Creation of Eve, Giusto de’ Menabuoi, 1376-78,
Chapel of S. Giovanni Battista, Padua
The LORD God then built up into a woman the rib
that he had taken from the man.
When he brought her to the man, the man said:
“This one, at last, is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
this one shall be called ‘woman, ‘
for out of ‘her man’ this one has been taken.”
That is why a man leaves his father and mother
and clings to his wife,
and the two of them become one flesh.
Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
Letter to the Hebrews 2:9–11
October 3, 2021
The Church begins the “Letter to the Hebrews” as the second reading at Mass this week. It is an interesting work in and of itself, but its choice is fortuitous. This summer we read the “Letter of St. James” written by a Jew who accepted Jesus as his Savior to other Jewish converts to Christianity. He argued, persuasively, that accepting Jesus made them better Jews and that consequently they had made the right choice. The situation facing the author of the “Letter to the Hebrews” is more complicated. He is addressing a congregation with members who may have had second thoughts about their conversion. It is generally considered to have been written in Rome for Roman Christians. As it assumes great familiarity with not only the Hebrew scriptures and cult but also “folklore,” its primary audience is presumed to be Jews. The title “To the Hebrews” was added after it was written, but reflects this reality. It is difficult to date but is presumed to have been written during persecution of Christians for “atheism,” not sacrificing to the gods of Rome. Jews were exempted from these sacrifices so returning to the ancient faith would have been enticing. As we will discover, there are other reasons as well.
The “Letter to the Hebrews” has many layers. The author’s Greek is excellent. His only rival in the New Testament is St. Luke. Also, he will most effectively state the complete humanity of Jesus while at the same time unambiguously proclaim his divinity. There are other interesting and profound insights as well but let us get to the passage for today.
The author has structured this chapter as an interpretation of part of Psalm 8:
Instead, someone has testified somewhere:(Hebrews 2:6–8a)
“What is man that you are mindful of him,
or the son of man that you care for him?
You made him for a little while lower than the angels;
you crowned him with glory and honor,
subjecting all things under his feet.”
What is man that you are mindful of him(Psalm 8:5–7)
and a son of man that you care for him?
Yet you have made him little less than a god,
crowned him with glory and honor.
you have given him rule over the works of your hands,
put all things at his feet:
Angels were particularly important in first century Judaism. They are present of course in the Old Testament although often in a confused and contradictory manner. They were however very prominent in some ancient Jewish texts most of which were never made part of the official texts (canon) of either Judaism or Christianity, but would have been known by most Jews. These were written as early as the 5th cent BC but as late as the first century AD. Angel literally means messenger but, in these texts, they also brought the law and aided people in times of distress. The book of Tobit within the canon would be a good example.
Psalm 8 is one of the most important and emotionally rich psalms. It expresses amazement that God has made human beings the master of creation although insignificant compared with the moon and the stars. Yet “you have given him rule over the works of your hands put all things at his feet.”
This psalm was not considered a Messianic prophecy until Hebrews. In doing so the author is making a bold step. In applying the psalm to Jesus, he explains how Jesus will complete the divine plan. He boldly proclaims that its deepest meaning has been brought to light by the good news of Jesus Christ.
The author of Hebrews writes “lower than the Angels.” This is an acceptable translation but, as stated in the translation of the Psalm above, “made him a little less than a God” would be more accurate. The author is emphasizing that Jesus in accepting humanity would be less than the angels but when he was exalted, he would again be superior. Thus, the aid which the Jews believed could be given by angels would be less than what Jesus would be able to do. Note also, he adds “for a little while,” Jesus voluntarily accepts this humiliation but will literally rise again.
In this, he tasted death for everyone. He died for us but unlike the death of a mere hero his death was able to save everyone.
The next verse contains many striking elements:
For it was fitting that he,(Heb 2:10)
for whom and through whom all things exist,
in bringing many children to glory,
should make the leader to their salvation
perfect through suffering.
It might be helpful to read this in reverse order. The author expects that the people reading his sermon might have to suffer. He wants to show them that Jesus had suffered and been vindicated by God indeed raised from the dead. This has made him their leader. Leader here can be translated as “pioneer.” Jesus went first and is calling on them to follow. This is how we become Jesus’ children and receive glory. Jesus is perfect in his very being but as a sacrifice for our sins, again a subject that will be more extensively treated later, he will need to suffer and be slain. To be a “perfect” sacrifice, he must be an actual one. As he is the creator of all things he is “invested” in our being rescued, saved, from our sins so it is fitting that he does this both first and without reservation.
Consecration in the next line means to be set apart from the profane and earthly to enter the presence of God. Jews would have immediately understood that this was the call of Israel from the very beginning: “but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” (Ex 19:6) Jesus will have now joined them in their origin
The last line might be ironic. Perhaps some who will read this letter will on second thought have been ashamed of Jesus. Accepting a humiliated God for anyone in the ancient world would have been difficult and some may have wished to turn back. Yet Jesus is not ashamed to call them “brothers,” (Heb 2:11)
If we designed a Messiah, it would not be Jesus. A meek savior goes too far against human expectations. The major distortions of the Gospel by Christians throughout history have been to make him an imposing monarch not a suffering servant. Hebrews will show us that we can be children of Jesus only if we join him in serving our brothers and sisters.