter’s witness regarding the human-divine relationship, the concept of “refuge” is about the best place to start.

What this term signifies is that the relationship between God and humanity is one of dependence. Believers are those who seek shelter, refuge, and protection in God (and by logical extension, who do not seek shelter, refuge, or protection in the idols that we normally chase after). According to Creach, closely related to the concept of refuge is the concept of trust, confidence, and reliance.2 In other words, to turn to God as refuge is both to seek protection (forgiveness, blessing, hope, etc.) in God–and it is also to trust in God, to have faith that God will come through.

This is, after all, what much of the life of faith comes down to−putting one’s life in God’s hands and struggling to trust in and rely on God.

The Promises of God
But there is another aspect to the relationship–the aspect of promise. The concept of refuge is not simply about our trust in God. More significantly, it is about the promises that God’s makes to us, which is why the psalm culminates with such a soaring section of promise. According to the psalm, “Because you have made the Lord your refuge,” there are promises for you.  Promises such as: “No evil shall befall you” (verse 10). And “he will command his angels…to guard you in all your ways” (verse 11). And “those who love me (better would be: The one who clings to me), I will deliver” (verse 14). And “when they call on me, I will answer them” (verse 15).

Such promises are, to the poet of Psalm 91, too marvelous, and not just in the sense that such promises are undeserved but also in the sense that–if left unqualified–such promises are untrue. As Leslie Weatherhead commented about the blanket assurance of Psalm 91, “men and women, it just is not true.”3  This leads to several reflections on the nature of biblical promises and the task of proclaiming these ancient promises to generations yet unborn.
1. The nature of a promise is that it is a relational commitment from one being to another. For a promise to be true, the one making the promise must have both the ability and the commitment to make good on the promise. If one promises something that one cannot deliver, or has no intention of delivering, then the promise is not and cannot be true. But when one has both the ability and commitment to fulfill a promise, a relational bond is formed.

2. Promises are true only in context. For a promise to be true, the promise cannot be dislocated in a willy-nilly fashion from the promising one’s context. Note the obvious contradiction in the following example: A parent promises a child on a Saturday, “I will take you to the park today.” The following Wednesday, the child says to the parent, “You said, ‘I will take you to the park today.’–so let’s go.” The promise, in the way the child is claiming it, is not true. Indeed, the very fact that the promises of Psalm 91:11 find themselves on the lips of Satan in Luke 4:10, shows rather definitively that promises that may be true in one context can be patently untrue in another context.

3. When a person acts in an intermediary role, speaking a promise on behalf of another being, the intermediary bears the crucial burden of proclaiming only promises that the “sender” has both the ability and commitment to keep. In its original context, the promises of Psalm 91 were most likely spoken by a priestly figure to an individual worshiper (perhaps a king or some other communal leader). In turn, today’s preachers make promises on behalf of God. When preachers proclaim words that God has no intention of keeping, the preacher lies not just for her or himself, but for God. In my own view, for example, if a preacher promises that God will grant “health, wealth, and success” to worshipers who “give their best to God”–I do not believe that God has any intention to keep such promises. Thus, in my view, such promises are worthless.

4. Thus, the task of proclaiming the promises of Psalm 91 (or of any biblical text) is the task of considering the promises in their ancient context and discerning what aspect of those promises can be spoken to believers today. Without doubt, the promises of Psalm 91:9-16 cannot be spoken universally, without qualification. The broader witness of the psalms, of scripture, and of Christian experience teach that God’s disciples bear no special immunity to evil. In fact, Christ’s disciples are called to suffer with the world and to pick up their crosses and tread in Christ’s footsteps. And yet, the psalms, the scriptures, and the church maintain that “the promises of the Lord are promises that are pure” (12:6).

The task of the preacher, then, is to be like the scribe trained for God’s kingdom who pulls out of the biblical treasure what is old and what is new.

1Yahweh as Refuge and the Editing of the Hebrew Psalter (JSOTSupp 217; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996), p. 51 n 6.
2See Creach, The Destiny of the Righteous in the Psalms (St. Louis: Chalice, 2008), pp. 23-25.
3Leslie D. Weatherhead, Key Next Door (Nashville: Abingdon, 1960) 103.

Second Reading

Commentary on Hebrews 5:1-10

Bryan J. Whitfield

“Is she qualified? Can he do the job?”

I ask these questions when the president nominates someone for an office or when I consider someone for a position of service in the church.

