Commentary on Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
This week’s lection picks up directly from last week’s reading and offers a jarring tonal shift.
The author moves immediately from describing God’s shaking and consuming power (Hebrews 12:29) to exhortations about life in community. Some have argued that this abrupt change points to this last chapter being added on after the fact either by the original author or someone else. Either way these closing remarks aren’t an exhaustive list of community ethics nor a total summation of this grand treatise, but instead they feel like the final exhortations of a writer pouring their heart out for the cause of community. Verse 1 could serve as a header for the next few verses, as the verses 2-5 really tease out what it means to “let mutual love continue.”
Though these verses cover a variety of areas, one of the themes that holds them together is the notion of building solidarity in relationships. Mutual love means sharing power. Following a Savior has been defined throughout this book by the sacrifice that he represents for us all, we are called then to join in the sacrifice of our own position in order to build relationships. The host must put themselves on the same level as those that they host, seeing to the needs of those that enter their home before their own. Those that are free must put themselves in the position of those that are imprisoned. In verse 3 the language is bold, as it is an exhortation to not only remember those who are in prison, but also a call for us to act as if we are in prison. There is a call here to eliminate the distance between ourselves and those that are suffering, eschewing the fear of receiving the same punishment as those that are locked away or being tortured.
Mutual love is continual solidarity with the stranger and those that are imprisoned. The depth of this call is further magnified when we realize that Romans used prison as detention centers until punishment instead of being punishment in and of itself. Prisoners were often not given food or clothing from the prison itself, and they relied on the hospitality of others to survive. The author of Hebrews here is exhorting the community to put themselves in the shoes of those that have been imprisoned and to treat them accordingly. Even the call for the marriage bed to be undefiled intimates a leveling of relationship between spouses. In a patriarchal society an exhortation “for all” to honor the marriage bed, and not simply a regulation of the woman’s sexuality was a bold declaration. In this instance, husband and wife both share the responsibility of honoring one another in their marriage bond, causing them to be in sacred solidarity with each other.
The next few verses direct us to find assurance in God’s presence with us, and to use that assurance as the foundation for our discipleship. Instead of naming the love of money as the root of all evil (1 Timothy 6:10), the author here says that we can forego the love of money because God promises never to leave us. The accompanying call to contentment isn’t based on morality here as much as it is practicality. We can afford to be content because God is always there with us. By implication we can rely on God and don’t have to rely on money. Even the exhortation to remember our leaders reminds us of need to trust in God’s solidarity with us. Verse 7 is a call back to the previous chapters that offer sheroes and heroes of the faith, but in a more local manner. The author here is not referring to the faith legends of yesteryear, but to those faithful church leaders that this community knew intimately. The community is encouraged to trust in God because they were able to witness first-hand what lives committed to Christ looked like. Our preaching might make a similar move as we remind people in our congregations of the faithful that have lived among us. God was faithful to them, and God will be faithful to everyone else.
It may be worth exploring here the relationship between our ability to trust in God’s presence, and our ability to love one another. What is it about our trust in God that allows us to love one another and be in solidarity with one another? How can the witness of those that have gone before us in the faith help us to love one another in the faith today?
In the final two verses of this passage the author ties together praise and good works as necessary sacrifices made to God. This is the acceptable worship that it is to be made with “reverence and awe” as mentioned in Hebrews 12:28. By eliminating verses 9-14 from the lectionary passage, the “then” found in verse 15 does not make as much sense. The author is exhorting the community to worship in spite of any shame or abuse heaped on them from other communities. The “then,” then, is a reference to the conditions through which the community must worship. And this worship, which now includes fellowship and good deeds must continue without general appreciation or even support from the larger community. What does sacrificial worship look like in congregations today? This text might help congregations explore what it would be to continually offer a sacrifice of praise in our modern context. In what contexts, and in what ways is it dangerous and difficult to “do good and share what you have?” (Hebrews 13:16). Who are the people for whom our congregations would be ashamed to serve? What sacrifices do we have to make in order to do good? And what does it say about our society that it is ever a “sacrifice” to do good?