Commentary on Hebrews 5:1-10
Vulnerability is a theme of this week’s reading from Hebrews.
The passage continues the focus on the priestly ministry of Jesus, which was part of last week’s reading. But it also explores the dimension of vulnerability for all who exercise pastoral leadership — and for all people of faith.
The opening section speaks of priestly responsibility in terms that would have been familiar to the first readers of Hebrews (5:1-4). It begins with the most visible aspects, which center on worship. In ancient Israel the most prominent actions of a high priest involved making or overseeing the sacrifices that set the ongoing rhythm of worship in the temple.
The book of Leviticus gives the details of the offerings made both morning and evening. The gifts that worshipers brought to express thanks or to seek forgiveness for sin. There were offerings of sheep, goats, and doves. Offerings of grain and the first fruits of the harvest. Clouds of incense and the scent of burnt meat and blood were all part of the scenes in which people thought of priests. And the same was true among the Greeks and Romans. Their religious festivals too had priests, who offered gifts at the altar. It was the most visible part of the job.
Then the passage turns to the way the priest was to deal with people. The writer refers to “the ignorant and wayward,” which sounds less than charitable (Hebrews 5:2). But the comment calls attention to the fact that so much of ministry involves places where good intentions inadvertently bring negative results. It calls to mind the countless times we hear people in our own communities saying, “I didn’t mean to…” or “What was I thinking?” or “If I’d only known….” And yet damage has been done. So pastor, now what?
Instead of giving a simple answer, Hebrews points to the fact that everyone involved in ministry has been in that same position of needing to own something that has gone wrong. In ancient Israel, the high priest had to offer sacrifices for his own sins in addition to those made for the sins of the people. In current ministry, those who lead the congregation in the confession of sins include themselves among those who fall short.
Those who provide the means of grace for the congregation also need to receive the bread and wine with the promise of forgiveness. The question is not whether people in ministry are flawed and fallible. The question is how that deep sense of self-awareness might position them to minister well among those whom they serve.
The moral failings of those in ministry have had a profoundly negative effect on public perceptions of the church. The jarring contradictions between the values that leaders sometimes express and their failings to live up to those values undermine the credibility of the church’s witness as a whole. And the same is true of all who belong to the Christian community. Each follower of Jesus is a flawed human being.
So having named this reality, Hebrews then turns to how it actually might shape the way we see Christ and understand what it means to serve in his name. Last week the writer depicted Christ as a priest who can “sympathize” or better “show compassion” for vulnerable people (Hebrews 4:15). There Hebrews was clear that Christ’s compassion came not from moral failings sinfulness but from his profound experience of vulnerability through suffering.
The same is true in the passage for this week, where the writer depicts Christ’s loud cries, tears, and prayers (Hebrews 5:7). The gospel accounts of Jesus in Gethsemane and his calling to God from the cross make this vivid in narrative form. The language of Hebrews also recalls that of the Psalms, which express what it means to be deeply vulnerable through suffering (Psalm 22:1-2; 116:1-10). And the writer says that such experience is integral to the way Christ lived out his calling to bring salvation to others.
Hebrews insists that ministering is not a right but a calling, even for Christ himself. The early readers would have agreed that Jesus was the Son of God, and the writer quotes Psalm 2:7 to emphasize that aspect of Jesus’ identity. But then he quotes from Psalm 110, where God gives a priestly role to his Son. Where Psalm 110:1 spoke of the royal figure at God’s right hand, Psalm 110:4 said that this figure is a priest after the order of Melchizedek (Hebrews 5:5-6). The significance of Melchizedek will be developed in Hebrews 7. What is important here is simply that there were priests outside the traditional order of Aaron, who was mentioned in Hebrews 5:4.
With that in mind, the author brings the key points together. Ministry is not a right, but a calling. And God calls those who understand human vulnerability because they have experienced it. That was true for Jesus, whose experience of suffering belongs to the compassion he extends to others who struggle.
Jesus meets those in the struggle in order to bring them through the struggle into renewed relationship with God and into the forms of service to which God calls them. It is clear that vulnerability is not an end in itself for Jesus or for those who follow. Rather, it is through that gift of shared humanity that grace is given, that bonds are formed, and that the promise of God’s future continues to bring hope and renewal.