Hebrews 5

The writer keeps elaborating on this model of a ‘high priest’ as the analogy to Christ, as a mortal copy of the more ultimate one. The role can be inferred from many Torah texts, and stories from the former prophets. There was a high priest in Solomon’s Temple, and in the Second Temple for 500 years. The role changed, certainly through the desecration of the temple 165BCE and under Roman rule. From 70CE, there was no Temple or high priest job.

How do you imagine the mediatorial role of any priest? What is the point or purpose of gifts and sacrifices to God. The focus here, and through Hebrews, is an atoning sacrifice for sins. Torah has lots of provision for what we call criminal and civil penalties and payments, and for thanks offerings and tithes. This gift is not compensation for loss, but something greater.

I’ve come at this ‘Sacrifice’ issue during previous readings of Leviticus and of Genesis. I particularly recommend reading Terry Eagleton’s ‘Radical Sacrifice’ or touring Slavoj Zizek building on Lacan and Rene Girard, connecting reflections on violence and mimesis in the cathartic wars of the past century. However, I still don’t get it cognitively – just at some gut level.

Today, the reading directs us to distinguish Jesus as analogous to a high priest, but distinguishable, and closer to a ‘priest after the order of Melchizedek’. You can chase it down in Genesis: Abraham coming to Lot’s rescue, after the war of kings, before Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed, defers to Melchizedek.

‘Perfect’, or being made perfect, is probably less a matter of technological precision and purity as of completeness or catholicity or comprehensiveness –

Have you ever felt alienated, guilty, not in right relations, but unable to fix it with a transaction of compensation? Is there anything money can’t buy? Have you victims beyond reach, beyond identification or no longer living? Me too.

There’s a reference to what we know as Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, an annual confession of accumulated sin, bigger than the cumulative sins of us all, closer to what we acknowledge on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. This is beyond moralistic punishment for rule-breaking, but admission of mortal limits.

All of it is more fundamental and universally human than Abraham’s covenant, or Moses’ Torah. Melchizedek is a good shorthand for that. The writer of Hebrews, and this reader who jots notes online for you, promises to return to that code, but meanwhile, ends the chapter of the day with scolding:

Why are we all so willfully ignorant? Why do you presume that you have nothing to learn form our traditions? All I ask is 5-10 minutes a day, or 30-60 minutes a week! We know less than we did starting out 40 years ago! Worse, we are proud of our ignorance, as if we had outgrown religious thinking!

Our community can barely nurse the basic milk of mid-century Sunday School, let along feed others, or take on solid food. Those who should teach have failed to equip themselves by learning. No, we are not better than our elders. In that technical religious sense, we are degenerate, or at least unregenerate.

Let’s leave it there for the day.

Hebrews 5

Text: NRSV

1 Every high priest chosen from among mortals is put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.

2He is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness;

3and because of this he must offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people.

4And one does not presume to take this honour, but takes it only when called by God, just as Aaron was.

5 So also Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him, ‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you’;

6as he says also in another place, ‘You are a priest for ever, according to the order of Melchizedek.’

7 In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.

8Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered;

9and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him,

10having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.

11 About this we have much to say that is hard to explain, since you have become dull in understanding.

12For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic elements of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food;

13for everyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is unskilled in the word of righteousness.

14But solid food is for the mature, for those whose faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish good from evil.