Lectionary Commentaries for October 7, 2012
Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Mark 10:2-16

Karoline Lewis

Let’s be honest. Few, if any, preachers out there will want to write a sermon on this Gospel text.

There’s just no way around its challenges, its heartache, and its ramifications for and ripple effects on all of the relationships involved. And, it’s one of those texts in the Bible that if read out loud, you must preach on it. Divorce has touched too many lives to leave a passage like this, especially when Jesus is talking, just hanging out there for all to hear.

Preaching this text will demand sensitivities to both sides of a complex and painful life reality. I do not mean here to imply, or give excuses for, an easy way out. When divorce is merely convenience, for a whole host of reasons, then the poignancy of this passage will give way to our wills and whims. However, I do want to suggest that to reduce this passage simply to the negativity of divorce will not hold either experiential or theological weight in the lives of our listeners.

I realize that the following reflections chance disagreement and discomfort, but trust that the regular users of Working Preacher and listeners of Sermon Brainwave presume candid commentary when it comes to how a text works on us. In other words, this may not be the kind of “Preaching This Week” you have come to expect. But, this is not one of those texts that you can dance around, explain away, or use to justify behavior. You can only be honest and risk rejection.

So, confessions from a professor of preaching because I don’t see how I can write on this text and compartmentalize my own experience: my parents separated when I was a senior in college and divorced a few years later after 27 years of marriage. There is no “good” time for divorce, for the couple, for the children, or for the extended family and friends. But sometimes, more often than we care to admit, there is a “necessary” time. My parents needed to divorce. It’s that simple. They are better people, parents, and grandparents because they are not together.

I think about the couples hearing this text who find themselves in difficult relationships, but stay together for the sake of the kids. I think about the couples who go ahead with divorce because the children need to know the truth about the complexities of relationships.  Who or what trumps whom or what? The marriage? The children? And who gets to decide?

The truth about divorce lies on both sides, or maybe multiple sides, of its realities.

What Jesus Says and Doesn’t Say
My colleague and co-host of Sermon Brainwave, Matt Skinner, wrote an excellent and thorough commentary on the historical and exegetical issues behind this passage when it last appeared in the lectionary (2009) — a must-read for anyone preaching on this text. For this time around, I want to take a slightly different approach and explore the multiplicity of places it will land with our hearers, especially three years later.

In the end, when Jesus debates the Pharisees, he appeals to a greater law, the law of God’s creation. Can Jesus really do this? It most certainly causes the Pharisees to wonder about their own interpretations of God’s law, but it should also create some squirming in our own sometimes self-righteous shoes. If we are honest with ourselves, we are constantly negotiating human tradition and experience in the context of determining God’s will. The issue of divorce is no different.

We would also do well to remember that the designated passage for this Sunday does not end at 10:12. Instead, we have the brief story in 10:13-16 of people bring children to Jesus, an act the disciples try desperately to curtail. To what extent is the question “to whom does the Kingdom of God belong” (10:14) at the heart of the test posed by the Pharisees? Is the issue at stake less about divorce and symptomatic of the larger subject of vulnerability?

Those persons on the edges of humanity, women and children, and for Mark, any outsider, marginalized by ritual, tradition, ethnicity, race, religion, gender, will find their place in the Kingdom of God. The reality of divorce, of not being married, of not having children, has made all of us outsiders for a time. I wonder if Jesus calling us back to the created order is not simply to hold up an ideal vision of the perfect relationship, but to remind us that to be human is to be in relationship, whatever that relationship might look like. To be marginalized is to be alone.

This is where the Gospel of Mark starts, in the lonely places. This is where Jesus will end up, on the cross. Being alone is not what God wants for us. But this theological claim does not necessarily prescribe paradigmatic relationships. In other words, the theological point in all of this, especially for Mark, is not God stipulating idyllic models of relationship but God saying, “I am here, in my Son, to be in relationship with you. Nothing can separate us any longer.”

