Lectionary Commentaries for October 28, 2012
Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Mark 10:46-52

Karl Jacobson

There is an old Saturday Night Live sketch from back in the day in which Chris Farley plays the tropical storm system called “El Niño” as if he were an all-star wrestler.

At the end of the bit he says, “For those of you who don’t habla español, El Niño is Spanish for … the Niño”. 1 The Gospel reading for this week begins in much the same way.

After teaching for the third time what it means that Jesus is the Messiah — that he must go to Jerusalem, be handed over to the authorities, be condemned to death, mocked, beaten and killed, to rise three days later (Mark 10:32-34) — and chastising the disciples for arguing about who is the greatest (they should know, after all, that Ali is the greatest), Jesus is on the way to Jericho with the disciples. And there we are introduced to a blind beggar. His name, for me at least, is one of the great strange moments in the Gospel of Mark:

“They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside.”

What is so striking, and frankly funny, about this is the repetition in the “naming” of the blind man. Bartimaeus, which is sometimes seen as his given name, is actually the man’s “last name.” Bartimaeus is an Aramaic phrase: bar timaeus, where “bar” means “son.” The astute among you will have noticed that if you take away the “bar,” what have you got? Timaeus. The Greek phrase here is ho huiòs Timaíou Bartimaîos, literally “the son of Timaeus, Son of Timaeus.” So for those of you who don’t speak Aramaic, what Mark is telling us is that Bartimaeus is Aramaic for “Son of Timaeus.”

When Jesus Speaks Aramaic
This is not intended, of course, as a joke or to be taken as funny. And it is not just a strange episode in the text. The use of Aramaic phrases that are then explained or translated is a relatively common feature of the Gospel of Mark. Here are a few of the other examples:

  • When Jesus raises a little girl from the dead he says to her, “talitha cum,” which is Aramaic for “little girl, get up” (Mark 5:41)
  • When he heals a deaf and mute man he says, “ephphatha,” which is Aramaic for “open up” (Mark 7:34).
  • And when Jesus calls out to God from the agony of the cross he says, “Eloi Eloi, lema sabachtani?” which is the Aramaic of Psalm 22:1, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (The Hebrew of that verse, ´ëlî ´ëlî lämâ `ázabTäºnî, shows us the slight difference in pronunciation, which may explain why the crowds around the cross don’t understand what is happening.)

So what does all of this mean, and why should we care? In the case of Son of Timaeus Son of Timaeus, probably not too much; the name itself is not terribly revealing or important. But in the larger view the explanation of things that Jesus says in a language that the early reader of Mark’s Gospel may not have recognized (and which the modern pew-sitter will almost certainly not get at all) always serves a particular purpose in the Gospel. And the story of Blind Bartimaeus may serve us as an allegory of sorts for this pattern.

The words that Jesus speaks when he heals, and when he cries out to God, need to be made clear to us. His words that give life, and hearing, and sight, serve in Mark’s Gospel to emphasize, in a way, the “otherness” of Jesus, his identity as God’s Messiah (the “Son of David” to whom Bartimaeus cries out) and his power to transform the lives of broken or faithless people. The words he uses — talitha cum, ephphatha, eloi eloi — may need to be explained, but they are spoken for us, to us, and we can learn to understand them.

Notice that Jesus heals the Son of Timaeus with a word. When he raises the little girl, he touches her first, taking her by the hand. When he heals the deaf and mute man he first puts his fingers in his ears and touches his tongue. Not here. For the blind man of Jericho, Jesus simply speaks the word — or the Word — “your faith has made you well,” and he is made well, and can see. It may call to mind the line from Psalm 94:9: “He who planted the ear, does he not hear? He who formed the eye, does he not see?” We might change this and ask the question, “God who formed the eye, can he not make it see?” The power of Jesus’ word to heal is the same power of the word of God to create.

