We’ve just heard two New Testament texts read aloud—one from the Epistle to the Hebrews, and one from the Gospel According to Mark—which taken together give us a kind of picture of Jesus Christ as both servant and exalted high priest; as both very much human yet at the same time very much divine. As is so often the case, the Gospel text was easier to hear and digest, because it was a piece of conversational narrative. The epistle, on the other hand, probably wasn’t so easy to follow and integrate as it was read aloud, partly because it is just one short piece of a much longer theological letter, and partly because as the writer is unfolding his ideas he lands on our laps this reference to a character named Melchizedek. I suspect that by the time the gospel had been read, many of us had ceased thinking or reflecting on the somewhat dense Hebrews passage. So let me begin there…
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The Epistle to the Hebrews was written by an anonymous author sometime in the latter half of the first century, intended for a Jewish audience; perhaps both Jewish Christian believers as well as Jews sympathetic to what they saw unfolding in the life of the early church. A major part of the author’s concern, then, is to show the deep and foundational connections between the Hebrew Scriptures and this new Christian proclamation, as well as to make clear that Gentile believers were not required to become Jews in order to become Christians. It is one of the real and pressing matters for the early church; something taken up in a other ways by the Apostle Paul.
As today’s brief passage opens, the author is working with the image of the high priest, beginning with the tradition of the human high priest whose role it was “to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.” Such a high priest, the writer says, “is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness.” The priest isn’t perfect or in any way sinless, so “he must offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people.” And such a role is not a simple career choice, for the high priest “takes it only when called by God, just as Aaron [the brother of Moses] was.” It is a very positive portrayal of the priestly office, almost in spite of the fact that in the Passion accounts of Matthew and John, the high priest Caiaphas is shown in less than shining light.
The author then makes the oh-so-critical move of identifying Jesus as a high priest, also appointed by God, and appointed to a very particular priesthood of obedience and self-sacrifice. In this, the writer says, “he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.” This figure of Melchizedek is mentioned twice in this brief passage, and then several more times as the letter progresses; Melchizedek gets considerably more ink in this epistle than he does in the Hebrew scriptures as a whole, where he is mentioned only twice. He is an enigmatic figure who appears in the flesh only once, in the book of Genesis, when he comes to Abraham with words of blessing. “King Melchizedek of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High. And 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!’” (Gen. 14:18-20)
Both king and priest, the one who brought to Abraham not only a blessing, but also bread and wine… well, many of the Christian patristic writers of the first four or five centuries positively rhapsodized over that symbolism! And though the writer of Hebrews doesn’t actually mention these gifts of bread and wine, he does make a very explicit connection between Jesus and Melchizedek, linking Jesus’ kingship and Jesus’ priesthood to something even more ancient—and more eternal—than the priestly lineage of Aaron in which the Jewish priests stood.
Yet what truly marks Jesus’ eternal priesthood for this writer is calling, submission, suffering, and obedience. Yes, the high priest who is Jesus is raised to a place of exaltation; as Paul writes in his letter to the Philippians:
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
Yet like the writer to the Hebrews, Paul is clear. The way to exaltation is not a royal road of honour and privilege, but rather one in which Jesus, “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.” It is a way of humility and obedience, which bridges us into the story from the Gospel according to Mark.
In this reading, we find two of the disciples, James and John, in search of a glorious royal road. “Teacher,” they say to him, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Right… grant whatever they ask. And what do they have in mind? “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” This is not the first or last time that members of his company of disciples will show just how utterly wide of the mark is their understanding of this Jesus they’ve been following, though this episode is punctuated by a very particular detail. After Jesus defers and refuses to grant their request, the other ten disciples “began to be angry with James and John.” Their anger suggests that these ten disciples are harboring a few resentments here: Who do they think they are, asking for that privilege? How dare they try to get those seats? And why would they imagine it is they, not me, who will sit at his side?
Jesus response to the jealous anger of the ten is measured, careful, and—if they’re actually listening—revolutionary. “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.” Take a look, in other words, at how the Roman occupiers are structuring things, and see the privileged lives of power their rulers live. “[N]ot so among you,” he continues. “[W]hoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Got that guys? No more talk about seats of honour or places of glorious privilege. Get on with the call to servanthood, which is, after all, the thing I’ve been trying to show you since the day I called you from your fishing boats.
And you know, it is not as if this is all little more than a call to delayed gratification, as in “be good and humble servants now in this present age, and eventually it will pay huge dividends complete with heavenly seats of honour and glorious privilege.” Though Jesus will be, as Paul puts it, “highly exalted” and given “the name that is above every name,” even in his glory he never ceases to be the lamb, the servant, the one who is God for us and with us. As this anonymous writer said a bit earlier in his epistle, “[W]e do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” (Heb 4:15) Rank and privilege and all things related to book-keeping and bean-counting are to be wiped away in the fullness of time, when this revolutionary Lord who is with us and for us will say simply, “take your place at my table; you are welcome at my feast.” And don’t be surprised to see that your first glass of wine is poured not by some angelic server, but by Christ himself, the inveterately hospitable host of the banquet.