Preaching Strategies for a Sensitive Text
A few additional homiletical reflections:

  • A text like this already has taken, and will continue to take on, a life of its own given the current circumstances surrounding and challenges to definitions of marriage. A sermon, whether explicitly or implicitly, needs to acknowledge these assumptions.
  • Jesus says more here about marriage than divorce which elicits even more complexity. Expectations of marriage now are not the same as they were then. The realities of the human condition are not the same either, including life-expectancy, expressions of love, and notions of meaningful, nurturing, and mutually satisfactory relationships. Will a sermon on this text be willing to name and acknowledge such differences?
  • One of the primary theological challenges for this passage is that Jesus appeals to God’s will and not to God’s law. How to determine the distinction between these two is at the heart of the debate when it comes to thinking about marriage in our current context.
  • Be exceedingly aware of your congregation and the multiple ways this text will be heard. There are some persons who have always wanted to be married, yet have not been able to find the “right” person. There are members of your churches who have never wanted to be married and don’t get what the big deal is in the first place. How will they hear this text and your sermon? Will your sermon marginalize them even further? Is there space for their voices in the conversation?
  • There is no doubt that with marriage amendments on ballots in state elections across the country this text will be heard differently than it was three years ago. Will a sermon invite conversation around these issues or close it down? Will it foster an environment of respectful debate and difference or elicit further conflict and divide?

A final thought. A text like this can so easily collapse into our will verses God’s or our sinfulness verses God’s intent. This dynamic is never as easy as one over the other. Name it. Problematize it. This sermon may neither solve anything nor give simple answers to exceedingly complex questions. It may, rather, open the door to reflections on and conversations about faith, real faith, and how faith and experience work together. And, in the theology of Mark, it will claim that despite all of our efforts and attempts to interpret this text into our lives, the final promise is that our God really is here in the midst of it all.

First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 2:18-24

Sara M. Koenig

It could very well be that the familiarity of this passage breeds contempt, or at least, a desire to investigate the other lectionary texts for this Sunday!

Or, perhaps the content seems too narrowly focused to the topic of marriage. With different marriage amendments passing in different states in America, perhaps these conversations feel worn out, or even contentious. Yet though this text has obviously been used to discuss marriage (after all, in the gospel reading for the day Jesus teaches about marriage and divorce), it is about more than that — it is a text which tells all people who God is, and what it means to be God’s people.

God is the first actor in this pericope: the selection begins with God. And God is the evaluator, assessing the created world. Surprisingly — amidst all the goodness of creation in the previous chapter (Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31) — God evaluates as not good that the human should be alone. Though many English translations express this as “it is not good that the man should be alone,” the Hebrew here is not the masculine ʾish, but the gender inclusive ʾadam. Immediately following the statement about the situation, that it is not good, God responds by declaring what God will do to make things right: make for him a helper, as one next to him (2:18). As Phyllis Trible says, “God the evaluator is God the rectifier.”1

The description of the one God will make may be another reason to avoid this text, especially when “helper” is understood as someone inferior, or a lesser partner in an enterprise. Indeed, the meaning of a word follows the way it is used, which is bad news for this text because “helper” is often used colloquially to refer to a less significant participant. Of course, most of us have heard that ʿezer is used in the Hebrew most often to refer to God (e.g. Psalm 121:2), and it connotes assistance from a superior. That this is tempered by “as one next to him,” or kĕnegdô, suggests that the overall image is mutuality and equality. However, we ought to be wary of using this text to prescribe gender roles, and the larger context suggests that the person described is someone who will alleviate the isolation — the aloneness — through connection. 

After God’s pronouncement in 2:18, God forms other creatures from the “ground,” or ʾadamah (2:19). The linguistic parallels between this and 2:7 would lead us to believe that these creatures are corresponding to the human. God brings them to the human to see what he will name them, but amidst all the beasts, all the birds of the air and the living ones of the field (2:20), he cannot find a suitable helper. Certain English translations, like the KJV, translate the last clause of 2:20 passively, “there was not found,” but the Hebrew is active. However, the identity of the subject who cannot find a helper is vague, with some interesting possibilities — if the “he” refers to the human, it gives Adam a lot of agency, freedom and responsibility to find a partner. If it refers to God, it suggests that God is like a scientist who is testing out hypotheses to see what works best, and that God — powerful creator of all — could not find a helper for the human amidst all the other creatures.