Your faith has made you well
This phrase by which Jesus opens the blind man’s eyes will be familiar. “Your faith has made you well” is most often associated with the synoptic story of the woman who has been suffering from a hemorrhage (cf. Matthew 9:22; Mark 4:34; Luke 8:48). It also appears in Luke 17:19 when Jesus cleanses ten lepers, and one in particular, who returns to thank him, hears these same words. This is, I think, an important promise that this story suggests for preaching.

Faith can make us well. This is not magic, or superstition, or some simple fix of course. It seems clear, to me at least, that when Jesus says, “Your faith has made you well” he is not saying that these people somehow believed their way into wellness. Rather he is pronouncing their wellness, declaring it, making it happen for them. It is Jesus who heals, and faith that receives that healing. And so it is, or can be, for those who hear this story and this good news. Faith can make us well. Faith can open our ears, unstop our ears — even raise us from death. This is the power of the promise wherein faith and forgiveness, faith and wellness, meet; this is the power of Jesus’ word for salvation. And it is to this meeting of faith and fullness of life that we ought to be preaching.

1 http://youtu.be/IvmeUStFvz8

First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 31:7-9

Amy Erickson

The two visions of hope and homecoming from Jeremiah featured by the lectionary (Jeremiah 31:7-9 and 31:31-34) this week might best be characterized as anomalous when read in the context of the book as a whole.

Not that Jeremiah is a hopeless book… Indeed some scholars have argued that the images of destruction and violence in Jeremiah serve to organize Judah’s traumatic experience of chaos in the wake of the destruction of Jerusalem and exile to Babylon. In the sense that it functions as a map for survival, the book is a radical articulation of hope.

But the “Book of Comfort,” three chapters at the center of the book (chapters 30-33), renders hope in ways that are likely more recognizable to many contemporary communities. Even though these images of homecoming, restoration, and renewed relationships are stunning in their own right, to read them apart from the context of the entire book lessens their impact and perhaps even runs the risk of demeaning the grace they offer. If we keep the context of the whole book before us, however, we can appreciate that the hope we encounter in 30-33 is not only hard-won but also more radical — and at the same time more tentative — than we may have imagined.

Further, the vision of restoration is linked inextricably to the memories of disaster and destruction. Kathleen O’Connor’s work highlights the way Jeremiah refuses to deny or gloss over the community’s experiences of deep loss and suffering.1 In fact, the vision of the restoration retains much the language of pain and divine judgment. In the great company, there is lameness and blindness (cf. Jeremiah 5:21), weeping (Jeremiah 3:21), (not) stumbling (Jeremiah 6:21) — all language that Jeremiah has used to describe the people’s suffering and God’s punishment.

Further, the affirmation that God will bring the people “from the land of the north” and “from the farthest part of the east” (31:8) recalls the enemy God raised from those regions to ride into battle against daughter Zion (6:22). The woman in labor, who embodied the community’s experience of chaos and anguish (see 6:24), still labors, but now she stands as a tentative assurance of new life. Even the language of gathering ([I am going to] “gather them”, verse 8) recalls Jeremiah’s call for the people to “gather” together in the fortified cities, fleeing for safety, from the foe from the north (Jeremiah 4:5-6).

In 31:7, memories of devastation and war resonate in the people’s self- identification as “the remnant of Israel”, suggesting that they see themselves as survivors. Perhaps trauma also explains the awkward fit between the call to sing and praise (verse 7a) and the plea to “save” (in verse 7b). The expected response to a call to praise is stymied inexplicably with a petition: “Save, O YHWH, your people.”

Scholars have offered numerous theories to explain the peculiar order, but perhaps the strangeness of the structure reflects the community’s habit of lamenting and petitioning. “Save” erupts as a knee-jerk reaction rooted in generations of suffering and the near-constant experience of alienation from and persecution at the hand of God.

