Lectionary Commentaries for November 4, 2012
Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Mark 12:28-34 

Micah D. Kiel

Mark 12:28-34 provides a stark contrast to the stories that surround it.

Here, a scribe emerges from among his colleagues, who are repeatedly berated by Jesus, as an example of a successful inquirer who has a chance to find himself in the Kingdom of God.  

Setting this text in its literary context will help clarify the dynamics at play in the particular pericope. Mark 11:1-11 narrates Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Immediately following, Mark tells the story of Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree intercalated with the cleansing of the temple — one of Mark’s classic “sandwiches.” The cursing of the tree helps interpret Jesus’ view of the temple. Jesus, upon entry into Jerusalem, immediately undermines the validity of the Temple, the center of religious and political power in Judaea.

It may not be surprising, then, that following directly after this is a series of interactions between Jesus and various leaders and groups of leaders from ancient Judaism. In 11:27-33, Jesus’ authority is questioned. Jesus however offers a conundrum of a response that leads the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders rendered ignorant; they answer Jesus’ question about the origin of John’s baptism with: “we do not know.”

Jesus then tells the parable of the wicked tenants (12:1-12), which fits the tenor of the cursing the temple a few paragraphs earlier. This quasi-allegory leaves Jesus’ fate (death) as the result of the rejection of Jewish leadership. In 12:13-17 it is the Pharisees and Herodians who attempt to trap Jesus. In 12:18-27 the Sadducees question Jesus about the resurrection. Chapter 12 ends (verses 38-40) with a final screed from Jesus about the danger the scribes pose. 

In this context, then, our pericope (12:28-34) finds itself in a rather hostile setting. It is surrounded by stories of antagonism between Jesus and many different segments of ancient Jewish leadership. The scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, and Herodians shuffle on and off the stage and consistently attempt to trap or antagonize Jesus.

In 28-34, however, only one individual approaches Jesus. He had overheard the disputes and saw that Jesus answered well. How Mark describes the scribe’s interest is vague, however. What has been so good about Jesus’ answers is that he hasn’t really answered much at all! Jesus has either wiggled out of a direct answer (11:27-33), answered ambiguously (12:13-17), or responded cryptically (12:18-27). It is not clear whether it is the content of Jesus’ answers that the scribe finds to be good, or whether it is Jesus’ crafty ability to parry his opponents’ thrusts. 

In the version of this story in both Matthew and Luke’s gospel, the scribe becomes a teacher, and he is there to “test” Jesus. His role in later tradition is thus quickly turned into antagonism. Thus this individual character stands out not only in its immediate context, but in the synoptic tradition in general. 

The scribe’s question assumes that some of the commandments are to be given more weight than others. The language used could simply connote the first commandment, but the context seems to indicate clearly that what’s at issue is prominence. Although asked for the most prominent, Jesus answers with two: first, a version of the Shema from Deuteronomy 6:4-5, then, Leviticus 19:18.

The scribe agrees, summarizes the two laws, and then states that these together are better than whole burnt offerings and sacrifices. Mark tells us that the scribe had answered intelligently or wisely. This provides an interesting contrast to the scribe’s assessment of Jesus’ answers as merely good. In any event, Mark ends the story by saying that the Kingdom of God is not far from this scribe. 

The central dynamic of this story has to do with a reading of a tradition and how individuals and groups ally themselves vis-à-vis different interpretations of a tradition. The series of stories in Mark 11-12 demonstrate the variety within Judaism in the first century. Scholars now generally prefer to talk of Judaisms, not Judaism, during Jesus’ day. What can we glean here from how Mark approaches a question about tradition?

First, when embracing a tradition as old and multi-faceted as was Judaism in the first century, one must make some choices. To embrace it all simultaneously would be like trying to drink from a wide-open fire hose. Embedded in the controversy through Mark 11-12 are some fundamental disagreements, especially on issues of eschatology and resurrection.

The very question that the scribe asks Jesus, to prioritize the commandments, would seem to fit comfortably with those segments of Judaism based on an on-going oral interpretation of the Law, such as the Pharisees were known to engage in. That the question comes from a scribe, however, might be surprising. Mark’s Jesus, here, and early Christianity more broadly, were in keeping with the methods of the day as they selectively engaged Jewish tradition. 

