Theme(s): Suffering, Service, Servanthood, Ransom for Many, High Priest
Sentence: For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many (Mark 10:45)
you reign over all things and have created each one of us in your own image.
Assist your people to give to earthly rulers and powers what belongs to them
and to give our allegiance and ourselves to you alone,
the one whose image is imprinted on every human soul.
We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God now and for ever. Amen
We cannot read this passage too often when we are engaging with the suffering of Jesus on our behalf that we might be saved. Today's gospel involves looking ahead to Jesus' suffering. This passage in Isaiah, graphically, poetically, memorably looks ahead to that suffering.
This psalm looks ahead (we say with hindsight!) to the suffering of Jesus (see today's gospel reading) and offers to Jesus (and all who suffer in his name) the promise that God will see us through our troubles, even if (as it turns out for Jesus and many martyrs since) the protection of God invoked here is protection from death's power and provision for resurrection.
The writer is now into his stride on the theme of 'high priesthood'. Verses 1-4 outline broadly what the familiar high priests of Israelite religion used to do and the general character of these high priests ('subject to weakness', 2). A characteristic of the role of high priest is that the high priest does not usurp the role, 'but takes it only when called by God, just as Aaron was' (4).
Thus Christ is introduced. Neither did Christ 'glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed ...' (5). Incidentally, we may see why there has been an anticipation of this theme in chapters 2 and 4 (last week's passage): Christ was not, in fact, in his earthly life and functioning a high priest. The high priests of his day opposed him! The two previous mentions in Hebrews function to identify for the reader that Christ had, especially through his death on the cross effectively functioned as a high priest, indeed as 'the' great high priest. So now the writer discusses Christ's special priesthood.
With reference to the appointment of Christ, the writer takes up two OT scriptures Psalm 2:7 (often taken to be referring to the appointment of the Messiah) and Psalm 110:4 (also a Messianic psalm) and joins them together to (effectively) say, Jesus the Christ = Messiah, as foretold, was also appointed to be priest in the order of Melchizedek. By verse 10 the 'priest ... according to the order of Melchizedek' becomes 'designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.' We could say the writer is being a bit slippery here, sliding from priest to high priest without further explanation. But we have already seen in chapters 2 and 4 that the specific ministry of Jesus, offering sacrifice (himself) for the sins of the whole world is the ministry of a high priest.
Melchizedek returns in Hebrews (chapter 7) so for now we simply recall him as an enigmatic character in the story of Abraham (Genesis 14:18).
What did Jesus do? Verses 7-9 outline that Jesus 'in the days of his flesh' offered 'prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death' (the Garden of Gethsemane seem to be in mind here).
These prayers were heard 'because of his reverent submission' (7). That submission was demonstrated in that, 'Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered' (8). When verse 9 goes on to say that he was 'made perfect' we recall 2:10, where perfection for Jesus was not shifting from failure to success, from sin to righteousness, but being made complete.The comment on Sunday 4 October 2015 was, 'Perfection here is about the completion of God's purposes. For the purpose of salvation Jesus needed to suffer. By suffering (in particular suffering as the ethically perfect one to become the perfect sacrifice for the sins of imperfect humanity) Jesus completed God's purposes for the world.'
In this way: submitting to the cross, being made perfect by completing God's purposes for humanity, Jesus 'became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.'
What ratbags James and John were! After all that Jesus has been saying in the preceding passages, about being child-like, about the first becoming last, they have the gall to come forward and ask of Jesus that he grant them to 'sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory' (37). Jesus plays along with them and does not rebuke them so much as point out that they misunderstand what they are asking for (38). But they still misunderstand (39). When Jesus talks about drinking from the cup he is about to drink from and be baptised with the baptism he is going to be baptized with (38) he is speaking of his suffering, his death through crucifixion.
Be careful what you ask for! When John and James say 'We are able' (39) Jesus says that they will indeed drink such a cup and be baptized with such a baptism (as indeed many Christian disciples found would be the case as they suffered persecution). Nevertheless, they are not necessarily going to end up sitting at Christ's right and left hand when the kingdom comes (40). On the one hand, humanly speaking, Jesus defers to the divine power and authority of God to make such appointment; on the other hand, we are left with something of a mystery, to whom does 'but it is for those for whom it has been prepared' refer to? (40)
Naturally the other ten disciples are none too pleased when they learn about their request. (Who leaked the memo?) But Jesus speaks to them all - after all, the anger of the ten suggests they are no less ambitious than James and John, just too slow off the mark. So verses 42-45 become some of the most influential of all Jesus' teaching: in his kingdom we do not lord ourselves over others, we aim to be servants. The greatest ambition we can have in the kingdom is to serve all the rest and to rule over no one. The clinching point is that this is the example of Jesus' himself: 'For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve' (45).
The fuller statement at the end runs on to 'and to give his life a ransom for many' (45). It is an odd feature of the four gospels that when the epistles make so much of Jesus being redeemer, saviour, sacrifice for our sins and so forth, very few examples can be found of Jesus himself using such language. But here he does. He looks ahead to what the cup of suffering and baptism of suffering is all about: he will be 'a ransom for many' when 'he gives his life.'
Yes, we can then have a great discussion about what 'ransom' means. To whom, for example, is the ransom paid? Is it about paying the devil so the devil lets us sinners go free? In the end it may not matter whether we can push this metaphor to the point where we understand who receives the ransom. What we can see clearly is that humanity is in a bind and Jesus, as an act of sheer service to us, will release us from the bind.