Throughout the Book of Comfort, God repeatedly and even paradoxically both affirms and discourages the people’s weeping (see Jeremiah 30:15-16). When I first read verse 9 (“with weeping they will come”), I assumed that the “great company” was weeping tears of joy. Maybe they are; but on further reflection, I wonder if they are crying for what and whom they have lost. Louis Stulman and Hyun Chul Paul Kim observe that the Book of Comfort “unites expressions of hope with suffering and marginality… God promises to redeem Israel from many troubles; but this redemption throbs with pain.”2

This is a gathering of survivors, happy merely not to stumble… and eventually to enjoy good food and wine and company, to laugh and dance (31:12-13). Newly restored, the people relish ordinary life. But at the same time, they remember the sons and daughters, and fathers and mothers, who did not survive. They will never forget the trauma of their past, but they will enjoy a certain peace. And that will be enough.

As the great company limps back in to the land consoled and led by God (31:9) — the same God who punished them with disturbing zeal — the weakness and brokenness of the past and present has not been not be eradicated. The memory of God as holy terror lives in their bones. Straight into the heart of that fear, Jeremiah injects a little beauty and tentative moments of consolation. While he is interested in justifying God’s punitive actions against Judah, he resists papering over God’s role in the people’s misery.

Simultaneously, the prophet revalues the community’s image of itself as vulnerable. In the stories of Israel’s exodus from Egypt, the people’s status as slaves is used as a touchstone for justice. Remembering their identity as former slaves and aliens in Egypt informs commands to care for those at the margins (i.e. Exodus 22:21, “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt”). As in Exodus, the people whose restoration Jeremiah imagines are a people who embody an inversion of cultural norms.

In Jeremiah’s restored community, however, there will be no need for Deuteronomy’s exhortation to care for the widow and the orphan. The lame and the broken will no longer be relegated to the edges of society, left to glean the leftovers. Instead in this new society, they — the blind and the lame, and the pregnant and laboring women — will no longer live on the periphery.

They will be revered as — and at — the heart of the community. Images like this one encourage Israel to view its marginality as the core of its communal identity. Instead of decrying and lamenting their marginal status (as an exiled people in Babylon or as a people stifled under Persian rule), their vulnerability should, according to Jeremiah, now define them.

God’s act of gathering the people back to the land restores them to blessing but not necessarily to power, at least in a traditional sense. Nationalism, military might, and full treasuries — even temple glories — are not objects of hope for Jeremiah. Instead Jeremiah sees hope in the faces of the broken and the forgotten. There he finds the essence of Israelite identity… and the basis for his particular image of renewal.

1Kathleen M. O’Connor, Jeremiah: Pain and Promise (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011).
2 Louis Stulman and Hyun Chul Paul Kim, “You Are My People”: An Introduction to Prophetic Literature (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2010), 135

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Job 42:1-6, 10-17

Kathryn M. Schifferdecker

We have walked with Job the last few weeks through the book that bears his name. This week we read the final chapter of the book and find out what becomes of Job in the end.

This epilogue to the book of Job is, for many readers, hard to accept. The whole book up to this point has been (apparently) an argument against the doctrine of retributive justice; that is, the idea that God always rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked. Now, at the end of the book, that belief seems to be upheld: Job is rewarded for his piety (or at least reimbursed for his losses). The friends seem to have been right all along.

On top of that, we moderns are understandably troubled by the notion that God replaces Job’s ten dead children with ten new children at the end of the book, as if children were replaceable.

The epilogue to the book of Job can be (and has been) read as a facile ending to an otherwise profound book. It can be (and has been) read as a kind of modern absurdist ending that calls into question everything that has preceded it. But these kinds of readings do justice neither to the details of the epilogue nor to its relationship to the rest of the book. And, frankly, these readings don’t “preach.”