However, immediately following, and without any conversation, God causes a “deep sleep” to fall on the human. The word is somewhat unusual, occurring only a handful of times throughout the Old Testament, either divinely sanctioned, or revelatory in some sense (e.g. Genesis 15:12). Perhaps with some humor — or at the very least, without any surprise — the text then tells us that the human slept. God the anesthesiologist then acts as a surgeon, taking one of the human’s ribs and then closing up the flesh. Then God makes, or “builds,” a woman, whom he brings to the man. Thus, God is also an architect, designing the woman from the rib, and then a matchmaker.2

The woman is not yet given a personal name, but is called woman, which both relates to the man (he is the ʾish, she is the ʾishah), and differentiates her from him. The pericope concludes with the formula about “leaving and cleaving,” which again is quite well known. But it is helpful to note that it is the man who is identified with his parents, and the woman stands alone, a contrast with certain wedding practices! Moreover, in this final verse, procreation is not part of the picture. The two become one flesh, but they are not “fruitful” yet, which may suggest that a sexual intimacy is valued in and of itself, and not only as a means to reproduction.  Thus, while this text begins with loneliness, it ends with intimate companionship. And the one who facilitates that companionship is God, acting in various roles and various ways throughout the text to bring about such a change.

1Phyllis Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978, p. 89.
2Ibid., 93.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Job 1:1; 2:1-10

Kathryn M. Schifferdecker

We enter this week into one of the most difficult and theologically sophisticated books of the Old Testament: the book of Job.

Virginia Woolf spoke for many readers of Job when she wrote to a friend: “I read the book of Job last night. I don’t think God comes out of it well.”

What do we do with a story in which God and the Satan enter into a divine wager, using Job as an unwitting pawn in their game? What do we do with a book in which 10 children are killed off in the first chapter, only to be replaced by 10 more in the last chapter (as if children were replaceable)? How do we respond to (or preach) a book in which God answers Job’s anguish by seemingly browbeating him into submission at the end of the story?

God — at least on an initial reading — does not come out of this book well.

And yet, this book, difficult as it is, has spoken to people of faith through the centuries. Job, in the great lament tradition of ancient Israel, wrestles profoundly and honestly with God. Job holds on to God with fierce faith, but he does not let God off the hook for the inexplicable suffering that so often shadows this world. And in the end, God shows up, responding to Job’s lament with a vision of creation radical in its beauty.

This week’s reading introduces us to the figure of Job and to his suffering. The next three weeks’ readings will give the preacher the opportunity to delve into Job’s response to suffering, God’s speeches at the end of the book, and Job’s response to those speeches.1

The first two chapters of Job (our topic for this week) are the part of the story that is probably most familiar to people today. Job is a righteous man who suffers greatly and displays amazing piety. The writer of Job doesn’t dwell on this part of the story, however. The events of Job’s suffering are quickly narrated in order to get to the core of the book: the 35-chapter-long dialogue between Job and his “friends” and the response of God that follows.

We moderns, of course, cannot skim over these first two chapters so quickly. There is much here that calls for our attention: the figure of the Satan, the divine wager, the losses that Job experiences — particularly the loss of his children, Job’s two responses, etc. Let me touch on a few of these matters and suggest some questions and avenues that might prove fruitful for exploring in a sermon.

Parable, not History

First, a word about genre. The prologue to the book of Job (chapters 1-2) “sets up” the meditation on suffering that follows it. “There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job” (1:1a). This prose prologue to the book reads like a folktale. There is no mooring in history (contrast Jeremiah 1:1 and Isaiah 1:1) or place (Uz is not mentioned as a place anywhere else in the Bible). Indeed, the prologue to the book of Job may be evidence of a folktale known in ancient Israel about a righteous man named Job, a man “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (1:1b). Ezekiel certainly assumes that his hearers know the figure of Job when he lists Job, with Noah and Daniel, as a paragon of righteousness (see Ezekiel 14:14-20).

