Fifth Sunday in Lent (B)

Note:  Part I explores the biblical text and Part II discusses homiletical strategies for the text.

Part I

The Book of Hebrews is actually considered by many scholars to be a sermon!

March 25, 2012

Second Reading
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Commentary on Hebrews 5:5-10

Note:  Part I explores the biblical text and Part II discusses homiletical strategies for the text.

Part I

The Book of Hebrews is actually considered by many scholars to be a sermon!

Its language demonstrates sophisticated rhetorical strategies for convincing listeners that in Jesus Christ God is accessible and known.  This particular passage can be summed up in this way: the author uses an analogy to describe one of the roles Jesus engages as the savior of humanity.  He functions as a high priest on behalf of others.  Jesus’ intercessory work is a major emphasis biblically and theologically which mark the season of Lent.

To preach this passage effectively, one needs to glean background information in three areas.      First, Chapter Five discusses the role of the high priest: the priest’s selection, the necessary personal attitudes and pastoral work of the high priest.  Second, it is necessary to review the use of two of the Old Testament quotations in this passage.  The two Old Testament quotes in verses 5-6 are significant for discussing the divinity of Jesus and God’s plan historically through the functioning of priesthood.  Finally, it is important to research the priestly figure of Melchizedek.  He is mentioned twice in this passage as a specific and laudable human model for an effective high priest.

The role of high priest:

Old Testament books, such as Leviticus and Deuteronomy (e.g. Chapter Eighteen) are replete with discussions about the importance of priesthood.  In this particular passage, the writer describes Jesus as a high priest.  The preacher can consider extending the pericope text to include the first four verses of Chapter Five.

These additional verses describe what a priest — and therefore Jesus — does.  Beginning only with verse 5 omits this helpful background information.  These verses describe how the high priest represents God to the people, particularly regarding offerings and sacrifices for sin.  Verses 2-3 describe the high priest’s pastoral ministry as one sympathetic and empathetic in relationship to those he serves.  Finally, this priesthood is bestowed by God. All these functions apply to Jesus.

Old Testament quotations

Two verses are quoted in this text (their placement makes them appear as one selection!).  The first quote is form Psalm 2:7, one first stated earlier in 1:5.  This verse is well-known in ancient writings.  It and was often repeated to affirm the deity of Jesus.  This was a key verse in early Christological debates in the Church, which probed the question: Who is Jesus?  A blessed human?  A part of God through adoption at baptism?  A lesser version of God — or as true God?   Theologically, the quote invokes the Christology of John’s Gospel: Jesus was not a created being, a lesser form of God, but one who is “begotten not made” — as the Nicene Creed expresses it.

The second quote, Psalm 110:4, raises a number of historical questions.  It introduces a legendary figure, who is discussed in Genesis 14 in his dealings with Abraham.  Although adding more homiletical work, it is important that one also read ahead in Hebrews Chapter 7, where more details are given regarding Melchizedek.

What is unique about this figure, the author asserts, is the historical continuity of God’s plan in relationship to Jesus.  Melchizedek is a proto-type for what culminates in Jesus as God’s son, high priest par excellence for all humanity.  Helpful points to be made about Melchizedek — in relationship to Jesus Christ — are that the circumstances of his life remain obscure; he was prior to the Mosaic establishment of the Levitical clan, which administered the temple and priesthood; his origins are unknown.  Only his actions in blessing Abraham receive praise.  Hebrews 7:3 describes him in these mystical and ahistorical terms as: “Without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God, he remains a priest forever.”

Part II

However this passage is preached, the core should involve reflection on Jesus as high priest, both within the context of Israel’s historical framework of the high priest figure and more specifically as exemplified by the legendary figure of Melchizedek.  

There are several possibilities for organizing this text.  First, if the sermon’s question/focus asks in what ways Jesus acts as our high priest, the sermon can be divided into two parts.  If one uses the first four verses of Chapter Five, the sermon can start with reflections on the work of a priest, as historically understood.  Secondly, the preacher can then move to verses 7-10 and offer a specific look at how Jesus fulfilled and enacted the general roles specified in verses 1-4.  

Another approach to this sermon might involve asking what functions the two Old Testament quotations serve.  A sermon on these two verses can be constructed in two sections.  The first will look at what is at stake in affirming, prophetically speaking, Jesus as “begotten.”  Since even today many do not consider Jesus divine, this focus is not outdated or archaic.  Examples for this sermon are easily drawn for parishioners’ daily encounters with many other religious and cultic encounters.  The author is making the case for Jesus’ divinity. 

The second quote related to Melchizedek rests on the cusp of legend and proto-typical interpretation: exactly what kind of priest does this ancient figure mean, if Jesus exemplifies him as the ultimate high priest?  And yes, it is hard as preacher-leader to focus on this latter verse as it sets the contrast for one’s own modeling of priesthood to one’s listeners!

Another sermon approach can focus on verses 7- 10.  What actions and spiritual attitudes did Jesus manifest as God’s ultimate high priest?  The proclaimer can examine one or several of the words and phrases of this rich text: “submission,” “obedience,” “suffered,”  “loud cries and tears.”  The question for the sermon would be this: How did this (or these) activities of Jesus embody true priesthood — on humanity’s behalf?