So, let’s sketch a reading of the epilogue that takes into consideration its relationship with the rest of the book, a reading that will “preach.” I’ll spend time at three particular points in the epilogue, knowing that much more could be said about each:

Job’s Response
Job responds to the divine speeches by acknowledging that he has neither God’s power nor God’s wisdom. “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” (42:3). He had accused God of creating a world of chaos, and God responded by showing Job the world as it really is: a place of order, but also of freedom and beauty, not centered on human beings, full of wild creatures Job never imagined in his former life.

And somehow, through that vision of creation, Job’s fierce hope is fulfilled. Earlier, in the throes of despair, Job had proclaimed,

“I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another” (19:25-27). 

Now, after the divine speeches, Job says to God, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you” (42:5).

Somehow, through the grand vision of God’s creation, Job’s profound desire to be in the presence of God has been fulfilled. He has seen God. And that vision moves him out of despair into life again.

One more note about Job’s response: The last verse is notoriously difficult to translate. The NRSV reads, “Therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (42:6). There are a number of problems with this translation. Without getting into all the details of the Hebrew, suffice it to say that a better translation (in my opinion) is this, from the Tanakh: “Therefore, I recant and relent, being but dust and ashes” (42:6).1

Job does not abjectly repent on his ash heap, browbeaten into submission. Instead, he acknowledges that he spoke of things he did not understand. He recants, and he realizes anew his place in the world, a mortal human being. But at the same time, this creature of “dust and ashes” (like Abraham before him) is privileged to stand in the presence of God himself: “Now my eye sees you.”2

Job is not the center of the universe. He knows that now. But he has a place; he has a role to play, and he takes up that role again in the verses that follow.

The “Friends” Reprimanded
The lectionary skips verses 7-9, which tell the story of God’s response to the “friends.” It is worth reading this passage, though, as it makes an important point:

“After the LORD had spoken these words to Job, the LORD said to Eliphaz the Temanite: ‘My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. Now therefore take seven bulls and seven rams, and go to my servant Job, and offer up for yourselves a burnt offering; and my servant Job shall pray for you, for I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has done'” (42:7-8).

All English translations of these verses translate God’s charge along these lines: “You have not spoken about me what is right.” But note that the Hebrew can also be translated, “You have not spoken to me rightly, as has my servant Job.”

This latter translation points out what was true all along. For all their speaking about God, the “friends” never once in the book speak to God; they never once pray for their suffering friend. Job, on the other hand, moves from speaking only about God to speaking more and more directly to God.

The friends theologize; Job prays.

The friends try to defend God; Job laments. He holds on to God with one hand and shakes his fist at God with the other. He stays in relationship with God, addressing God directly even from the depths of despair; and for this, he is commended by God in the end.

And then Job the sufferer becomes Job the mediator. God commands his three companions to offer sacrifices. And Job, still presumably covered with boils, offers prayers on their behalf. He for whom they never prayed now prays for them; and God accepts the prayer of his suffering servant, Job. We don’t have the words of the prayer, but perhaps it begins, “Father, forgive them…”

The Restoration of Job3
God restores Job’s fortunes, giving him twice as much wealth as before, and ten more children, and it seems to many readers a cheap ending to the book. But note the details of this restoration: Job’s three daughters are the most beautiful women in the land, and Job gives them an inheritance along with their brothers, an unheard-of act in the ancient Near East. He also gives them unusually sensual names: Dove (Jemimah), Cinnamon (Keziah) and Rouge-Pot (Keren-happuch).

It seems that Job has learned to govern his world as God does. As Ellen Davis argues, the cautious patriarch of the prologue who offered “preemptive sacrifices” for his children has become a parent after God’s own heart. He gives his children the same freedom that God gives God’s creation, and, like God, he delights in their freedom and in their beauty.4

Davis writes, “The great question that God’s speech out of the whirlwind poses for Job and every other person of integrity is this: Can you love what you do not control?”5 It is a question worth pondering. Can you love what you do not control: this wild and beautiful creation, its wild and beautiful Creator, your own children?

