The Narrow Gate to Heaven and the Wide Gate to Hell,
Cornelis de Bie, 17th century
Strive to enter through the narrow gate,
for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter
but will not be strong enough.
Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
Twenty-First Sunday of Ordinary Time
Hebrews 12:5–7, 11–13
August 21, 2022
We are continuing our examination of the 12th chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews. As we have seen throughout our reading of this letter, the author was responding to a specific situation. He wrote to the Church in Rome, most likely in the 80s. They were born “Hebrew” and knew the faith and expectations of their ancestors. One especially important expectation is that the Messiah would inaugurate the kingdom of God. This was very this earthy. All people of all times would rise and the good would be rewarded and the bad punished in the sight of all. They believed that Jesus is the Messiah and that he would return to establish this kingdom. They have been waiting for a generation and he has not returned. Also, they were no longer accepted in the synagogues and were subject to the Roman law which required sacrificing to the emperor. They were becoming discouraged and tempted to return to the synagogue.
The author writes to them as one Jew to another. He assumes that they know more than the basics of Judaism, yet he realizes that they are also part of the Roman world. He writes excellent Greek and as we saw last week, he is aware of and most likely participates in many Roman Customs and practices.
He will continue today to exhort the Roman Christians to preserve through a mixture of both Jewish and Roman/Greek images and examples.
Last week he told them that they were running a marathon and should bring to their faith the same dedication and perseverance that marks a good athlete. He will extend that today.
He ended last week reminding them that they had not yet faced martyrdom but must be prepared to do so. He begins today with:
You have also forgotten the exhortation addressed to you as sons:
The Greek word paraklēsis is here translated as exhortation. It has a sense of encouragement that is the purpose of the entire letter which concludes
I appeal to you, brothers and sisters,
bear with my word of exhortation,
for I have written to you briefly
He is exhorting them as sons. Here of course this means sons and daughters. In this very Christian context, this means the Father is treating them as God treated his own beloved Son who shed his blood for us.
He will then quote a passage from Proverbs but give it a Greco-Roman interpretation;
My son, do not disdain the discipline of the Lord
or lose heart when reproved by him;
for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines;
he scourges every son he acknowledges
This is of course good advice at any time. Children can disdain correction by not taking it seriously or become discouraged if taken too seriously. The Roman Christians would have seen some specifically Greco- Roman aspects however in this.
The word used for disciple, paideia, also means education or learning as well as discipline. Important for them was that the father disciplines/educates every son he acknowledges. In their world, the father of the family was responsible for all aspects of family life. Education was only for freeborn children who were acknowledged: that is legitimate. The Roman Christians would have seen this as our Father acknowledging us as his own children and educating us.
The Jews saw this as well. We read in Deuteronomy:
You must know in your heart that,
even as a man disciplines his son,
so the Lord, your God, disciplines you
This theme can be found in many passages in Proverbs. To take one:
“He who spares the rod hates his son,
but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him”
The author, ever a careful writer, has prepared us for this. In two passages we have already examined:
It was fitting that God,
for whom and through whom all things exist,
in bringing many children to glory,
should make the pioneer of their salvation
perfect through sufferings.
Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered;
and having been made perfect,
he became the source of eternal salvation
for all who obey him,
His next line then becomes quite understandable from both the Jewish and Roman perspectives,
Endure your trials as “discipline”;
God treats you as sons.
For what “son” is there
whom his father does not discipline?
The next several lines are a very rabbinic interpretation which the lectionary skips and returns to the main thought with:
At the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain,
yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness
to those who are trained by it.
We read about joy last week. Jesus who goes before us and with us was crucified and yet experienced joy:
… looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith,
who for the sake of the joy that was set
before him endured the cross,
disregarding its shame,
and has taken his seat
at the right hand of the throne of God.
The relationship between training and the fruit of righteousness is a brilliant recognition and use of both cultures.
The word for trained is “gymnazō”. We get gymnasium from this and easily see its connection to athletics. Yet as in its German use today it had wider educational uses. Training assumed both an expectation of physical and intellectual attainments. It was the whole person that was prepared and could expect some pain in the process.
The author knows that the ancient Jews know that as well:
The effect of righteousness will be peace,
and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever
Once more he is showing that Jewish expectations can be achieved through following Jesus. Among those expectations are “no pain, no gain.”
He brings these together in the last lines of our passage.
So strengthen your drooping hands and your weak knees.
An obvious observation about athletic pursuits but has a clear reference in Scripture:
Strengthen hands that are feeble,
make firm knees that are weak,
Say to the fearful of heart:
Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God,
he comes with vindication;
With divine recompense
he comes to save you.
Then the eyes of the blind shall see,
the ears of the deaf be opened;
Then will the lame shall leap like a stag,
and the mute tongue sing for joy.
This was written to people attempting to rebuild Jerusalem and begin again. They were as discouraged as the Roman Christians who would have known this passage in its entirety.
The author believes that following Jesus to the end will heal all wounds.
Make straight paths for your feet,
that what is lame may not be dislocated but healed.
His audience would have remembered:
Keep straight the path of your feet,
and all your ways will be sure.
Do not swerve to the right or to the left;
turn your foot away from evil.
The author of the Letter to the Hebrews is appealing to a very specific audience as both Jews and Romans. Perhaps in times as such our we can hear the message with poignancy: to follow Jesus is not easy but it is sure.