The Book of Hebrews

The week is the first of three weeks in the Book of Hebrews. It’s often called “The Epistle to the Hebrews”—but the problem is… it’s not an epistle.

”Epistle” is just a fancy ancient word for “letter,” and letters in the ancient world had a particular form to them. Just like you could pick out a letter from the stack of daily mail your receive from several feet away, someone two-thousand years ago could do the same with an epistle.

Hebrews is not an epistle.

But, exactly what it is, is also a matter of debate. Some call it a “treatise.” Others call it a “sermon.” But, who knows. It sort of defies conventional pigeon-holing.

We also don’t know who wrote it, or who it was specifically written for. Sometimes it’s said to have been authored by St Paul—but no serious biblical scholar today would ever say that. It doesn’t sound like Paul, doesn’t use Paul’s vocabulary, or use any of Paul’s typical conventions of writing.

It is quite old though. There’s was a guy in the first century, whose name was “Clement of Rome” who produced a lot of Christian writings. In some places, Clement’s writings were considered as scripture, but his stuff didn’t end up making the cut.

Clement quotes from Hebrews extensively—and Clement was writing in the mid-to-late 90’s. He doesn’t identify the quotes as coming from Hebrews, he seems to just assume that his readers would know that he was citing it. Which means, not only was Clement very well versed in Hebrews, but he just assumed that his own readers were also versed enough in Hebrews to know he was citing it.

Hebrews has two main, though inter-related, subjects: Putting the ancient Temple worship and sacrifices in context with Jesus’ sacrifice, and faith.

He claims that God is faithful. He claims that Jesus is faithful. He claims that the great patriarchs and matriarchs of the Old Testament were faithful. And, he boldly calls his readers to live in faith too.

with bands of love

On Sunday August 4th, the Hebrew Bible lesson is from the 11th chapter of Hosea…

When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
The more I called them,
the more they went from me;
they kept sacrificing to the Baals,
and offering incense to idols.
Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
I took them up in my arms;
but they did not know that I healed them.
I led them with cords of human kindness,
with bands of love.

Hosea 11:1-4

What an incredibly tender image of God.

The Bible is chock-full of metaphors to try and help describe the relationship between us and God. Sometimes God is a king, and we are the subjects. Sometimes God is a shepherd and we are the sheep.

But here, in the eleventh chapter of Hosea we are God’s little child. The little child who is taught how to walk. The little child who is taken up in his father’s arms. The little child whose bruised knees are kissed and cleaned before we’re sent back out again.

I mean, just take a moment and let that soak in.

If you do anything on this hot August day, just meditate on that.

Close your eyes—even if just for 30 seconds—and picture yourself sitting in that big lap of God’s. Feel those arms around you. Feel those bands of love enveloping you. Hear that voice calling out your name.

Then go on with your day knowing that you are loved, that you are God’s precious child.

dirty dishes

There was a guest in the house. An important guest. A beloved guest.

A friend.

And, what do you do when a beloved friend comes over? You clean. You cook.

And that’s exactly what Martha did. She got the house ready. She provided food, refreshment, and hospitality.

And that’s all good and fine… except her sister was no help at all. She was out in the living room with Jesus. She was out listening to Jesus’ sermon, sitting at his feet.

And boy did that set Martha off.

This story is often interpreted as showing the two modes of discipleship: Mary showing us learning from Jesus, and Martha showing us how to serve like Jesus. And, there’s obviously something to this interpretation.

But, we also see Martha as an icon of something else: a person overwhelmed by distractions and anxiety.

“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things.” Those words, spoken two thousand years ago, could just as well be spoken today. We are a world that seems to thrive off of being worried and distracted.

This story then, is about us. It’s about us being the kind of disciple that is focused only on what truly matters.

Historical Tidbit

Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet – which is how ancient students sat before their teachers. In the ancient world, teachers sat on a chair or stool to teach, and their students would sit on the floor in front of them. Part of the scandal of this story is that Mary is clearly showing her desire to be a student of Jesus’ at a time when women were rarely given the opportunity to be a student.

the merciful one

In the parable of the Good Samaritan, a lot has been made of the “priest” and the “Levite” not wanting to touch the man because they couldn’t touch a corpse, for that would make them ritually unclean and unable to perform their religious functions. This is tacitly wrong.

First of all, the man wasn’t dead. And, even if the man was indeed dead, the religious law of the time stipulated that they would have to at least have to go and find help, if not ensure that the man was buried themselves.

Second of all, their clear religious and ethical duty was always to help those in need. Helping others always trumps the Biblical purity codes.

They just didn’t want to. For whatever reason.

But, the reason doesn’t matter. It doesn’t even matter that they are religious leaders. Regardless of their professions, they are clearly terrible people. Or, at least they are normal people doing a terrible thing.

Jesus’ choice of having the hero of the story be a Samaritan is the real point of the story. When everyone else is acting terribly, the Samaritan does the right thing—the honorable thing.

And this would have made the people listening to Jesus here very uncomfortable. A good portion of them might rather die in the ditch than be helped by a Samaritan.

People being terrible isn’t news. It wasn’t news back then, and it’s not really news today. But, people who were THOUGHT to be terrible people (like Samaritans) doing the right and honorable thing IS news.

Jesus is stretching our understanding of who our neighbor is—who we have to love—and who we have to treat fairly and rightly.

Because Jesus is clearly saying that E-V-E-R-Y-O-N-E is our neighbor, everyone is worthy of our love, and everyone is at the very least worthy of our help when they are in need.

Historical Item of Interest:

The Road to Jericho was infamous in Jesus’ day. It would eventually be graded and paved in 60AD, by the Roman Empire, so that they could get their troops to Jerusalem to destroy it. But, in Jesus’ day (in the 30’s) it was a crazy steep road that went right up a mountain, and featured a huge cliff on one side. It was a harrowing place to travel, where if you ran into trouble, there was no escape.

lambs and wolves

“See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.”

Wow. Jesus doesn’t sugarcoat this, does he?

He could have said, “Oh, don’t worry. It will all be fine. Totally fine. Your got this. It’ll be great, trust me!”

But, no. He just tells it like it is. When you go out into the world you’re going to be like the defenseless little lambs, and there are ravenous wolves all around you who are ready to rip you apart.

Now, “Have fun storming the castle!”

But, here’s the thing… the message that he sent the disciples out with was the answer to all their own fears: “The Kingdom of God has come near.”

The reality is that the world is a tough place. It’s an especially tough place for people who seek to live with grace, faith, forgiveness, and peace. The world can chew us up and spit us out.

But, in the end, it’s ok, because the Kingdom of God is near. It’s close. It’s nearby. It’s around the corner. It’s just on the other side. It’s above you, below you, and within you.

Knowing that, all of a sudden the wolves don’t look as scary.

An Interesting bit:
When Jesus tells his disciples to enter a house and “eat whatever is set before you,” that would have been a stunning statement in his day. All of his disciples were Jews who kept Kosher. What he’s saying here, is that when they receive hospitality from strangers, they are to accept them as they are, even if it means breaking their kosher diet.