Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

“Is she qualified? Can he do the job?”

October 18, 2009

Second Reading
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Commentary on Hebrews 5:1-10

“Is she qualified? Can he do the job?”

I ask these questions when the president nominates someone for an office or when I consider someone for a position of service in the church.

The author of Hebrews asks a similar question: is Jesus qualified for the office of high priest? His answer is “yes,” but demonstrating the reasons for his position is difficult because Jesus is not from the tribe of Levi (7:13-14). His lineage appears to disqualify him. In the lectionary passage this week, the writer begins to respond to this problem and shows that Jesus is qualified to function as our high priest.

The writer examines two qualifications in particular–humility and compassion. The structure of the argument is a concentric ring, as the writer treats compassion and humility in general (5:1-4) and reverses the order to argue for Christ’s humility (5:5-6) and compassion (5:7-10).

With respect to humility, the author first notes that high priests do not grasp at this position of honor. Those who arrogantly seize the office disqualify themselves. Aaron and his descendants who followed him as high priest came to their position because God called and appointed them.

Jesus fulfills this qualification as well. He has not presumed to take the office; God selected him. The author quotes two passages of scripture to support this claim. The first reference is to Psalm 2:7, a verse the writer first cited in 1:5. The second quotation is Psalm 110:4: “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek” (5:6). This quotation proves central in the argument.

The author knows Jesus does not fulfill the requirement of physical descent from Levi (7:13-14). How can he then continue to argue that God has appointed him to be high priest? Since any straightforward logic is blocked, the writer uses a chess knight’s move to jump over the objection. Christ, he points out, is not a priest like Levi at all. He is a priest like Melchizedek, who belongs to an older (and therefore better) order of priests.

Later the author will examine the relationship of Jesus and Melchizedek in more detail (7:1-28). Here he quickly turns to explore a second qualification, that of compassion or mercy. The high priest must be able to deal mercifully with the ignorant and the errant since he too is beset by human frailty (5:2). Most high priests must also offer sacrifice for their own sins as well as those of others (5:3).

Despite his exalted status as Son, Jesus too is able to sympathize with human frailty and limitation because of what he experienced in “the days of his flesh” (5:7). The analogy between Jesus and the other high priests does not hold in every respect because Jesus is without sin. Nonetheless, his experience of testing encompasses the full range of human experience so that he is able to sympathize with us (4:15).

In particular, the prayers of Jesus illustrate the depth of his identification with us. Just as the high priest offers “gifts and sacrifices for sins” (5:1), so Jesus sacrificially offers “prayers and supplications” (5:7). But Jesus did not offer these prayers in a serene sanctuary isolated from human need and pain. Instead, Jesus prayed to God in the midst of crisis, fervently and passionately, “with loud cries and tears” (5:7).

These prayers may allude to Jesus’ experience of prayer in Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36-46; Mark 14:32-42; Luke 22:40-46), to his prayer from the cross (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34), or to the role of prayer throughout the entirety of his passion. What matters most is that Jesus stands in solidarity with us in our vulnerability and finitude and, like us, cries out to God for help.

Jesus’ identification with humanity extends beyond prayer to obedience. His experiences in “the days of his flesh” were not a mere gloss on his heavenly status. Rather his obediential suffering–and here the writer has in mind his paschal suffering and death (2:9, 10; 9:26; 13:12)–becomes formative for his vocation as priest. In his own experience, Jesus learns how to respond to and obey God’s call. He does not cling to his prerogatives as Son but becomes obedient.

That obedience qualifies him for his service as priest, for it demonstrates his capacity to sympathize with us in our struggles. Learning obedience, Jesus became “the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him” (5:9). But why should the obedience of Jesus as a human being matter? Why does salvation depend on a high priest who is subject to weakness, who prays in crisis, who learns what the human lot is like? Why does Jesus’ service as high priest require his identification with us?

In a column entitled “The Man and the Birds,” religion editor Louis Cassels recounted the story of a man who refused to attend a Christmas Eve service with his family because he did not believe in the incarnation. He remained at home, where it began to snow. Minutes later, he heard what he thought was someone throwing snowballs against his window. Going outside to investigate, he found a flock of birds trying to fly through his window as they sought refuge from the storm. He thought they might find shelter in his barn, and he made his way there. He opened the doors and turned on the light, but the birds stayed outside. He created a trail of bread crumbs for them to follow into the barn, but that did not work. He tried to shoo them into the barn, but that effort also proved unsuccessful.

“If only I could be a bird myself for a few minutes, perhaps I could lead them to safety.” At that moment, the church bells began to ring, and the man sank to his knees in the snow. “Now I do understand,” he whispered. “Now I see why You had to do it.”