The author of Hebrews asks a similar question: is Jesus qualified for the office of high priest? His answer is “yes,” but demonstrating the reasons for his position is difficult because Jesus is not from the tribe of Levi (7:13-14). His lineage appears to disqualify him. In the lectionary passage this week, the writer begins to respond to this problem and shows that Jesus is qualified to function as our high priest.

The writer examines two qualifications in particular–humility and compassion. The structure of the argument is a concentric ring, as the writer treats compassion and humility in general (5:1-4) and reverses the order to argue for Christ’s humility (5:5-6) and compassion (5:7-10).

With respect to humility, the author first notes that high priests do not grasp at this position of honor. Those who arrogantly seize the office disqualify themselves. Aaron and his descendants who followed him as high priest came to their position because God called and appointed them.

Jesus fulfills this qualification as well. He has not presumed to take the office; God selected him. The author quotes two passages of scripture to support this claim. The first reference is to Psalm 2:7, a verse the writer first cited in 1:5. The second quotation is Psalm 110:4: “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek” (5:6). This quotation proves central in the argument.

The author knows Jesus does not fulfill the requirement of physical descent from Levi (7:13-14). How can he then continue to argue that God has appointed him to be high priest? Since any straightforward logic is blocked, the writer uses a chess knight’s move to jump over the objection. Christ, he points out, is not a priest like Levi at all. He is a priest like Melchizedek, who belongs to an older (and therefore better) order of priests.

Later the author will examine the relationship of Jesus and Melchizedek in more detail (7:1-28). Here he quickly turns to explore a second qualification, that of compassion or mercy. The high priest must be able to deal mercifully with the ignorant and the errant since he too is beset by human frailty (5:2). Most high priests must also offer sacrifice for their own sins as well as those of others (5:3).

Despite his exalted status as Son, Jesus too is able to sympathize with human frailty and limitation because of what he experienced in “the days of his flesh” (5:7). The analogy between Jesus and the other high priests does not hold in every respect because Jesus is without sin. Nonetheless, his experience of testing encompasses the full range of human experience so that he is able to sympathize with us (4:15).

In particular, the prayers of Jesus illustrate the depth of his identification with us. Just as the high priest offers “gifts and sacrifices for sins” (5:1), so Jesus sacrificially offers “prayers and supplications” (5:7). But Jesus did not offer these prayers in a serene sanctuary isolated from human need and pain. Instead, Jesus prayed to God in the midst of crisis, fervently and passionately, “with loud cries and tears” (5:7).

These prayers may allude to Jesus’ experience of prayer in Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36-46; Mark 14:32-42; Luke 22:40-46), to his prayer from the cross (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34), or to the role of prayer throughout the entirety of his passion. What matters most is that Jesus stands in solidarity with us in our vulnerability and finitude and, like us, cries out to God for help.

Jesus’ identification with humanity extends beyond prayer to obedience. His experiences in “the days of his flesh” were not a mere gloss on his heavenly status. Rather his obediential suffering–and here the writer has in mind his paschal suffering and death (2:9, 10; 9:26; 13:12)–becomes formative for his vocation as priest. In his own experience, Jesus learns how to respond to and obey God’s call. He does not cling to his prerogatives as Son but becomes obedient.

That obedience qualifies him for his service as priest, for it demonstrates his capacity to sympathize with us in our struggles. Learning obedience, Jesus became “the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him” (5:9). But why should the obedience of Jesus as a human being matter? Why does salvation depend on a high priest who is subject to weakness, who prays in crisis, who learns what the human lot is like? Why does Jesus’ service as high priest require his identification with us?

In a column entitled “The Man and the Birds,” religion editor Louis Cassels recounted the story of a man who refused to attend a Christmas Eve service with his family because he did not believe in the incarnation. He remained at home, where it began to snow. Minutes later, he heard what he thought was someone throwing snowballs against his window. Going outside to investigate, he found a flock of birds trying to fly through his window as they sought refuge from the storm. He thought they might find shelter in his barn, and he made his way there. He opened the doors and turned on the light, but the birds stayed outside. He created a trail of bread crumbs for them to follow into the barn, but that did not work. He tried to shoo them into the barn, but that effort also proved unsuccessful.

“If only I could be a bird myself for a few minutes, perhaps I could lead them to safety.” At that moment, the church bells began to ring, and the man sank to his knees in the snow. “Now I do understand,” he whispered. “Now I see why You had to do it.”