19th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Embracing the Reality of Our Hopes

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“Do not be afraid any longer, little flock,
for your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom.
Sell your belongings and give alms.
Provide money bags for yourselves that do not wear out,
an inexhaustible treasure in heaven
that no thief can reach nor moth destroy.
For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.”
(Luke 12:32–34)

Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Hebrews 11:1–2, 8–19
August 7, 2022

The second Sunday readings this month will be from the “Letter to the Hebrews.” We looked at sections of this letter last fall. Then we learned that it was most likely written in and for the 1st century church in Rome. Most of the Christians in Rome were born Jews and understood Judaism. We can surmise from hints in the letter and the topics the author examines that they still felt a pull to return to Judaism. These were for theological, political, and psychological reasons. Many thought that the Lord’s return had been suspiciously delayed and all were aware that they had lost the protection of Judaism. Remember, Jews did not have to offer sacrifice to the emperors, if Christians were considered a new religion, they would face the death penalty.

The author first examined the most basic issue for a Jew, the covenant with the Lord which defined them. A covenant requires offering a sacrifice and thus a priest. The author established that Jesus is the eternal high priest and the covenant he creates is deeper than the temple convent and more permanent. Today we will see him address faith and why it always was the key connection to the LORD.

He first defines faith: “Faith is the realization (Hypostasis) of what is hoped for and evidence (Elenchos) of things not seen.” (Heb 11:1) This definition is intentionally vague. The word we are translating as “realization” is literally “what lies under” and can mean a subjective understanding of something or the reality itself. Some scholars indeed translate this line as “now faith is the reality of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” The word for evidence can be seen as subjective reproof or compelling argument, or more objectively as the evidence itself. The author of Hebrews wrote excellent Greek, and he is playing on these meanings quite consciously.

We see why in the next line: “Because of it the ancients were well attested.” (Heb 11:2) In today’s section, he will show that the Jewish people lived by faith. It was faith in their covenant with the LORD that guided them, and the definition should be interpreted by the reality of how the great ones of Israel lived.

The next few verses speak of Abel, Enoch, and Noah but our reading skips to Abraham. The author will look at four key challenges in Abraham’s life and how he overcame them “by faith.”

By faith Abraham obeyed
when he was called to go out to a place
that he was to receive as an inheritance;
he went out, not knowing where he was to go.

(Heb 11:8)

When we meet Abraham, he is a prosperous and settled citizen of a pagan city but is called to leave it.

Go forth from your land, your relatives,
and from your father’s house
to a land that I will show you.”

(Gen 12:1)

The readers of Roman Hebrews were well established in Judaism but having heard the gospel, they felt called to leave it.

Like Abraham their reason and their evidence to make this journey was faith itself.

By faith he sojourned in the promised land as in a foreign country
dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs of the same promise;
for he was looking forward to the city with foundations,
whose architect and maker is God

(Hebrews 11:9–10)

Abraham’s journey was longer than anticipated. He expected to find a permanent place. Yet he dwelt in a tent and the only land he owed was where he buried his wife. (Gen 23:17–20)

The Jews who accepted the Gospel were also expecting something more permanent and sooner. The city with foundations made by God was his return and the establishment of the kingdom. This has not occurred, and they are asking why and indeed if it will occur.

They will need faith to continue waiting for the Lord.

By faith he received power to generate,
even though he was past the normal age
—and Sarah herself was sterile—
for he thought that the one
who had made the promise was trustworthy.

(Heb 11:11)

The section above is a translator’s nightmare but the point is simple. Sarah was well past childbearing years, yet they were promised that they would be the first parents of a great nation:

I will indeed bless you,
and I will make your offspring as numerous
as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore

(Gen 22:17)

They followed the LORD’S instructions for decades and still did not have a single child. They maintained their faith however and continued. They saw that the promise was real and their experience of following him revealed him to be trustworthy – his argument was compelling.

It should be so for the Romans Christians as well. For what the Lord promised did come to pass.

So it was that there came forth from one man,
himself as good as dead,
descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky
and as countless as the sands on the seashore.

(Heb 11:12)

The Roman Christians had suffered persecution and saw their numbers diminish. They needed to look to the LORD with faith as well, but why?

All these died in faith.
They did not receive what had been promised
but saw it and greeted it from afar
and acknowledged themselves to be
strangers and aliens on earth

(Heb 11:13)

The act of following God reveals his presence and that we have not here a lasting city. We should not be satisfied until the Lord returns and completes the kingdom. If the Roman Christians lived by faith, they would understand that nothing else can satisfy us and that our greatest moments are not of possession but of expectation,

If they had been thinking of the land from which they had come,
they would have had opportunity to return.
But now they desire a better homeland, a heavenly one.
Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God,
for he has prepared a city for them.

(Heb 11:15–16)

Note the present tense for God’s acceptance: By desiring a better homeland in the future we please God in the present.

Yet there is still the reality of persecution.

By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac,
and he who had received the promises
was ready to offer his only son

(Heb 11:17)

All of Abraham’s hopes rested on his son and yet he was told to offer him as a sacrifice.

“Take your son Isaac, your only one,
whom you love, and …
offer him up as a burnt offering”

(Gen 22:2)

He trusted the LORD and was vindicated; the continued existence of the Jewish people is proof of that. The Roman Christians are reminded here that it is the same God who leads and protects them. Their faith is based on the realization that under everything else in the world is the working of the LORD.

He reasoned that God was able to raise even from the dead,
and he received Isaac back as a symbol.

(Heb 11:19)

His faith had been vindicated and the Roman Christians should take this as symbol of Jesus. Isaac was returned from the dead and now Jesus has been with even greater power. They can trust that they have made the right choice and should continue on the same path.

So should we.

Near the beginning of this letter, the author quotes a long passage from Psalm 95:8–11. It laments the faithlessness of the Israelites in the desert and recalls the dire consequences. He is thinking of course of the Roman Christians who are also on the verge of unfaithfulness to Jesus. Today’s reading provides a contrast. The Roman Christians were on a pilgrimage either to the light or the dark. So are we. We see this very clearly and contemporaneously with the synod of the Church. Will we freeze in fear or turn away to be absorbed by the world or will we embrace the reality of the things for which we hope?