The book of Job, in other words, should be read as a parable, not history. No one knows when the book was composed, but it is obviously responding to a crisis of some sort (perhaps the Babylonian Exile). What does one say about God and faith in the midst of undeserved and extreme suffering? The writer of Job, most scholars agree, takes the folktale of Job and uses it as the framework for addressing that question.

The Satan

Wherever the word “Satan” appears in the text of Job, the definite article is attached to it in Hebrew. In other words, “Satan” is not so much a name as a title: the Satan. To “satan” in Hebrew is to accuse, to indict, or to be hostile towards. The Satan in Job, though ominous, is not the full-fledged demonic figure that he becomes in the New Testament and in other later Jewish writings.

In Job, he is part of the heavenly court, given the task of investigating what human beings are up to on the earth (1:6-7). And he does his job: When God draws his attention to Job, proud of Job’s piety, the Satan accuses Job of self-interest. “Does Job fear God for nothing? Have you not put a fence around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands,” says the Satan (1:9-10). Take it all away, and Job will curse God, or so the Accuser claims.

The Wager

God does not let the Accuser’s challenge go unanswered. “Very well, all that he has is in your power; only do not stretch out your hand against him!” (1:12).

Now, the wager between God and the Satan is difficult to “square” with what we know of God in the rest of Scripture. Nowhere else does God use human beings as pawns in a divine chess match. Again, this is a parable, not history. Still, read in the most sympathetic light, the divine wager could be understood as a radical act of trust on God’s part. God trusts Job to prove the Satan wrong.

The whole of Scripture testifies to God’s desire to be in relationship with the world and particularly with human beings. But we fail again and again to love God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our might (Deuteronomy 6:5).

Job fulfills that command; he is a person of perfect integrity and faith. But the Satan raises doubts about his motives: Does even the most faithful person serve God only because of what he (or she) gets out of it? Is it possible to love God for who God is, and not for hope of reward? Is it possible, in other words, for the relationship between God and humanity to be an authentic relationship? God is staking a lot on Job’s response.

Job’s Responses

Job responds to his suffering twice in the prologue. The first time, after he’s lost his wealth and his children, he frames his suffering in the images of birth and death: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (1:21). After he is afflicted by boils, and challenged by his wife to “Curse God and die,” Job responds somewhat more ambivalently, but still with piety: “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God and not receive the bad?” (2:10).2

How shall we understand these responses to suffering? These statements of Job can be (and have been) read in different ways. Some commentators would dismiss them as overly pious and useless for pastoral ministry. Others hold them up as the sole examples of Job’s faith and patience, ignoring the 35 chapters of radical anger and despair that follow.

To those who would dismiss these responses as overly pious, it must be said that they are faithful. Job responds to the loss of all he holds dear by praising the One who gave him those gifts. Stripped of all that gave his life meaning, Job clings to the God who gave him life in the first place.

To those who would hold up these responses as the only proper way to respond to suffering, it must be said that these statements are not Job’s last word, and that what follows them — Job’s long and anguished lament — is also faithful. Praise and lament are two sides of the same coin. In both praise and lament, we cling to God, even when we don’t understand God. In both praise and lament, we believe that our lives are inextricably bound up with God’s life. In both praise and lament, we acknowledge that God is God and we are not.

Lament will be the focus of next week’s reading. For this week, perhaps it is enough to introduce the figure of Job and the book that tells his story, knowing that our hearers will be all-too-familiar with the experience of suffering it describes and the questions it raises. Perhaps it is enough to sit with Job on the ash heap for a while, as his erstwhile friends do for a time in silence (2:13), mourning for what is lost and waiting for what will be.

1For an alternative 6-week series of texts for preaching on Job, see my notes in the Narrative Lectionary section of this website https://www.workingpreacher.org/narrative_lectionary.aspx?lect_date=6/3/2012.