As for the question of whether ten new children can replace those lost, Davis argues that it is useless to focus on how much it costs God to restore Job’s fortunes. (It obviously costs God nothing.) “The real question is how much it costs Job to become a father again.”6 Like a Holocaust survivor whose greatest act of courage is to bear children after the cataclysm, Job chooses against all odds to live again. Job (and his wife) choose to bear children into a world full of heart-rending beauty and heart-breaking pain. Job chooses to love again, even when he knows the cost of such love.

Living again after unspeakable pain is a kind of resurrection. The book of Job does not espouse an explicit belief in resurrection.7 Nevertheless, the trajectory of the whole book participates in that profound biblical movement from death to life. It is not surprising, therefore, that the translators of the Septuagint add this verse to the book of Job: “And Job died, old and full of days. And it is written that he will rise again with those whom the Lord raises up.

And perhaps that is an appropriate place to leave this story of Job, waiting with God’s other servants for the world to come. This complex work, the book of Job, plumbs the depths of despair and comes out on the other side into life again. In this movement, it testifies not only to the reality of inexplicable suffering but also to the possibility of new life — life lived out in relationship with the God of Israel, the God of resurrection, who, as both synagogue and church proclaim, is faithful even until death, and beyond.

1 The Tanakh (Jewish Publication Society, 1985). For a more detailed discussion of the translation issues in Job 42:6, see J. Gerald Janzen, Job (Louisville: John Knox, 1985), 254-259.
2 Note that the phrase “dust and ashes” is used only three times in the Bible. This verse seems to deliberately echo another instance of human chutzpah, when Abraham, who is “dust and ashes,” dares to argue with God (Genesis 18:27).
3 I am indebted for much of the following interpretation to Ellen F. Davis, particularly her chapter, “The Sufferer’s Wisdom,” in her book Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament (Cambridge, MA: Cowley, 2001), 121-143.
4 Ibid., 142-143.
5 Ibid., 140.
6 Ibid., 142.
7 See 14:7-12, though 19:25-27 might indicate a nascent concept of resurrection.


Commentary on Psalm 126

W. Dennis Tucker, Jr.

[Adapted from commentary posted for Third Sunday of Advent, Dec. 11, 2011]

In this psalm, the notion of reversal occupies a central place, inviting the reader to recognize that restoration by God does more than simply restore what was lost. The kind of divine restoration envisioned in this psalm means much more than compensation.

[Adapted from commentary posted for Third Sunday of Advent, Dec. 11, 2011]

In this psalm, the notion of reversal occupies a central place, inviting the reader to recognize that restoration by God does more than simply restore what was lost. The kind of divine restoration envisioned in this psalm means much more than compensation.

[Adapted from commentary posted for Third Sunday of Advent, Dec. 11, 2011]

In this psalm, the notion of reversal occupies a central place, inviting the reader to recognize that restoration by God does more than simply restore what was lost. The kind of divine restoration envisioned in this psalm means much more than compensation.

Instead, such restoration suggests a radical reversal of reality, both past and yet to come. And strikingly, scenes of celebration and joy accompany each reversal of reality.

The opening verse recalls what might have been considered the most significant reversal of reality in the mind of the community. The psalmist remembers the time “when the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion.” As in Psalm 85, the psalmist uses the phrase “restore the fortunes” to refer to the return from exile. Following the announcement of this great reversal, the psalmist recalls the effects it had upon the faithful:

“We were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
And our tongue with shouts of joy.”

The mourning and grief that suppressed the singing of the songs of Zion while in a foreign land (cf. Psalm 137) has been radically reversed. Mourning has given way to laughter and joy. And like Joel 3, at the coming of God, the people will see a new day where all people will become dreamers.

The second reversal relates to the nations. In other psalms, the nations frequently mock and ridicule the people of God. For example, in Psalm 79, following the destruction of Jerusalem, the nations mockingly inquire, “Where is their God?” The implication, of course, is that the God of Israel is impotent at best and utterly disinterested at worst.  Such challenges by the nations are meant to suggest the apparent powerless of this God. 

