Caritas, William Wilson, 1954,
St. Mungo’s Cathedral (Glasgow). Source: Flickr
The scribe said to him, “Well said, teacher.
You are right in saying,
‘He is One and there is no other than he.’
And ‘to love him with all your heart,
with all your understanding,
with all your strength,
and to love your neighbor as yourself’
is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
Thirty-First Sunday of Ordinary Time
October 31, 2021
Last week, we were introduced to the priest / king Melchizedek. He was a mysterious figure who the author of Hebrews used to demonstrate the validity and superiority of Jesus’s priesthood. He returns to this in today’s passage, but we must back up a bit to the beginning of chapter 7 to understand the issues involved.
Chapter 7 will compare the priesthood of Melchizedek with that of the official “Levitical” priesthood and then show the importance of Jesus’ descent from the former. The author is demonstrating considerable intellectual dexterity and originality in this interpretation but one, as we will discover, very important for our own understanding of the Priesthood.
For the author, it is key that Melchizedek blessed Abraham and not the reverse:
“Abraham the patriarch gave him a tenth of the spoils.
And those descendants of Levi who receive the priestly office
have a commandment in the law to collect tithes from the people,
that is, from their kindred, though these also are descended from Abraham”.
Abraham acknowledges the superiority of Melchizedek. This relationship is passed down to his decendents the tribe of Levi from whom Priests must come.
Thus, Jesus who is of the tribe of Judah—the tribe of Kings—and not a Levite priest is also superior to them.
It is even more obvious when another priest arises, resembling Melchizedek,
one who has become a priest,
not through a legal requirement concerning physical descent,
but through the power of an indestructible life.
For it is attested of him,
“You are a priest forever,
according to the order of Melchizedek.
Jesus arose—a reference to his death and resurrection—and this proves that “he has been made perfect forever.” He is a priest like Melchizedek.
The Levitical priests were human and could not offer a perfect sacrifice that would cleanse people not temporarily but permanently.
On the one hand, a former commandment is annulled because of its weakness and uselessness,
for the law brought nothing to perfection;
on the other hand, a better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God.
This is accomplished by the word of God:
The Lord has sworn, and he will not repent:
‘You are a priest forever’”—
to that same degree has Jesus also
become the guarantee of an even better covenant.
The Levitical priesthood was limited in several ways. First, only the high priest could offer sacrifice for all the people. This was done every morning with an offering of a lamb, flour, and wine and most importantly on Yom Kippur the day of Atonement when he would offer a bull for his own sins and a goat for the sins of the people. He was himself a sinful person and as we have just seen had to first offer sacrifice for his own sins. Also, he was mortal and would die and need to be replaced.
The author of Hebrews contrasts that to Jesus:
He is always able to save those who approach God through him,
since he lives forever to make intercession for them.
He is himself without sin:
… holy, innocent, undefiled,
separated from sinners, higher than the heavens.
He has no need, as did the high priests,
to offer sacrifice day after day,
first for his own sins and then for those of the people;
he did that once for all when he offered himself.
The once and for all nature of Jesus’ sacrifice will be the principal interest of next week’s reading. This week, the author is primarily concerned to remind his readers that Jesus’ decision to offer himself up on the cross as a sacrifice and the Father’s acceptance of this sacrifice has created a new and everlasting covenant that proves that Jesus is a priest. Although the terminology and “mechanics” of this sacrifice and covenant must be understood from the perceptive of the Levitical priesthood, it cannot be bond to it.
Therefore the “law” could only appoint mortal people who could offer a temporary cleansing, but Jesus completes the oath of God that there would be a new order of priest who would make a complete and eternal covenant because he has been “made perfect forever.”
This would have been extremely important for the audience of the author of Hebrews. His people were on the whole born Jews and became Christian to become better Jews: more fully part of God’s family. They were being tempted now to return to Judaism. They were being persecuted by the Romans but also the Lord had not returned and on what was this new religion really based? The author today is showing them by their own scriptures and with a line of reasoning which we might find incomprehensible but which many of them would be thought compelling that Jesus fulfilled their expectations beyond their wildest imaginings.
It also realizes a crucial point for us: Jesus’ priesthood is not only eternal but is open to human participation
In the 1st letter of St Peter, we read.
But you are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation,
a people of his own, so that you may announce the praises”
of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light
(1 Pe 2:9)
from our sins by his blood,
who has made us into a kingdom,
priests for his God and Father,
to him be glory and power forever (and ever).
The church has understood this, as we read in the catechism:
1546 Christ, high priest and unique mediator, has made of the Church “a kingdom, priests for his God and Father.”
The whole community of believers is, as such, priestly.
The faithful exercise their baptismal priesthood through their participation,
each according to his own vocation, in Christ’s mission as priest, prophet, and king.
Through the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation the faithful are “consecrated to be … a holy priesthood.”
There is only one priesthood, the priesthood of Jesus. All Christians share in that, but some are ordained to offer the Sacrifice of the Mass. This priesthood is not inherited and does not require membership in any particular tribe or group. It is received as a grace, a call, and thus we speak of vocations to the priesthood.
We usually mean a call to the ordained priesthood. Who is called is a great mystery and, why the number of those responding has declined so markedly, a great question for everyone concerned about the Church. While we are all priestly through our baptisms, we still need to respond to a call to make this a living reality in our lives.
The relationship between the “Baptismal Priesthood” and the “Ordained Priesthood” has always been important but never really immediate. Our need to revive the church post-COVID and indeed follow the Pope on the synodal path will require that we not only understand this relationship but make it fruitful. To make the church Jesus’ earthly presence, we must obey his heavenly call.