20th Sunday in Ordinary Time – The Joy of Feeling His Pleasure

Assumption of the Virgin, (detail) Antonio da Correggio,
1526-1530, Parma Cathedral cupola fresco,
(About this Image)

Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Letter To the Hebrews 12:1–4
August 14, 2022

For the next 3 weeks we will examine chapter 12 of the “Letter to the Hebrews.” This is greater depth than usual. It is an important section not only for understanding the letter as a whole at any time but what being a Christian means today. The chapter presents three images of how and why we should follow Jesus even if it is difficult. Next week we will look at how the Christian way leads to maturity (12:5–13) and the following week the author will reveal it as a living liturgy (12:18–24). This week we will look at the Christian way as a great race (12:1–4).

This is a letter written by and for the Christians in Rome around 100 AD. They were mostly born Jews and were quite knowledgeable about Judaism. They expected Jesus as the Messiah to return soon and set up his kingdom. They were disconcerted that this had not occurred. Also, as they were no longer treated as Jews, they would be subject to the Roman religious laws which required sacrificing to the emperor. This act was strictly forbidden to Christians as well as Jews. They were tempted to return to the emotional and physical safety of Judaism. This letter is written in response to this temptation and the image of the race was a brilliant conceit.

The Roman Christians saw many races and understood at least the basic rules and customs. The race described today is a marathon. Perhaps not always 26 miles but nonetheless long and exhausting. Like now, it attracted attention and people would line the streets to urge the runners on. The difference, however, is that it would end in a stadium, with thousands of people making a deafening roar.

This is the context of the first verse of chapter 12:

Therefore, since we are surrounded
by so great a cloud of witnesses,
let us rid ourselves of every burden
and sin that clings to us and
persevere in running the race that lies before us

(Heb 12:1)

The “great clouds of witnesses” are the great saints of the Old Testament from chapter 11: Norah, Enoch, and most especially Abraham and Sarah. Note he begins with “therefore.” Because of their persevering in their faith in the LORD despite great difficulties, they can encourage us on our way.

The author makes a subtle observation about athletes. As now, they do not run in street clothes but with as little clothing as possible. They must strip off anything which will slow them down. We are told that we must do the same and remove from our lives not only sin but distractions so that we can put on full attention to Jesus. Scholars disagree if this is a direct reference to the custom of stripping of the clothing off adult converts to be baptized and then clothing them again. Whether a conscious reference or not, we must always ask what we have given up, what have we stripped away to follow Jesus.

The author continues (and note that the first phrase of verse 2 is still part of the same sentence as verse 1):

while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus,
the leader and perfecter of faith.
For the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross,
despising its shame, and has taken his seat
at the right of the throne of God.

(Heb 12:2)

The runner cannot become distracted by the crowd but must be focused on the way before him. Only single-minded dedication will bring victory. The author is telling us that only commitment to Jesus will bring us to the end. We should not be concerned about how others feel about our faith or even about the dangers of living in Roman society. He is quite aware of the temptations and is telling his immediate audience and us that Jesus is the only goal for a Christian.

Yet he is more than that. The words we translate as “leader” (archegos) and “perfector” (teleiotes) are rooted in the words for beginning (arche) and end (telos). Jesus is not only the goal he is the forerunner. He ran this race first.

Joy (chara) is the characteristic Christian emotion. It is the experience of being one with God. Jesus knowing this accepted the cross. The cross would have had many meanings to the Roman Christians. It was not only the most painful death imaginable but designed to strip away all human dignity. It could not be administered to Roman citizens; therefore, Paul as a Roman citizen could not be crucified. Nothing in their world was more feared than crucifixion, yet Jesus balanced the two items and found that the joy of being with his Father was greater than the shame of the cross. He despised that shame. He treated it with contempt and as nothing. Jesus did to crucifixion what the Romans intended it to do to him.

His reward was to be at the right hand of God. This means supreme honor and authority. Now the author will get more pointed.

Consider how he endured such opposition from sinners,
in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart.

(Heb 12:3)

The roadblocks placed on running the Christian race are from sinners. When we are distracted, lose our focus, and do not persevere, we join with them and not Jesus. Sins are all around us, they cannot be ignored and avoiding them is time-consuming and trying. Without Jesus we will grow weary, lose heart and indeed be lost.

This does not mean that truth does not have consequences, some of them dire.

In your struggle against sin
you have not yet resisted
to the point of shedding blood.

(Heb 12:4)

The author of Hebrews never tells the Roman Christians that they were exaggerating the danger. He is very realistic. They will be persecuted and some of it may be fatal. Yet he is realistic as well with both cause and outcome. Their situation is because of sin and sin always worked against Christian commitment, but Christ is with us.

I am aware how outdated my movie and other cultural references are. That will not stop me. The movie Chariots of Fire (1981) includes the story of a devout Christian runner Eric Little at the 1924 Olympics. He tried to live by the highest Christian standards and would not race competitively on Sundays. The authorities in Great Britain attempted to force him. He would not and when asked why he still wished to run after all this pressure responded:

I believe God made me for a purpose,
but he also made me fast.
And when I run,
I feel His pleasure.

The author of Hebrews is telling us that as we run the race to heaven with Jesus, we feel his pleasure and no matter how difficult it is, it is joy.

Isaiah expressed it best:

They that hope in the LORD will renew their strength,
they will soar as with eagles’ wings;
They will run and not grow weary,
walk and not grow faint.

(Is 40:31)