Second, the way Mark’s Jesus embraces the tradition repudiates part of that very tradition. In a way not discordant with Matthew’s beatitudes, Jesus deems an inner disposition as more important than outward shows of religiosity. If taken as an all-encompassing critique of Judaism, this would be completely unfair. One must point out, however, that such critique can find a home within its very tradition itself.

For instance, Hosea 6:6 talks about God’s desire for mercy instead of sacrifice and for people to know God rather than burnt offerings. One could also point to Micah 6:6-8, where the prophet asks with what he should come before the Lord. Burnt offerings, young calves, rivers of oil, even a first born child are not what God requires. God, Micah insists, simply wants justice, kindness, and a humble relationship with God.

This dynamic: tradition vs. new interpretations is not one that the church shed after its early decades. It continues to be of central importance and crops up in congregations in any variety of ways: in aesthetics (worship styles, architecture); in theology (metaphors for God), and in ecclesiology (questions of ordination, ecumenism). 

What Mark models here is a Jesus who is firmly planted in a tradition, but yet one who authoritatively engages and interprets that tradition in light of new circumstances. In this particular instance, the watershed is a crucified messiah who ushers in a Kingdom about to deluge humanity. Mark’s Jesus reads the tradition and prioritizes it all according to two simple, yet impossible principles: God and neighbor. Perhaps this is a lens through which the tradition should still be read today.  

First Reading

Commentary on Deuteronomy 6:1-9

Kathryn M. Schifferdecker

There’s no denying that Jesus was a good Jew.

According to our Gospel reading for today, when asked which commandment was the greatest, he responded, as any faithful Jew would, by quoting the Shema:

“Hear, O Israel! The LORD our God, the LORD is one! You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5).1

The Shema (named after the first word in the verse, shema, Hebrew for “hear”) stands at the heart of Jewish faith. It is as familiar to the average Jew as the Lord’s Prayer is to the average Christian. It is recited two times a day by observant Jews.2 It is also one of the passages written out on parchment and encased in mezuzot (the small boxes on the doorposts of Jewish homes) and tefillin (the small boxes worn on the forehead and arm during Jewish morning prayer services). Indeed, the practice of using mezuzot and tefillin finds its origin in this passage, among others:

“Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (6:8-9).

The Shema is at the heart of Jewish faith, but the rest of us (speaking as a goy myself) can learn from it, too.

Love God. Love God with everything you are: heart, soul, strength. Love God with your life (perhaps a better translation than “soul,” since Israel didn’t conceive of a disembodied soul).

Many scholars would say that “love” here is not primarily an emotion. They point to examples of political treaties known from the ancient Near East. To “love” one’s sovereign in these ancient political covenants was to be loyal to him; that is, to obey the stipulations of his covenant, to fight alongside him against his enemies, and to be faithful in paying tribute to him.

Such ancient political treaties are undoubtedly in the background of this passage. To “love” God as one would “love” a human sovereign entails primarily action, not emotion. To love is to be faithful and loyal in fulfilling the obligations of the covenant. And, indeed, the Shema passage emphasizes knowledge of and obedience to God’s commandments:

“Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.” (Deuteronomy 6:6-7)

To love God, then, means to obey God’s commandments, as a vassal obeys the stipulations of a political covenant. The book of Deuteronomy, permeated as it is with covenant language, speaks over and over again of God’s statutes, decrees, and commandments.

Still, there is another realm of life in which the language of love and covenant abounds. The metaphor of marriage, though not as explicit in Deuteronomy as in other biblical books, provides a central biblical paradigm for understanding the relationship of God and Israel. Indeed, in the very next chapter of Deuteronomy, it is God who is said to love, and this love is a matter of the heart:

“It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the LORD set his heart on you and chose you — for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 7:7-8).

Jon Levenson writes of this passage:

“The special status of Israel rests not upon her merits, her strength or numbers or intelligence or honesty, but upon something irrational, a passion, an affair of the heart, not the mind, in short a love. All the efforts to explain the special destiny of Israel in rational terms only dissolve its power. For Israel is singled out by and for the love of God.”3

If God’s love is “something irrational, a passion, an affair of the heart,” then perhaps the love that it calls forth from us (grafted into Israel’s covenant through Christ) should also be a matter of the heart: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”

Love God. Love God with everything you are: heart, mind, soul, strength. Love God with your life.

