Fifth Sunday in Lent (B)

While Hebrews will be read three times during Holy Week, and then for several weeks beginning with the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost,

March 29, 2009

Second Reading
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Commentary on Hebrews 5:5-10

While Hebrews will be read three times during Holy Week, and then for several weeks beginning with the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost,

this is the first Sunday this year where we encounter Hebrews in the lectionary. It’s a good idea, then, to remind ourselves about some basic issues of introduction.1 

In spite of the fact that the King James Version ascribes Hebrews to Paul, it was almost certainly not written by him. Indeed, the identity of the author is a puzzle about which no consensus exists (this lack of consensus is no modern invention; it goes back to the early centuries of the church).

Hebrews seems to have been written sometime in the last third of the first century A.D., and while it is often called “The Epistle to the Hebrews,” it is not, in fact, a letter. Instead it is a sermon – its unknown-to-us author calls it a “word of exhortation” (13:22).

It looks like the author might have had a particular community in his sights when writing this sermon (see 13:22-25), but it’s not at all clear where that community was located (Palestine and Rome are the most prominent alternatives). What does seem clear is that the original audience had suffered some persecution (10:32), and some members either had or were considering turning their backs on the faith (see 6:4-6). This portrait of the original community, suffering in some way and in danger of wavering in their faith, may provide a point of contact with our own communities.

The Greek of Hebrews is particularly fine. The sentences can be long and complex with lots of grammatical subordination. Because English has a harder time than Greek in dealing with this complexity, most English translations are forced to obscure the complexity of the Greek by dividing its long sentences into shorter ones. This makes for a more readable translation; but it can get in the way of interpretation.

The complexity of the Greek of Hebrews mirrors the complexity of its argument, which is intensely exegetical and beautifully non-linear. In other words, it interprets passages from the Old Testament in sometimes thrilling and often mystifying ways, and its topics are treated in multiple places. The final effect is less like connect-the-dots and more like an intricate tapestry. It’s important, therefore, to situate our passage within a larger context.

Hebrews 5:5-10 is the second half of a larger unit that begins at 4:14. This larger passage looks backward to passages earlier in Hebrews. It expands on the idea of a “merciful high priest,” introduced in 2:17. And the quotation from Psalm 2:7, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you,” reprises the first Old Testament quote in the book (1:5).

In Hebrews 4:14-5:10, Christ is compared to the high priests from the Old Testament and shown to be like them. The high priest makes atonement for sin (5:1), is able to sympathize with the people because he shares their weaknesses (5:2-3), and becomes a high priest by being called by God (5:4). Christ is like the high priests in all these ways. He was appointed by God (5:5-6). He sympathizes with our weakness (4:15). And, presumably by making atonement (see Hebrews 9), he gives us access to mercy and grace from God, eternal salvation (4:16; 5:9). The only difference between Jesus and the high priests is sin. Jesus is without it (4:15) but they have to make atonement for their own sin (5:3).

The passage also looks forward, especially by referring to Melchizedek in 5:6, 10. The author of Hebrews doesn’t do much with Melchizedek here. Indeed, the quotation of Psalm 110:4 in Hebrews 5:6 serves as a proof text supporting the claim that Jesus was appointed high priest by God and did not thrust himself forward on his own account. But this little seed, “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek,” grows out of all proportion in chapter 7 when Hebrews contrasts Jesus to the Aaronic high priesthood and finds Christ superior to Aaron.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. At this point in the argument, Christ is more like the high priest than unlike. Contrasts, both to the high priest and to the whole system of sacrifice, will follow in later chapters.

Perhaps the most significant characteristic of this particular passage – and what makes it particularly apt for the fifth Sunday in Lent – is its emphasis on the humanity of Jesus. Verses 7-10 in Greek are a relative clause, a clause that begins with the word “who.” The person to whom the “who” refers is “Christ” in verse 5. In other words, verses 7-10 describe the Christ who did not glorify himself in becoming high priest, but was instead appointed to that position by God.

These verses are a single sentence in Greek (note that the NRSV has it divided into two) with two main verbs: “learned” in verse 8, and “became” in verse 9. Jesus, the eternal Son of God, “learned obedience through what he suffered,” and as a consequence “became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.” Jesus Christ, whom Christians would later call the Second Person of the Trinity, “learned obedience through what he suffered!” This is how God works in the world through Christ: not by overpowering his enemies with force and victory, but by suffering.

As Lent approaches its climax in Holy Week, the story of Jesus descends into suffering of the most intense kind: betrayal by friends, conviction by an unjust court, torture and execution by the cruelest of methods. Christ truly did learn obedience through what he suffered. And in so doing he “became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.” This is the heart of the Gospel. And the author of Hebrews knew it.

1Of many places to find discussions of introductory issues to Hebrews, a particularly good one is Harold W. Attridge. The Epistle to the Hebrews. Hermeneia. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1989.