Theme(s): Spiritual modesty versus showing off / True devotion to God / Finality and completeness of Christ's sacrifice
Sentence: Christ has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself (Hebrews 9:26)
God our desire and our judge,
we look for your coming and know that when we meet you
we will have to account for our lives.
Assist us to live so we are ready to greet our Lord with joy,
fully prepared for the feast which lasts forever.
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
1 Kings 17:8-16
1 Kings 17:8-16
This story has obvious connection with the second part of the gospel passage: 'a widow' with very meagre resources, indeed with the last food in her house, after which she faces death, is asked by Elijah to use all those resources in the service of God.
In this story - unlike in the gospel story - we find out what happens when the widow gives all she has. Instead of the last of the food in her pantry running out, 'she as well as he and her household ate for many days' (15). In fact, 'The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah' (16).
Many of God's people have told similar stories since: with God's power a little has gone a long way, and God's provisions for our needs have never failed. In this context we see relevant background to the petition in the Lord's Prayer, "Give us today our daily bread."
The perfect psalm to go with our Old Testament and Gospel passages!
Hebrews is a fascinating book for many reasons.
One reason is that while on the face of it, the author is a Christian engaging with the Old Testament and (so to speak) bringing it up to date in understanding in respect of Christ as its fulfilment, there is another engagement going on which is not quite so obvious. The former is obvious because lots of Old Testament passages, characters and themes are either directly cited or indirectly alluded to. The latter is not so obvious because the author never says, 'As Plato once wrote.' The not so obvious engagement is with a theme in ancient Greek philosophy, associated with Plato and possibly mediated into the world of Christian-and-Jewish thinking by a Greek speaking Jewish theologian/philosopher based in Alexandria, called Philo. That theme is the true nature of 'reality': what we see and touch here on earth tempts us to think of it as ('concrete', physical) reality but, Plato argued, it is not reality, but only a copy of shadow of the reality which exists in another world. Thus here in verse 24 the writer betrays this kind of thinking when he writes that
'Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered heaven itself.'
The 'tent' (or 'tabernacle') discussed in previous verses, entered by ordinary high priests, was not the real tent/tabernacle of God. That one exists in heaven and not on earth, and it is that one that Christ the extraordinary high priest has entered (24). (Note also verse 23, not part of our designated passages which speaks of the cleansing of the tent/tabernacle through prescribed ritual as 'sketches of the heavenly things'.)
Whether or not we now think it helpful to think in Platonic terms of plural worlds, one of which is a copy or shadow or sketch of the other, we can follow the writer of Hebrews in terms of what Christ has achieved through his death on the cross. When we understand this as a high priestly action of sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins we see it as a superior action relative to the sacrifices of the ordinary high priests. That is, we understand this is about an action not simply 'better' but also now 'final - no further sacrifices required.'
In that sense, the most real or substantive sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins is the sacrifice of Jesus.
The remainder of the passage, 25-28, reinforces the finality and completeness of Christ's sacrifice in terms which do not invoke Platonic underpinnings. The language has been deeply influential in some eucharistic prayers (notably that in the Book of Common Prayer and, with reference to the New Zealand Anglican church's prayer book (1989), that found on pp. 436ff).
- 'nor was it to offer himself again and again' (25)
- 'he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself' (26)
- 'so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him' (28).
Incidentally, in a past comment about Hebrews 7:23-28 I wrote this:
"Verse 25 is straightforward in one way: Jesus saves those who approach God through him. In another way it is enigmatic and has given rise to various theological developments: the words 'since he always lives to make intercession for them' has raised questions about the relationship between our time and heavenly time and thus led to consideration that in certain ways the sacrifice of Jesus (as a form of 'intercession' that people might be saved) is continually 're-presented' before God, with the possible implication - much argued over - that when we celebrate the eucharist we may properly 're-present' the sacrifice of Jesus, the earthly mirroring the heavenly."
That is, Hebrews 7:23-28 opens up the possibility that our eucharistic actions here on earth in some way connect with the sacrifice of Jesus which is eternally present in the heavenly realm.