2Job’s wife has come in for harsh criticism by commentators through the centuries, but in recent years has received more sympathetic treatment. Though I don’t have time to do her justice, it must be noted that she shares Job’s suffering. They are her children as well as his. William Blake, in his “Illustrations of the Book of Job,” is one who treats Job’s wife sympathetically. Blake depicts her almost always by Job’s side, sharing his suffering as well as his revelation from God. Blake’s illustrations can be seen at http://www.blakearchive.org/exist/blake/archive/work.xq?workid=bb421.


Commentary on Psalm 8

Rolf Jacobson

James Limburg has described Psalm 8 as “a psalm for stargazers”1 and indeed, it is that. But even more, this is a psalm for soul searchers.

The psalm paints the picture of a soul searcher standing alone at night, staring up at the vast expanse of the universe and overcome by a haunting question. The NRSV, with its concern for inclusive language for humanity, pluralizes the singular nouns “a human being” and “a mortal,” rendering this translation: “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” But this well-intentioned translation obscures the personal, existential crisis latent in the psalms question: “What is one human being, that you should remember him? What is a single mortal, that you should care for her?”

That is the question at the heart of this psalm. And the answer that the psalm offers is as surprising and relevant today as it was two-and-a-half millennia ago.

The psalm is a chiasm constructed around the existential question in verse 4:
verse 1a Praise to God in all the earth
verses 1b-3 God’s grandeur
verse 4 The question
verses 5-8 Humanity’s Vocation
verse 9 Praise to God in all the earth

The Inclusio — “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” (verses 1b and 9)
Most hymns begin with a call to praise addressed to congregation. Psalm 8 begins — and ends — differently: with a word of praise addressed directly to God. When a psalm begins and ends with the same phrase (an inclusion), there is a dual function. First, it brings a sense of closure to the poem. Second, and more importantly, the phrase sounds just a little different when the audience hears it the second time. It sounds different the second time because the audience has heard the body of the poem in between. In the case of Psalm 8, which is replete with references to creation (the heavens, the moon and the stars, the field, the sea, etc.), the latter part of the phrase “how majestic is your name in all the earth” will sound especially different when it is read for the second time.

The Context: God’s Glory in Creation
Many people have had something along the lines of an ecstatic experience with nature at some point during their lives. A experience of a sunset, or a rainbow, or the northern lights, to which the natural response is simply, “O my!” or “Glory!” (as was the case with the author of Psalm 29). Gerard Manley Hopkins, in his sonnet “God’s Grandeur,” meditates on the experience of a sunrise and his sense of the constant renewal of creation:

. . . nature is never spent; 
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;   
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent 
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.2

The psalm has had a similar, ecstatic moment. Alone and outside at night, rendered seemingly insignificant by the vast expanse of heaven: “You have set your glory above the heavens!”

The text of the psalm is corrupt at verse 2. More than a few attempts have been made at interpreting the strange phrase, “out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes.” What could this mean? Since the rest of the psalm is about creation, the most appealing answer is that this is a poetic reference to the ancient Israelite idea that in the very act of creating God was overcoming the powers of chaos (the enemy and the avenger). This motif is present throughout the Old Testament (see, for example, Psalm 74). Because of the opaqueness of the verse, it is not worth getting hung up on. Better to move on to the center of the psalm.

The Center: A Soul-Searching Question
At the center of the psalm — the axis around which the body of the psalm orbits — comes a soul-searching question. The psalmist wonders why on earth the Creator of such a vast universe would ever care for or care about one, little, solitary soul.

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
The moon and the stars that you have established;
What is a human being that you would remember him?
What is a mortal that you would care for her? (My translation3)

The use of the Hebrew particle mah (“what”) rather than the expected particle mi (“who?”) lends the question a derisive, disdainful edge. Rather than ask “who am I?” the psalmist wonders, “What is this thing called a human?”

The answer, when it comes in the next stanza, is surprising.

The Answer: Human Vocation
The answer comes: Human beings are not insignificant, they are but “a little lower than God.” In fact, God has “crowned them with glory and honor.” Indeed, God has given human beings meaningful work in the economy of creation. They have been given “dominion over the work of your hands.”