And the second commandment is like it: “‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:31).

Jesus, the faithful Jew, quotes the Shema and adds to it the law from Leviticus 19:18. How shall we love God? By obeying God’s commandments, by loving our neighbors as ourselves, and by teaching our children and our children’s children to do the same. It is a matter of the head and the heart alike; love lived out in obedience to the God who calls us into covenant, a covenant given not as a burden but “so that it may go well with you” (6:3).

On this eve of the U.S. presidential election, here is the word of the Lord to us: love God with your life and love your neighbor as yourself.

How that two-fold love is worked out in our common political life is a matter for debate. What is not up for debate is the commandment itself, enjoined upon Jew and Christian alike: Love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. And love your neighbor (those across the street and those across the globe) as yourself.

God grant us (and our leaders) the will and the wisdom to live out these commandments in our lives and in our world, so that it may go well with us and with our neighbors.

1Verse 4 can also be translated, “Hear, O Israel, the LORD is our God, the LORD alone.”
2As the beginning of a longer prayer comprised of Deut 6:4-9, 11:13-21, and Num 15:37-4.
3Jon D. Levenson, Sinai and Zion: An Entry into the Jewish Bible (HarperOne, 1987), 76-77. Levenson, a Jewish scholar, writes eloquently in this book about the Sinai covenant and its continuing significance for today.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Ruth 1:1-18

Patricia Tull

The Old Testament readings for this week and next come from Ruth.  The selections seem designed to evoke the whole short book.

Today’s reading encompasses most of chapter 1, up to the point that Naomi and Ruth leave Moab.  The lectionary omits their return to Bethlehem and all of chapter 2, in which Ruth goes out to glean for grain and meets Boaz.

Next week’s reading starts with Naomi telling Ruth to go to Boaz’s threshing floor by night (3:1-5).  It then skips to the end of the story, in which Boaz and Ruth marry and have a child (4:13-17).  While the prescribed readings present turning points, the preacher must fill in the gaps to make sense of the story.

Though scholars believe it was composed much later, the book is set “in the days when the judges ruled,” Israel’s early, pre-kingdom years.  It begins with several tragic losses for one Israelite family.  During a famine, Elimelech and Naomi and their two sons leave their home in Bethlehem (ironically, beyt-lehem, the “house of bread”), and become refugees in Moab on the east side of the Dead Sea.

Over the course of ten years, Elimelech dies, and the sons marry Moabite women.  Then they both die childless.  The household that once consisted of a woman and her three men has now become three childless widows, none of them blood relatives.  In a society in which fathers, husbands, and sons provided family security, this household’s prospects have declined dangerously.  Barrenness is the whole story — barrenness of land, barrenness of wombs and arms.

Naomi faces a difficult choice: continue living as a refugee in a foreign land, or return to her home town alone?  We aren’t told what factors entered into her decision, but we can imagine she would fret over how she would be received, since she left home to live in a country with close but difficult and often hostile relations with her own, and then lost everyone.  The neighbors may consider her losses predictable, even just.

In fact, much is left unsaid.  We don’t know what caused all these deaths, nor do we know why the women are childless.  We only see glimmers of the women’s mutual kindness over the years, reflected in Naomi’s gentle words and Ruth’s and Orpah’s tears.  Naomi seems to think the young widows will fare better by departing and starting over, since she has no more sons to pledge them.  (For more on levirate marriage, see next week’s commentary.)  But we don’t know what they would be going home to, if anything at all.  All we know for sure is that Ruth, at least, prefers becoming a foreigner herself to leaving Naomi.

Whatever Ruth’s circumstances may be, her clinging to her mother-in-law is a gift of grace that Naomi cannot at first see.  Naomi says God has turned against her (verse 13), and later she tells the women of Bethlehem, “The Almighty has dealt bitterly with me … brought me back empty … dealt harshly with me, and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me” (verses 20-21).  This is Naomi’s theology, and at first it is all she can see.

