Jesus Cures the Man Born Blind, Jesus Mafa, 1973
from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.
Original source: http://www.librairie-emmanuel.fr.
(About this Image)
Jesus said to him in reply,
“What do you want me to do for you?”
The blind man replied to him, “Master, I want to see.”
Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
October 24, 2021
In last week’s commentary, we began the section of the Letter to the Hebrews that proclaimed Jesus as the High Priest. We will continue this theme for the next 3 weeks. It may seem to us that the author develops this at excessive length. It is an interesting interpretation—we will readily admit—but perhaps could be more economically stated. First, we should note that the sections we will read these next few weeks are at best the highlights of the Author’s exposition. Also, this reflects more than an attractive theological concept, it is a matter of life and death for his community. Scripture never loses its force so it would do us well to understand the relevance of Jesus’ priesthood for ourselves.
As we have seen, the Letter to the Hebrews was written to a community of Jewish Christians. Rome was the most likely destination, and as the author writes excellent Greek, the community would have had at least some highly educated members. He is certainly assuming that they knew their scriptures if only in Greek translation. He is aware of this community’s respect for Judaism and shares it himself. These are people who became Christians because they believed that it would make them better Jews. Most immediately, that they would form a deeper covenant with the God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob. The author is concerned that their commitment is weakening, and they are thinking of returning to Judaism.
A covenant requires a sacrifice, and a sacrifice demands a priest. The author will argue that Jesus is our priest and victim and thus the sacrifice he offers and the covenant it forms will bring people closer to God than possible by any other means.
The author will use classic rhetorical techniques to make his argument.
He will first state the qualifications for the high priest. (We saw last week that it is only the high priest who can offer sacrifice for the whole people. Only he is relevant for this discussion.)
(1) He is chosen from other human beings:
Every high priest is taken from among men
and made their representative before God,
to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.
(2) He can perform his function because he is human and shares human weaknesses. The covenant is not a reward for good behavior but a means of keeping the community together.
He is able to deal patiently with the ignorant and erring,
for he himself is beset by weakness
and so, for this reason,
must make sin offerings for himself as well as for the people.
(3) Called to this office by God and not by his own choice.
No one takes this honor upon himself
but only when called by God, just as Aaron was
He then shows how Jesus fulfills these requirements. Demonstrating his rhetorical prowess, he answers these in reverse order:
In the same way, it was not Christ
who glorified himself in becoming high priest,
but rather the one who said to him:
“You are my son; this day I have begotten you”;
He has shared our weakness:
In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications
Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered;
But he can offer sacrifice for our sins:
and when he was made perfect,
he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him
declared by God high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.
Next week’s selection from the Letter to the Hebrews will show why it is so important for Jesus to be the High Priest. The author will take considerably more time than we would to convince his immediate Jewish audience that Jesus truly is the new high priest. There is one immediate and serious difficulty that he addresses today, however, and we must look at it before continuing.
Last week, we noted the priesthood—at very least—had become professionalized and hereditary by the time of the Temple. Sacrifice could be offered only in Jerusalem by a member of the tribe of Levi. Jesus is of the line of David (Judah) and would by this reading not be able to be a legitimate priest.
The author addresses this problem with the figure of Melchizedek. He appears in the book of Genesis:
And King Melchizedek of Salem brought out bread and wine;
he was priest of God Most High. He blessed him and said,
“Blessed be Abram by God Most High,
maker of heaven and earth;
and blessed be God Most High,
who has delivered your enemies into your hand!”
And Abram gave him one-tenth of everything.
Note he was both king and Priest.
Melchizedek is a mysterious figure and that is very convenient for the author. Historically, there was no order of priests that traced its linage to Melchizedek. Yet there are many points of contact: Salem is usually considered to be Jerusalem. Although Saul, the first king, was forbidden to offer sacrifice, David and Solomen were able to do so. The author is suggesting that as the King of Jerusalem they inherited the priestly role of their predecessor Melchizedek. Bread and wine are the prerequisites for the Christian Eucharist and Melchizedek was a priest of “God most high” who was “Maker of heaven and earth” and could be considered the “LORD”. He was also a Gentile and thus his priesthood would be for all people.
Melchizedek appears again in Psalm 110:
The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind,
“You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.”
This psalm is addressed to a king, perhaps David, certainly one of his successors, who is going into battle. He is given the assurance of victory and thus divine approval. Jesus of course was victorious over sin and death.
We are not as concerned with many of these issues. They will never be as directly important to us as to the Jews, but we should nonetheless be more aware of them than we are. We know our relationship with Jesus to be a covenant. We must root our understanding of what Jesus meant by sacrifice in the beliefs of the Jewish people. But with Melchizedek we are shown that history, even the most noble and God-guided, can never contain Jesus. He is always more than we can know because his love for us is more than we can imagine.