The concept here is that God so values the human beings in the “orders of creation,” that God has called human beings to share in God’s creative work by taking responsibility to care for the rest of creation. What more meaningful way is there to communicate that someone matters than to tell them, “You matter because what you do in life matters.” Here, God has called human beings to participate in God’s work of ordering, shaping, stewarding, and caring for life on the planet earth.

The term “given them dominion” (a hiphil participle from the root mashal, meaning “to rule”) is a word borrowed from the semantic field of royalty. Kings are given dominion. And as the laws concerning the limits of royal power in Deuteronomy 17:14-20 indicate, dominion is entrusted to the king as a sacred responsibility to be stewarded wisely, not as a privilege to be exploited for personal gain.

Just as Israel’s king was not to exalt “himself above other members of the community” (Deuteronomy 17:20), human beings are not to exploit creation — destroying, denuding, and deforesting — but we are to be faithful stewards. Creation does not belong to us, but to God (see Psalm 24:1). We are to care for it as a sacred trust given to us by the Creator. The glory that God has imbued into creation (verse 1c) is a glory that God has also bestowed on God’s human servants: “you have . . . crowned them with glory and honor” (verse 5).

The poetry of the psalm plays wonderfully with bodily imagery — “the work of your fingers,” “the work of your hands,” “crowned them,” “all things under their feet.” Similarly, the poem describes the animal kingdom in relationship to human community. Humanity has care for “sheep and oxen” (domesticated animals), “beasts of the field” (wild animals), “birds of the air” (still wilder animals), and “fish of the sea” (the part of creation furthest from the center of human life.

God may hold the whole world in God’s hands, but God has entrusted everything under our feet to our care.

We matter. God has given us meaningful work.

1James Limburg, Psalms (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2000), 24.
2See Gerard Manly Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur,” at Bartleby.com, www.bartleby.com/122/7.html/.
3I substitute “her” for the more literal “him” in the final phrase of verse 4–in ancient Israel the 3ms pronoun was used as the gender-neutral common pronoun. Since this is not the case in English today, I employ poetic license, as it were, in the translation.

Second Reading

Commentary on Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12

Scott Shauf

Hebrews 1:1-4 introduces a contrast that is the central theme throughout Hebrews: the climactic revelation of God in Christ, surpassing every way that God spoke and worked prior to Christ’s coming.

The opening affirmation in verse 1 that God spoke through the prophets is important.

While Hebrews as a whole is written to demonstrate Christ’s superiority to the old covenant, the reality and truth of the old covenant prior to Christ’s coming is a foundational assumption. Thus the old-new contrast presented in Hebrews is not between bad and good but between good and superlative. It was no easy thing for God’s revelation in Christ to surpass the old ways — but it is wonderful that it does!

Verses 2-4 present a series of assertions about Christ that establish this surpassing quality. Each describes aspects of Christ’s status as God’s Son, distinguishing Christ from the prophets. NRSV readers may be surprised that Christ is referred to as “a” Son of God in verse 2, rather than “the” Son (most other translations add “his,” though there is no such word in the Greek), but the point the verse makes is about the superiority of sonship to being a prophet as a mode of revelation; it is not making a direct trinitarian assertion (even if we suggest that the verse ultimately does point to the idea of the Trinity).

However valuable and important the prophets were as spokespersons for God, we would not claim that any was “heir of all things” or involved in the act of creation (verse 2). These two points together establish Christ’s presence at the beginning and the end, or as Revelation puts it, the Alpha and Omega (Revelation 22:13). Verse 3 adds Christ’s role between the two end points, asserting that “Christ sustains all things by his powerful word.” The three claims combine to make a powerful statement about the Son’s preeminent role and activity in creation throughout time.