But the narrator sees things differently, attributing none of Naomi’s tragedies to God, not even the famine.  Rather it is God who has given the people food (verse 6).  This point is underscored at the end of the chapter: “They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest” (verse 22).  Near the end of the book, the Bethlehemite women will articulate to Naomi what has been evident all along, that Ruth’s love is worth more than seven sons.  Grace is walking right beside Naomi, unseen, yet refusing to leave her.

Ruth holds a thoroughly action-oriented, thoroughly pragmatic theology.  She does not argue with Naomi’s perception of events, nor does she assert her own.  She simply communicates presence.  She refuses to leave.  It’s not about God’s actions or intents, but her own.  Ruth will worship the God that Naomi believes abandoned her.  And she swears to do what four other people — Elimelech, Mahlon, Chilion, and Orpah — couldn’t do: to stay.  Not even death, the chief resident of their household, will get in her way. 

The speeches of Naomi and Ruth in this chapter are unique.  In all of Scripture, this is the only dialogue between two women that concerns not a man — a father, a husband, or a son — but one another’s welfare.  Presumably the women of ancient Israel had such conversations all the time, but Scripture, composed mostly by men, missed these occasions.  This caring moment between a woman and her daughter-in-law stands in for dozens of missing portrayals of Israelite sisters, mothers, daughters, and friends.

When they return to Bethlehem, Ruth proposes to glean barley for their food.  The despairing Naomi is minimally helpful — failing to accompany her, failing even to tell her about Boaz, to whom we are introduced in 2:1.  The chain of coincidences that brings Ruth to Boaz’s field is, like the narrator’s one direct comment about God in chapter 1, the subtlest of reminders of divine favor.  Others frequently and off-puttingly call Ruth “the Moabite” (1:22; 2:2, 6, 21).  But Boaz already knows, as he says, “how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before” (2:11), telling her story as if it were Abraham’s (Genesis 12:1-2).

Throughout the second chapter, Boaz gives her seed, seed, and more seed — barley to glean, parched grain to eat, stalks lying cut on the ground, an ephah of barley to take home, along with the promise of more every day throughout the harvest season.  Life-giving seed is as plentiful now as barrenness and death had been before.

Neither Naomi nor Ruth yet sees God’s hand here.  Naomi doesn’t know where Ruth goes; Ruth doesn’t know where she is.  As readers we see all the interactions among the three characters: Naomi with Ruth, Boaz with Ruth, Ruth with both of them.  We watch in suspense.  We hear Boaz and Ruth express their mutual respect.  We hear Naomi begin to acknowledge divine kindness after all.  For two months, at least, Ruth and Naomi may eat their fill.  But this is only the story’s beginning.


Commentary on Psalm 119:1-8

Hans Wiersma

Since this pericope represents the first eight verses of Psalm 119, it might help to say a word or two about the entire psalm.

Psalm 119 is among several psalms that are arranged acrostically, according to the letters of the Hebrew alephbet.  Psalm 119 is the longest of these — and the longest of all Psalms — with 22 eight-verse sections corresponding to the letters aleph, beth, gimel and all the way through tav.  Even more impressive is the fact that in each eight-verse section, the first word of each verse begins with the letter assigned to that section.  So each one of verses 1-8 begins with aleph, 9-16 with beth, 17-24 with gimel, and so on, through verses 169-176, each of which begins with the letter tav.

Martin Luther would have been very familiar with Psalm 119, likely knowing it by heart.  As an Augustinian friar doing his daily devotions, Luther regularly recited the entire Psalm, all 176 verses.  In Luther’s day, monks recited long sections of Psalm 119 as part of the Liturgy of Hours (or Divine Office).  As a young man, Luther prayed Psalm 119 at 6:00 am, 9:00 am, noon, and 3:00 pm at the beginning of the week.  According to the Rule of Benedict, a faithful monk meditates on all of Psalm 119 once each week, beginning on Sunday and concluding on Monday.

Still, it may come as some surprise that the later Luther would put Psalm 119 at the heart of his strategy for being a top-notch theologian.  “I want to point out to you a correct way of studying theology, for I have had practice in that,” Luther wrote in a preface to a collection of his writings.  “This is the way taught by holy King David (and doubtlessly used also by all the patriarchs and prophets) in the one hundred nineteenth Psalm. There you will find three rules, amply presented throughout the whole Psalm. They are Oratio, Meditatio, Tentatio. 1

On the other hand, those who are familiar with Luther’s spiritual struggles during his years as a friar living in the monastery in Erfurt may have an inkling about why Luther understood Psalm 119 as having such import.  As a young monk, Luther experienced Anfechtungen (tentatio in Latin), the devil’s attacks against God’s promises in Christ.  Luther came to understand that his only defense against such attacks was to wield the Word of God.

