Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

In the city of Macon, Georgia, the Harriet Tubman African-American Museum honors the memory of the “Black Moses,” the best-known conductor on the Underground Railroad.

October 4, 2009

Second Reading
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Commentary on Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12

In the city of Macon, Georgia, the Harriet Tubman African-American Museum honors the memory of the “Black Moses,” the best-known conductor on the Underground Railroad.

A runaway slave herself, Tubman returned again and again to the South to rescue her family members and other slaves. In her nineteen trips, she escorted more than three hundred slaves to freedom. At great personal risk, she blazed a trail to freedom for many. Her own journey made her a trustworthy and knowledgeable guide for others.1

This week’s lectionary reading from Hebrews pictures Jesus in similar terms, as a trailblazer who guides “many children” to freedom (2:10). That image of Jesus as our pioneer is all the more remarkable given the opening verses of Hebrews. In phrases of great rhetorical power, the writer celebrates the unique status of the Son by whom God has now spoken (1:1). These claims rush out at the beginning of his sermon like a great river tumbling down a waterfall.

  • God has appointed the Son to be “heir of all things” (1:2); his future and his destiny are clear.
  • The Son has also been the agent of creation, the one through whom God “created the worlds” (1:2).
  • But his role with respect to creation continues; he also “sustains all things” (1:3). His activity with respect to creation spans past, present, and future.
  • The Son also radiates God’s glory or brightness or splendor (1:3).
  • He is the “exact imprint” or stamp or engraving of God’s essential being. Jesus is the clearest picture we have of God.
  • Finally, he is our high priest. He has “made purification for sins” (1:3) through his sacrificial offering. Here the writer first introduces his unique focus on Jesus as high priest, a theme central to the development of his sermon. His enthronement at God’s right hand conveys his power and glory.

    Thus these initial verses of Hebrews stress the exalted status of the Son. But the second part of the reading (2:5-12) focuses on the lowliness of the Son and his identification with us, his brothers and sisters (2:11). The opening prologue stresses that the name God gave to the Son is superior to the name given to the angels, while this new section underscores that God placed the Son, not the angels, in charge of the coming world.

To demonstrate his point, the writer turns to Psalm 8:4-6. Unfortunately, the NRSV’s translation of the psalm obscures both the writer’s Christological interpretation of these verses and his argument. The Greek version of the psalm that the writer uses does not speak of “human beings” or “mortals” in the plural, but of “man” and “the son of man” in the singular.

It is the reference to “the son of man” in Psalm 8:4b that is the key for the writer of Hebrews. The next verse of the psalm continues: “you have made him for a little while lower than the angels” (Psalm 8:5; Hebrews 2:7). The author uses this text to show that Jesus was made lower than the angels, but that abasement was only temporary. It was for “a little while” (2:9).

The ultimate destiny of Jesus is not a status inferior to the angels. In the psalm, God crowns “the son of man” with glory and honor, placing everything in subjection to him (Psalm 8:5b-6a; Hebrews 2:7b-8a). The writer of Hebrews reads the psalm in light of Jesus’ incarnation and exaltation. Jesus is “the son of man” who was made lower than the angels but who was exalted after his suffering and death (2:9).

Here, like a road that reaches the top of a hill only to open onto a larger vista, the writer’s argument makes one more turn. He provides yet a deeper reading of the psalm. The pattern of abasement and exaltation does not apply to Jesus alone. He is not a solitary figure, but a “pioneer” or “captain” or “champion” of salvation who brings many to glory (2:10). His destiny is not his alone but belongs to all of us who are his brothers and sisters (2:11).

That we share not only in Christ’s humanity but also in his glory is a thought too amazing for me to grasp. Human destiny–our destiny–is to share in the radiance of our Captain who has gone before us into the very presence of God. That we are brought to glory, C. S. Lewis writes, means that there “are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization–these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat.”2

Our lives and the lives of our sisters and brothers are not ordinary lives because we follow in the steps of the Son who leads us to glory and claims us as his own kin. Reflecting on that path that lies ahead of us moves us to adoration and praise. We may sing anew the words of Charles Wesley:

“Soar we now where Christ hath led, Alleluia!
Following our exalted Head, Alleluia!
Made like Him, like Him we rise, Alleluia!
Ours the cross, the grave, the skies, Alleluia!”3

2C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1949), 15.
3Charles Wesley, “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today.”