Trinity Church, Boston – Interior, from Art in the Christian
Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.
Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant;
whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.
For the Son of Man did not come to be served
but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.
Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time
October 17, 2021
Today we begin a new section of the Letter to the Hebrews and examine in, what to us may seem excessive detail, Jesus as High Priest. In two verses, the author provides an overture for the several chapters that follow and introduces themes he will take up and develop later. To understand any of them we must step back and look at covenant and the priesthood that it requires.
The Israelites identified as a people who had a unique relationship with the God they referred to as “the Lord.” They did not have a contract with him for goods and services but a covenant sharing his very life. In their world, a covenant made a common family. Jews intrigued by Christianity would never jeopardize this relationship and would only convert if they thought this was a way of being even closer to the Lord. The author of Hebrews is concerned that some of the members of his community, most likely a “Jewish Christian” church in Rome, have had second thoughts and were considering a return to Judaism. He is therefore talking to them as a Jew to other Jews and we must master some basic ideas to follow him.
A covenant was always ratified by the sacrifice of an animal and in most situations with a meal. Not all covenants and therefore not all sacrifices were with God. Sacrifices could be for many purposes such as a treaty or sale of land. We are most interested in those offered to God by the leader of the Jewish people for the entire community.
Originally there was no specialized “priesthood” in Judaism, but a clan or tribal leader would offer the sacrifice. After the flood, Noah offers a sacrifice to God with God’s acceptance shown with the rainbow. Abraham makes a direct covenant sacrifice with God (Gn 15:7-18) and of course the akedah: the near sacrifice of his son Isaac (Gn 22:1-19).
A separate Priesthood appeared after the Exodus from Egypt. (Ex:29) Although it may have been developing before then, by the time the Israelites had entered the promised land. the hereditary priesthood was established (c. 1350 BC). This was with the tribe of Levi. Although one of the twelve tribes, they did not receive land like the others, but the priesthood and all the other tribes were to support them.
A dedicated temple was not needed for a sacrifice. There were preferred locations, but a priest could offer sacrifice wherever he wished. But as the institution developed, the temple in Jerusalem was built and thereafter only sacrifices from it were accepted.
Not unsurprisingly, the Temple was mostly a series of courtyards, as the animal ritual was done in the open air. The blood and stench would have been otherwise overpowering. People would bring animals to the temple, the priests would sacrifice them, take some of the meat for themselves and then return the slaughtered animal to the family who brought it for them to have a meal to seal the covenant. There were so many priests that they worked infrequently and even then, were chosen by lot. Remember Jesus’s uncle Zechariah in Luke. (Lk 1:8)
The role of the high priest was different. The other priests offered sacrifice for individual persons and families. The high priest offered sacrifice for the whole people. This was most important on Yom Kippur, then as now the Day of Atonement. He would enter the Holy of Holies in the tabernacle, then the temple, and cleanse it of the sins of the people. This was the only time anyone could enter this most sacred part of the temple.
Tell your brother Aaron not to come
just at any time into the sanctuary
inside the curtain before the mercy seat
that is upon the ark,
or he will die;
for I appear in the cloud upon the mercy seat.
The most important rite was sprinkling the blood of a sacrificial bull or goat on the mercy seat in the Holy of Holies. The mercy seat (kapporet) was the place of expiation. The golden cover of the ark of the covenant upon which stood two gold statues of winged “angels” (cherubim, (Ex 25:18-21 but also Heb 9:5). It is translated as “mercy seat” because it was thought that the LORD dispensed his mercy to his people from it. It can be seen as the LORD’s throne on earth.
The high priesthood had a long and tortuous political history, but its function remained fairly constant and its symbolic power always potent.
We can see why the author of Hebrews found it so important. The author of Hebrews key task was to keep these people Christian to “hold fast to our confession.” He needed to show that Jesus’s death and resurrection provided a deeper relationship with God than any other option.
Like St Mark, he understood that Jesus passing through the heavens has opened the way to God: And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom (Mk 15:38). Here is true access.
But he also emphasized that Jesus has a personal relationship with us. Part of the job description of the high priest in Jesus’s day was definitely not sympathy for the people. By this time, he was a political appointee. Jesus on the other hand has experienced life as they have. They accepted the new faith but now are being challenged to turn back but so was Jesus. Mark’s Gospel is also for and from the church in Rome. This is the Jesus they know and on the cross he screamed: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34b)
Jesus did not turn back in any way; he was without sin. We read before that when Jesus was called first as a pioneer: he went first and leads us. (see Oct. 3, 2021 commentary) This means in the very Jewish terms, we approach the mercy seat with him.
They would have understood this in very literal terms:
Hear the plea of your servant and of your people Israel
when they pray toward this place;
O hear in heaven your dwelling place;
heed and forgive.
(1 Ki 8:30)
The author is not offering a vision but a journey, He has already told
But of the Son he says,
“Your throne, O God, is forever and ever,
and the righteous scepter is the scepter of your kingdom.
And his audience would have remembered the passage from Psalm 45:
Your throne, O God, endures forever and ever.
Your royal scepter is a scepter of equity;
you love righteousness and hate wickedness.
Therefore God, your God, has anointed you
with the oil of gladness beyond your companions
Jesus is our way to the presence of the Father. His mercy and grace begin now and will continue forever. This will be developed in greater detail in next week’s passage yet always remember that for the author of Hebrews to quote from the words of consecration proclaims that Jesus has come to form “a new and everlasting covenant.”