Such a claim of sweeping preeminence makes no sense apart from an understanding of the Son’s relationship to God, and verse 3 thus supplies this understanding. The Son is “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.” Such emphasis on the unity of Christ and God is also seen in Colossians 1:16-20 and in the sublime phrase of 2 Corinthians 4:6, “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

Meditation on the full meaning of such phrases is a worthy occupation; here we simply note that this close, close relationship between Christ and God is a distinguishing feature of Christ’s identity and, for the argument of Hebrews, an important distinction between Christ as the agent of God’s revelation and anything that came before. The language is borrowed from Jewish traditions about Wisdom (see Proverbs 8:27-31 and the apocryphal Wisdom 7:25-26).

The latter part of verse 3 adds that Christ “made purification for sins” and “sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.” To the previous claims focusing on who Christ is, these add the chief elements for Hebrews of what Christ did. The notion of Christ having provided purification for sins is not elaborated on in these early chapters of Hebrews, but it is a major point of chapters 5-10.

Christ’s exalted status at God’s right hand ties back into the first claim in verse 2 that he is the “heir of all things.” It is an image from Psalm 110:1, a psalm treated throughout Hebrews and the New Testament broadly as a messianic prophecy. It also provides the main basis for the claim here in verse 4 that Christ is superior to the angels — the angels no more sitting at God’s right hand than the prophets were the imprint of God’s being.

The comparison to angels in verse 4 becomes the link to the second part of the lectionary text, 2:5-12. In fact, the rest of chapter one is occupied with demonstrating Christ’s superiority to angels. This topic is continued in 2:5, which points out that God “did not subject the coming world…to angels.” The obvious tacit implication here is that Christ is the one to whom the coming world is subjected. This idea picks up again on Christ being the “heir of all things” from 1:2 and being seated at God’s right hand from 1:3. In the new world, the coming kingdom of God, Christ will be over all.

The rest of chapter 2 stems from what would have been to the original audience of Hebrews a natural question at this point: How can Christ be superior to angels when he was a human being? Angels live in the presence of God and are naturally superior to humans. How can Christ’s humanity be reconciled with this superior status? The basic answer provided by Hebrews is that in order for Christ to atone for the sins of humans, he had to share in their humanity. Therefore Christ’s humanity does not detract from his superiority.

Hebrews 2:6b-8a quotes Psalm 8, and the first part of the quote is translated in the RSV as, “What is man that thou art mindful of him, or the son of man, that thou carest for him? Thou didst make him for a little while lower than the angels”; most other English translations translate similarly. With this translation, the interpretation of the psalm seen provided in Hebrews is that Jesus, the Son of Man referred to in the psalm, was temporarily made lower than the angels when he became human in fulfillment of this psalm’s prophecy. He had to become human, as the rest of chapter 2 explains, in order to save humankind.

The NRSV, however, provides a different interpretation. “Son of man” is seen in Hebrews to have the same meaning as in the original Hebrew context of the psalm, i.e. simply a poetic reference to human beings. The contrast in 2:6-8 is therefore not between Jesus and angels but between humans and angels. Jesus and humans are then related to each other in verses 9c-12 — Jesus’ own exaltation resulted in the exaltation of humans. The NRSV’s reading is possible, but most interpreters today believe the RSV understanding is the correct one (the NRSV does allow for the RSV reading in footnotes). It fits better with the overall question of verse 2 — why was Jesus made human?

Verses 10-12 focus the question of Jesus’ humanity specifically on his suffering. As the “pioneer” (or perhaps “author”; Gk arch¬¬ēgos) of human salvation, it was necessary for Jesus to have the full human experience (see 2:17), including death. Therefore Jesus is even said to be “made perfect” through his suffering.

Christians today often stumble over the idea of Jesus having to be made perfect, but the claim here is merely about Jesus’ being fitted to his task. Perfection here is not about sin or morals or anything else regarding his character — it is about Jesus perfectly fulfilling his role in salvation, a role which requires him to enter the full human experience.

In that sense his experience of suffering and death truly was a matter of achieving perfection. Verses 11-12 then affirm Jesus’ solidarity with humankind: He calls us his brothers and sisters. The affirmation points both to God’s love for us in saving us and to our sharing in Jesus’ preeminence in the coming kingdom.