Yet with the work of God comes a radical reversal. The psalmist suggests that the mouths that once ridiculed them at the beginning of the exile were the same mouths now uttering praise to Israel’s God. The same nations that believed God was impotent are the ones that confessed that “the Lord has done great things” for Israel.

This confession of the nations (verse 2a) became the confession of Israel as they too recognized the great work of God.  Not only did the community recognize this great work, as did the nations, they also celebrated the truth about this God who intervenes and works on their behalf. Such knowledge leads the people to great rejoicing (verse 3b). 

Similar to Psalm 85, the psalmist shifts from recounting the past and instead longs for a similar work of God in the world. While the precise historical circumstance of the psalmist cannot be known, most scholars suggest a post-exilic setting for the psalm. The joy and laughter that followed their return home from Babylon was now in the past. The community is left hoping that once again the Lord will do a “great thing for us.” 

Drawing from the language of verse 1, the psalmist pleads in verse 4 for God “to restore our fortunes.” Rather than explaining what that coming restoration would look like, the psalmist opts for a simile. God’s work to restore his people is compared to a dry wadi in the Negeb. For months on end, the wadi remains a wasteland where survival of any living thing remains in doubt.

But in a moment, as the sky opens up and the torrents of rain begin, the wadi turns from a life depriving site to a life sustaining source. That is what restoration looks like. That is what the community longs for — to know the great works of God and to relish in the full, life-giving power that will come with this reversal.

The final two verses in the psalm employ agricultural imagery, particularly that of sowing and reaping. Some have suggested that this imagery may have been adapted from agricultural rituals in the Ancient Near East related to the dying and rising of the gods. Given the largely agrarian nature of that society we should not be surprised that the metaphors employed are frequently agricultural. But the use of such imagery does not require a one to one correspondence to a presumed ancient ritual.

I would suggest that the psalmist adopted such imagery in an effort to reinforce the notion of restoration and reversal found throughout the psalm, but even further, such imagery introduces the idea that restoration may not be instantaneous. Those who sow, do so without guarantee, but in anticipation of what will come. The psalmist prays that what began in tears and weeping will end with shouts of joy and arms filled with proof of God’s great work in their midst.

Psalm 126 reminds us that “the Lord has done great things for us.” Even further, like the dreamers of old, we are called to live expectantly, fully convinced that the tears and weeping of our day will not have the last word. The God we serve is the God of restoration and reversal.

Second Reading

Commentary on Hebrews 7:23-28

Scott Shauf

Hebrews 7:23-28 occurs in the middle of a larger argument about Jesus being a heavenly high priest.

This is one of the central ideas of Hebrews, and it is a unique contribution in the New Testament to our understanding of Jesus. Our passage has two main points: 1) Because Jesus is not subject to death, in contrast to the earthly priests, as the heavenly high priest he is able to serve and offer salvation perpetually; 2) Jesus only had to sacrifice himself once for all people, in contrast to the repeated sacrifices made by the earthly priests.

Christ is first identified as high priest in Hebrews 2:17, and the basic points are summarized in 4:14-16. The detailed discussion of the designation occupies 5:1-10 and chapters 7-10. In the argument of Hebrews, Christ’s identity as the heavenly high priest is what enables him to offer eternal salvation — so it is a point of tremendous importance! A basic understanding of the argument will provide valuable context for understanding our passage.

The argument is complex, but it may be summarized as follows: Priests in Judaism must be from the tribe of Levi, but as the Messiah, Jesus is from the tribe of Judah (David’s tribe). Thus Jesus could not be in the traditional Jewish priesthood. However, Psalm 110, a psalm recognized as a messianic prophecy in the Judaism of the time, contains the line, “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek” (verse 4). Melchizedek is an obscure character from the story of Abraham (Genesis 14:17-20), a “priest of God Most High.” Psalm 110:4 thus provides a way for Jesus as the Messiah to be a priest, indeed a priest “forever.” This last point becomes the basis for the contrast between the eternal priesthood of Jesus and the limited priesthood of the earthly priests.

