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April 10, 2009
Hebrews 10:16-25 or Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9
The alternative epistle reading, Hebrews 4:14-16, 5:7-9, provides an interesting and potentially fruitful counterpoint to John’s passion narrative. Hebrews and the Gospel of John were both major sources of the eventual development of the doctrine of the two natures of Christ. There is, however, little indication of Jesus’ humanity in John’s account of his arrest and trial. There is no hint of the agony in Gethsemane portrayed in the synoptics, and throughout the story Jesus seems to be the one in control of the unfolding events. One may easily wonder, therefore, what has become of John’s bold declaration that “the Word became flesh and lived among us.” (John 1:4) Not so, however, in the Hebrews text. For in both segments of the reading, Jesus’ suffering, as a witness to his full humanity, is front and center.
In Hebrews 4:14-16, the author reinforces a persistent call for the readers to remain true to their faith by emphasizing Jesus’ ability to sympathize with human weakness by virtue of his having been tested (or tempted: Gk. peirazo) in every respect that they, as human beings, are tested. And then in 5:7-9, we find an emphasis on the agony of Jesus, who “offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death,” as well as an indication that “he learned obedience through what he suffered.” The net result is to present Jesus’ human obedience, or faithfulness to God, as an essential element in his function as the high priest (4:15, 5:10) who brings “salvation to all who obey him” (5:9). Because Jesus himself, precisely as a human being (who was also God’s Son: 5:8) learned obedience through suffering and remained steadfast, so too those who follow him are both charged and empowered to remain constant in their faith as his brothers and sisters.
A central theme in Hebrews, classically stated in chapter 11, is the call to hold fast to the confession of faith in the face of difficulties. And it is clear from such passages as 10:33-36 that the original recipients of the writing had undergone some sort of persecution that, although it did not result in actual martyrdom, involved a considerable degree of public humiliation. It is impossible to say much more about the nature of the troubles these recipients had faced, but the Johannine passion narrative, although lacking an emphasis upon Jesus’ agony, provides just such an element with its political undertones. In this story, Jesus is clearly pitted against “the powers that be,” and this is true both of the Jewish and the Roman authorities. It is both Roman soldiers and “police from the chief priests and Pharisees” who accompany Judas when Jesus is arrested (18:3), and when the chief priests declare before Pilate that they “have no king but the emperor” (19:15), the two forces effectively become one. It is a single, two-pronged power structure that Jesus confronts and that puts him to death, and the political character of the confrontation is confirmed by Pilate’s defense of the inscription on the cross that he authorizes. When the chief priests object to the designation of Jesus as “king of the Jews,” Pilate replies: “What I have written I have written.” (19:22) The irony, of course, is that the inscription is meant as a criminal charge, whereas from God’s perspective it is in fact a true description of who Jesus us. But this also means that since Jesus is king, the emperor cannot be. So if we bring the gospel and the epistle readings together, it is a valid homiletical move to hear in their juxtaposition a call to steadfast obedience to God in the face of political opposition. Those who are faithful to God’s demand for justice must be willing to stand fast in the face of governmental authorities that are responsible for injustice.
The entire biblical witness manifests a tension between a deterministic perspective that involves God’s foreknowledge of all things and an emphasis upon human choice that logically entails an open future. And this tension provides important opportunities for reflection from a process perspective. In the passion narrative, Jesus knows all that is to happen to him (18:4), and as early as John 1:29 we find an allusion to Jesus’ coming death. This determinism, moreover, seems at many points to extend to the decisions of the characters in the story. The Jewish authorities appear incorrigible from the beginning, and at 6:75, Jesus statement, “no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father” seems to voice a strong doctrine of individual predestination. However, Jesus’ words at 9:41 suggest otherwise: “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.” The implication here is that Jesus’ opponents did in fact have the opportunity to accept him, but freely chose not to. This note of real contingency, however, stands in considerable tension with Jesus’ foreknowledge of his death.
In a subtle way, the Hebrews text also stands in tension with that foreknowledge. In 5:7-9, Jesus’ agonizing “prayers and supplications” to God subtly indicate contingency with respect to his faithfulness, and this is reinforced by the statement that he learned obedience through what he suffered.” From a process perspective, we can value the element of contingency more highly and take the deterministic strain as an imaginative way, rooted in ancient presuppositions, of signifying God’s activity in the story of Jesus. And what we gain from this is a strong reinforcement of the political, and therefore the decidedly human and this-worldly, dimension of the story. Neither the Roman Empire nor Jesus himself is a pawn in a plan worked out from all eternity by God. Jesus dies not because God wills it in some abstract sense but rather because it becomes necessary due to contingent human decisions in the political arena. And Jesus’ status as the Son of God is not a static reality but something that belongs to the realm of real human history. Faced with all the limitations that belong to humanity per se, he remains faithful and obedient unto death. And because of this, together with all his concrete words and deeds, he is what the Gospel of John proclaims him to be—the one who makes God known to us (John 1:18). There is therefore a significant current of thought in Hebrews that understands his divine “nature” less in “metaphysical” terms than as a matter of historical process.
But what is the existential payoff of such an understanding? What does it matter to us that the Jesus of the New Testament was obedient to God? It means that God is revealed to us precisely in the cauldron of human suffering and decision-making. Because it is in the one who suffers but remains steadfast in the face of “the powers that be” that we know God, then we to have not only the model of obedience but also access to the power to remain faithful in difficult circumstances. In his suffering, we behold both the costly love of God and the divine power that enables human faithfulness. We are thus confronted with amazing (and costly) grace and empowered to respond to God’s radical (and costly) demands.
Russell Pregeant is Professor of Religion and Philosophy and Chaplain, Emeritus, at Curry College in Milton, Massachusetts and Visiting Professor in New Testament at Andover Newton Theological School in Newton, Massachusetts. He resides in Contoocook, New Hampshire with his wife, Sammie Maxwell, who is pastor of the Contoocook United Methodist Church. As an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, he has served as Associate Pastor at Rayne Memorial U.M.C. in New Orleans and as interim pastor in Carter Memorial U.M.C. in Needham, Massachusetts. He is the author of several books, including Knowing Truth, doing Good: Engaging New Testament Ethics, Christology Beyond Dogma: Matthew's Christ and Process Hermeneutic, and Mystery without Magic, which is a basic introduction to process thought. He is a graduate of Vanderbilt University Ph.D., 1971), Yale Divinity School, (S.T.M., 1963), Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University (B.D., 1962), and Southeastern Louisiana University (B.A., 1960).