But Hebrews 9:24-28 firmly and very clearly reminds us that the sacrifice of Jesus was and remains, at least from our time perspective, a one off, never to be repeated and never needing to be repeated event. By all means we may explore - with all our human limitations - the relationship between 'history' (human, earthbound, chronologically sequential events) and 'eternity' (divine, heavenly, all history being present to God). But we should take care in our eucharistic language never to diminish the uniqueness of the one sacrifice of Jesus on the cross: in one action Jesus did what all other repeated actions did not accomplish. No repetition is required. Our eucharistic language should always bear witness to the singularity of the event of the cross.
In respect of application of this passage to our lives, we might usefully reflect on the sufficiency of Christ's sacrifice: all has been done to remove our guilt, to ensure the forgiveness of our sins and to provide the way of new and holy life. There is no further theological assurance required though some of us may need - through prayer and spiritual counsel - further psychological assurance.
When we find a passage such as this has two distinct parts, 38-40 and 41-42, it is worth asking why they are joined together (at least in the sense that one follows the other).
On the face of it a warning to 'Beware of the scribes who like to ...' and a commendation 'Truly I tell you, this poor widow ...' are not connected. But if we first observe the wording of each part we find at least one common word, 'widow' (40, 42). That may be enough to connect two such passages because we can imagine that as the first Christians transmitted sayings and stories of Jesus to one another they connected two or more pieces of the overall story via common words, sometimes called 'catchwords.'
Putting it colloquially we are invited to imagine one Christian telling others about the time when Jesus warned against the scribes and 'Oh, speaking of widows, that reminds me of the story of a poor widow Jesus once saw putting the last of her money into the collection plate.'
(Additionally we note that 'scribes' have been mentioned in preceding passages, 12:28-34 and 12:35-37).
Secondly, however, we can also reflect on the thematic content of the passages and see at least one further connection. The scribes of 38-40 are show offs. They do good works and make sure people know it. But behind these outward scenes they scandalously 'devour widows' house' (40). By contrast, when people see the ostentatious rich people putting large sums into the temple treasury (41), Jesus sees one who puts in virtually nothing, is not a show off, has ripped off no one and in fact is one of the widows, and he sees more deeply that she 'has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury' (43). If 'widow' provides a catchword connection between the two parts, then the contrasting themes of 'showing off' and 'modesty' provide another connection.
We can readily understand the condemnation of the show off scribes but we likely would like to know how they devoured widow's houses. We can also readily understand the commendation of the widow: the rich have given a proportion of their wealth but the widow has given 'everything' (44); they have 'contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty' (44) but we might like to know more about what the 'treasury' funded.
Devouring widow's houses
One line of thinking, represented in the New Annotated Oxford Bible, suggests the scribes induced widows 'to give their meagre resources to the Temple'. This makes sense and receives some support by the presence of the next passage, 12:41-44. But a recent, 2012, commentary by French scholar Camille Focant, The Gospel According to Mark: A Commentary (Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick), makes the point 'it is not easy to see what specific practices the criticism could make reference to' (p. 511). Focant canvases views of various commentators but finds their speculations are not backed up by contemporary evidence. It would appear that we simply accept that Jesus knew that scribes in some way or another preyed on the vulnerability of widows and consumed their 'houses' (i.e. resources available to them after the death of their husbands). The destruction of the temple soon to be forecast in Matthew 13:1-2 seals their fate.
Focant (see above), p. 518, says that Mark is referring to 'one of the thirteen chests in which people deposited their offerings. They were narrow at the base and large at the top, which gave them the form of a trumpet.' On each chest the 'destination of the gifts was written in Aramaic.'
The contrast between the modest widow and the show off scribes and show off rich folks suggests that Mark tells us this story as an example for disciples. The total commitment of the woman is in keeping with the total commitment of Jesus himself. The application is at least twofold:
(a) in keeping with (e.g. Matthew 6:1-4), we should avoid the example of the show offs and do our works of devotion to God with modesty;
(b) proportionate giving no doubt contributes to the work of God in the world, but God longs for signs that we are wholly committed to the kingdom.