This contrast is the subject of verses 23-25 in our passage. Earthly priests obviously die, so their priesthood is of limited duration (verse 23), but because of his resurrection and exaltation to God’s right hand, Jesus’ priesthood will have no end (verse 24). This eternal status thus provides a different order of salvation than that available through the traditional priesthood — the salvation offered by Jesus is eternal, because his intercession on our behalf will never cease (verse 25). A similar point can be seen in Romans 8:34.

Verses 26-28 provide further contrasts between Jesus and the earthly high priests. While verse 26’s adjectives “holy,” “blameless,” and “undefiled” can be used in a variety of contexts, together with the following phrase, “separated from sinners,” they emphasize Jesus’ sinlessness, a point made elsewhere in Hebrews (4:15) and by other New Testament writers (e.g. 2 Corinthians 5:21; 1 Peter 2:22; 1 John 3:5).

Other parts of Hebrews emphasize Jesus’ identity with us as humans, that he experienced weakness and suffering just as we do (see 2:5-18 and 4:14-16, included in the lectionary texts prior to this week). Here the emphasis is on Jesus’ uniqueness, because the point is to contrast Jesus with the earthly priests. This uniqueness is hammered home in the last phrase of verse 26, “exalted above the heavens.” It is this exaltation that enables Jesus to be the eternal, heavenly high priest, offering eternal salvation through his eternal intercession.

Verse 27 adds the contrast between the once-for-all nature of Christ’s sacrifice and the perpetually repeated sacrifices offered by the earthly priests. This contrast will be greatly elaborated in chapters 9 and 10, especially 10:1-14. The fact that the earthly sacrifices have to be performed repeatedly points to the fact that they cannot take away sins in the first place; otherwise they would cease (10:1-4, 11).

These sacrifices cleanse only “the flesh” (9:13), being unable to “perfect the conscience of the worshiper” (9:9). Christ’s sacrifice, on the other hand, was “a single sacrifice for sins” “offered for all time” (10:12), penetrating into our innermost being, cleansing our conscience (9:14), having “perfected for all time those who are sanctified” (10:14). The resulting covenant is thus one of the inside, of the heart and mind, as attested by the Holy Spirit (10:15-16), with the result that other sacrifices are needed no more (10:18).

Verse 28 adds yet two more contrasts between Jesus and the earthly priests. First, the weakness of the earthly high priests contrasts with the perfection of Jesus. The language of Jesus having “been made perfect” often surprises readers. It is not a claim, however, about the intrinsic character of Jesus — after all, Jesus’ sinlessness is a key assertion of Hebrews, as discussed above — but about his having been fitted perfectly to his role.

In 2:15-18 this perfecting includes his becoming human so that he could properly identify with those he was saving (so also 5:8-9). The context in chapter 7, however, suggests more his exalted status — he could not fulfill his high priestly role without having been exalted to God’s right hand. Thus the perfecting of Jesus as pictured throughout Hebrews includes his incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension — the whole story!

The second contrast is that Jesus was appointed high priest with an oath, unlike the earthly priests. This point was explained in 6:13-20 and 7:20-22. The reference is to the aforementioned Psalm 110:4, which precedes the appointment as high priest in the order of Melchizedek with an oath formula, “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind.” The author of Hebrews sees this formula as underscoring the eternal nature of Christ’s priesthood.

This is by no means an easy passage — like most of Hebrews! This is all the more so because the comparison between Jesus and the earthly high priests will not likely strike modern readers or hearers as being of pressing concern. While of major interest in the first century, most Christians today do not think much about the nature of the priesthood. Amidst this comparison, however, the author makes some very important statements about how Jesus accomplished human salvation. The passage is thus well worth the attention of preacher and hearer alike!