Fifth Sunday in Lent (B)

Christ is the ground of hope in a contradictory world

Mural of silhouette girl reaching out; birds flying upward
"And I, when I am lifted up ... will draw all people to myself" (John 12:32). Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

March 21, 2021

Second Reading
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Commentary on Hebrews 5:5-10

Presumably, the lectionary intends the church to sit with and contemplate this image of the high priest and king Melchizedek. A relatively obscure figure in Genesis, Melchizedek is held up as an early prefiguration of Christ—a figure who can judge and intercede. But before we attend to Melchizedek, a word of caution is in order.

A passage like this, read within the church without explaining what comes before or after, can make a strong impact. Specifically, the connection of obedience, submission, and suffering demands some consideration in sermon preparation. Without attention, or by focusing solely on Melchizedek or the image of a high priest and king, the preacher might unintentionally support the notion that human suffering is a pedagogical strategy of God or that God only hears the prayers of those who are correctly submissive. I presume that this is not what the author of Hebrews intended, but authors rarely get the chance to be read as they’d hoped. Moreover, the power and danger of reading a text throughout nearly two thousand years of history require us to attend to how a text would be heard, in addition to what an author intended. 

This danger has been made real to me too many times to count, when my obliviousness failed to acknowledge the questions of those for whom the text felt too great to bear or too painful to believe. For some, the odd and wonderful image of Melchizedek will never gain a hearing surrounded by the questions of suffering, obedience, and submission. Churches have been ground zero for so much emotional, physical, and spiritual abuse, and quickly driving past ideas and texts that have been weaponized in that abuse is at least complicit in dismissing those experiences as irrelevant to the text. 

So tarry with the hard parts of the text so that you might read them against the hard parts of this world. This text might be an occasion to unpack and explain Christ’s kenosis—a humbling and challenging idea. It might also be an opportunity to examine Christ’s suffering as something besides a substitutionary sacrifice but as a moment of outpouring loving faithfulness on behalf of those who suffer. 

As for the text itself, we catch the author in media res. Before the invocation of Melchizedek, the author gives a long explanation about Christ’s role as a high priest. The first mention of a High Priest comes in Hebrews 2, but in Hebrews 4 and 5, the author gives a fuller explanation. Specifically, the author frames the role of the High Priest in terms of proximity. By what right are we—born of flesh and blood, sinners in need of grace—allowed to draw near to the ascended Christ? The answer: by Christ’s identification with human weakness and mortality. 

For most of history, artistic depictions of Christ have mostly come in two forms: Christ the Pantocrator and Christ the Man of Sorrows. Typically, in the Pantocrator (literally, almighty or all-powerful), Christ is shown ascended to a place of power and majesty. Risen from the earth, Christ has taken his rightful place on the judgment seat of God. In Christ’s left hand are the scriptures (or the Book of Life—scholars can’t seem to agree), and with his right hand, Christ is giving the sign of blessing. In Christ the Man of Sorrows, Christ is shown in his brokenness. He is typically bloody, worn, and twisted with a crown of thorns on his head and the weapons of torture surrounding him. Many medieval depictions of the Man of Sorrows look like a horror film—blood everywhere. The Man of Sorrows is Christ at his most lowly, sacrificial, and pathetic. In Christ the Pantocrator, we see Christ at his most exalted and powerful, and in Christ the Man of Sorrows, we see him at his most vulnerable—as the visual representation of his cry, “Oh God, why have you forsaken me.”

For the writer of Hebrews, these two depictions need each other. The only way you are allowed near the Pantocrator is because he once looked like the Man of Sorrows. We only know that this Pantocrator is the true Almighty because we have seen the Man of Sorrows. We only can recognize the ruling Christ because we have seen the broken Christ. The author Hebrews is trying to express that we can draw near because God drew near in sacrifice. 

The discussion then shifts to the image of Melchizedek, an idea that will center the book for the next few chapters. The image of Melchizedek provides a model whereby the priest might also sit rightfully on the throne of God. The text twice explains that Jesus is of the “order of Melchizedek.” Whether this means that Jesus is a vocational descendent of Melchizedek or the fulfillment of a priestly type is unclear.

More importantly, God has ordained that Christ remain a “priest forever.” That is, Christ occupies multiple eschatological roles—ruling and judging, sure, but also interceding. The dual role of Christ might seem paradoxical in practice, but in Christ, the dissonant finds harmony. It is no wonder that the author must reach for an obscure foreign ruler as an example of Christ’s purpose and role. Christ’s ability to fulfill multiple and somewhat contradictory roles is precisely what makes him Christ. Therefore, the contradictions are not a stumbling block but a confirmation that Christ is the ground of hope in a contradictory world.