It is in the context of Luther’s experience with Anfechtungen that Luther believed he could imagine the motive behind the composition of Psalm 119:  “It is as if [David] said, ‘It is a great thing for a person to have the doctrine of God and a desire to hear his Word.  But it is just as great for a person to be able to continue in it and to keep it pure and fine against Belial and his servants, who are always opposing it.'”

Luther then observes, “Belial not only lures people from the right way by giving lies a great and glorious appearance and giving a despised and wretched appearance to the truth. He also drives them away from it through the power of tyrants. Thus body, property, and honor are in danger; and cross and suffering, hatred and persecution, are always present.” 2

In the Christian tradition, Belial is, of course, another name for The Opposition, that is, Satan.  In the New Testament, Belial is named but once.  Paul asks, “For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?  What harmony is there between Christ and Belial?” (2 Corinthians 6:14b-15a, NIV).  Luther’s invocation of Belial in his reflection on Psalm 119 was likely on purpose, since it connects to Paul’s sole use of the name. 

Luther wanted to underscore that there is sharp contrast between God’s ways and the ways of the Evil One.  It is worth noting, then, that Luther did not read Psalm 119 as primarily “The Law” by which sinners are condemned but primarily as Torah (teaching) by which God communicates the liberating Word.  For Luther, Psalm 119 provides a framework for the steadfast theologian committed to oratio (praying over), meditatio (meditating upon), and tentatio (defending the gospel using) divine teaching.  The implication is clear: the better one knows God’s Torah the more equipped one is to beat back the attacks of the devil.  In other words, Psalm 119 — this long and sustained reflection upon the Torah of God — amounts to so many fightin’ words.  And happy are those who win.

As mentioned, the pericope at hand, Psalm 119:1-8, represents the first section: Aleph.  So if Psalm 119 is a kind of A-Z description of oratio-meditation-tentatio over divine Torah (that is, over God’s law, teachings, testimonies, commandments, precepts, statutes, judgments, righteousness, way, word, and truth), then you could be cute about it and point out that verses 1-8 delineate the A-game.  It is fitting then that the psalm begins with the word “happy” (or “blessed” or “fortunate”).  The Hebrew word is ashrei.  “Ashrei are those whose way is blameless,” the psalm declares at the outset.

Indeed.  You’d be pretty happy, too, if you were blameless, sinless, perfect.   Now if only such blameless people could be found, we could ask them for some advice.  How do you do it?  How do you keep yourselves so blameless? How do you keep God’s decrees, seeking the Lord with your whole heart, and do no wrong?  (See verses 1-3.)  Oh, but wait.  Such people do not exist (as the psalmist proclaims in Psalm 14:3 and, later, Paul, in Romans 3:10).  There is no one who is blameless. No, not one.  Psalm 119 starts by describing something that exists only in the imagination, a chimera, a fancy:  namely, one who is blameless according to the Law of God.

Well, there is One.  2 Corinthians 5:21 tells how God made this One who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.


1LW 34:285
2LW 13:178f

Second Reading

Commentary on Hebrews 9:11-14

Amy L.B. Peeler

Jesus’ death enables a living faith

“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God — not the result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8).

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?” (James 2:14). The juxtaposition of these two verses elicits a common idea, albeit a misinformed one, that we should think of faith as the antithesis of works.  The Epistle to the Hebrews rarely, if ever, plays a role in this classic debate, but this week’s passage helps us better understand that believers should make a distinction not between works and faith, but between dead works and living works.

This passage in Hebrews begins with the leitmotif of the letter that God’s messiah, Jesus Christ, has become God’s High Priest. No other book in the New Testament explicitly calls Jesus a priest, let alone a High Priest. For this sermon, however, Jesus’ priesthood becomes the primary vehicle for explaining the meaning of his death and resurrection. Priests were powerful figures in Israel and in other Greco-Roman societies, exercising both spiritual and political power over the people. Proclamation that Jesus is High Priest boldly asserts his position of power.

A detailed description of the tabernacle system (9:1-6) and its most important annual offering, the Day of Atonement ritual (9:7-8) lays the groundwork for a comparison with the priestly ministry of Jesus. The means and the location of his ministry combine to create a different result than that achieved in the priesthoods previous to him.

The location of his ministry

The author claims that Jesus serves as priest in a tent that hands did not build, that is not part of this creation, and that is greater and more perfect than the tent that Israel used in the wilderness. Scholars debate whether these assertions give evidence of Platonic themes in the letter — the belief that a heavenly realm of ideals constitutes reality at its best and most pure — or if it provides evidence of a connection to Jewish apocalypticism, which imagined heavenly structures as the dwelling place of God and his hosts.1 Whatever the background, the key difference lies in the fact that only Jesus serves where God actually dwells (cf. 9:24).

The means of his ministry

While the other priests bring the blood of bulls and goats into the sanctuary, Jesus brings in his own blood to God, serving as both priest and sacrifice. By offering his blood, Jesus is offering himself (9:14). The presentation of the sinless (4:15) Son of God constitutes a blameless sacrifice, and, consequently, it only has to be offered once (9:12).

The results of his ministry

Because he offers the perfect, ever-sufficient sacrifice, he secures two different results for those who stand under his priestly ministry.

First, whereas the old system performed the vital reconciliation of the relationship between God and his people, described as atonement, Jesus’ sacrifice also enacts redemption. According to the author, Jesus’ sacrifice brings about an ontological change for its participants. Previously, humanity had been bound to the devil by the fear of death (2:14-15), but now they can live free as children in the household of God (3:6). Moreover, this redemption lasts forever; it is eternal, it can enable them to reach the heavenly city of God (12:22-24).

Second, whereas the old system made their flesh pure and temporarily prepared them to encounter the manifestation of God’s presence in the tabernacle, Jesus’ sacrifice purifies their consciences. Now, with the cleansing of their hearts and minds, as the prophet Jeremiah anticipated (8:8-12), they can minister to God with the sacrifices of praise, good works, and fellowship (13:15-16).

For the congregation in the first century who heard this sermon, sacrifice was a familiar event.  Jews would have been familiar with the texts of Leviticus, and Gentiles would have encountered sacrifice in the various cults or bought sacrificial meat in the marketplace. Consequently, the image of Jesus offering himself before the very throne of God in heaven — so unusual, so unsettling, so profound — would have created a deep sense of thanksgiving that this sacrifice achieved what others had not: permanent and thorough change in the relationship between God and humanity.

The challenge for preachers today is to elicit that same sense of thanksgiving from this passage for congregations who find sacrifice obscure or even cruel. Congregation and preacher alike would certainly benefit from a walk through the Old Testament. Preaching the texts of Exodus 25-31, 35-40 or Leviticus reveal the holiness of God and the great care humans must exercise to approach it. These lessons create the rich soil out of which the truths of Hebrews can flower. God does something new in Jesus but only by following the same system he had used with his people for thousands of years in which fallen humanity and holy God met through the offering of a life.

That connection to life and death provide another anchor for proclamation even if the preaching schedule does not allow for a comprehensive foray into the Old Testament background. The author promises that Jesus’ sacrifice will redeem from dead works so that participants can serve the living God (9:14). Hebrews helps us see that the difference is not between believing verses doing, but between performing dead or living deeds. Humans, whether they be Jews from the Old Testament with a written list of sacrificial practices or Christians in 2012 with a mental list of deeds that should be performed, all have a propensity toward dead works, actions performed by rote lacking any internal motivation. These are the works that are incompatible with faith.

But Jesus’ sacrifice opens another way. Jesus’ sacrifice cleanses the external and internal so that we can offer our whole selves to God, just like he did. It is not really about what we do; the same action can be a dead work or a lively praise, but it is about surrender. We can ask ourselves and our congregants: Are you doing works just to do the work or are you doing them because you are surrendered to the living God? When we surrender ourselves as Jesus did, it becomes possible to serve the living God with a living faith.

1David M. Moffitt, Atonement and the Logic of Resurrection in Hebrews (NovTSup 141; Boston: Brill, 2011), 15-17.