Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 28, 2022
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16 Commentary
“Just tell me what I have to do, Pastor!” I suspect that nearly all of us have heard variations on this theme. This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson seems to offer help in answering such questions. That may, in fact, be a reason why proclaimers’ attention is often most quickly drawn to its ethical pronouncements.
Hebrews 13 contains a rich vein of material about the shape of the Christian faith that receives God’s grace. My colleagues Chelsey Harmon and Scott Hoezee have both written wonderful sermon commentaries that thoughtfully mine some of Hebrews 13’s ethical commands.
However, proclaimers who wish to travel a different “on-ramp” to this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson might consider beginning with an exploration of its theological claims. Such an approach, after all, doesn’t just help proclaimers avoid what Hoezee calls “shouldy” proclamations. It also grounds Hebrews 13’s ethics in the character and person of the living God.
Of course, as the biblical scholar Lewis Donelson notes (The Lectionary Commentary, The Second Readings: Acts and the Epistles, Eerdmans: 2001), Hebrew’s author doesn’t limit his theological claims to today’s text. He also asserts things about God’s nature not just throughout the letter, but also in this text’s immediate context.
Hebrews 12:29’s “Our God is a consuming fire” immediately precedes this Lesson. It speaks to the importance God attaches to chapter 13’s commands. Donelson writes, “this call to Christian virtues is not a congenial, ‘Would you mind, by the way, being nice to one another because God would kind of prefer that?’ Without the gentle virtues enumerated here, we fall under [the danger of] the terrors of God.”
However, the Christology the Spirit embeds in verses that the RCL omits from this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson also speaks to God’s character. In verse 12 we read that “Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make his people holy through his own blood.” It’s a reminder that while God’s dearly beloved people can’t be ethical on our own, we can do things like be faithful in marriage and content with what we have. After all, Jesus’ blood has, through the work of the Holy Spirit, made us “holy.”
The first theological assertion Hebrews’ author makes in this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson occurs in God’s promise to God’s people in verse 5’s “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” Its second is one of God’s people’s professions: “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?” The third is verse 8’s, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”
Those who proclaim those attributes of God might explore them individually. But we might also consider a thread that runs through each of them: God’s complete reliability. After all, because God’s people can count on God to provide what we need, we can live in ways that imitate Jesus Christ.
Hebrews’ author makes this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s first theological claim in the context of his call to keep our lives “free from the love of money and be content with what you have” (5). Why can Jesus’ friends be what The Message calls “relaxed” with what God has given us?
Because God has promised never to “leave” (ano) or “forsake” (enkatalipo) us. Hebrews author insists that God’s dearly beloved people don’t have to be afraid when our material resources seem to run short, if not out. God will not abandon us to our neediness. There is, as New Testament scholar Amy B. Peeler writes, there’s “no need to worry about material goods if you have the presence and protection of God.”
Hebrews’ author adds in verse 6 that we can also be relaxed about our material possessions because since God is our “helper,” (boethos),” we don’t have to be “afraid” (phobethesomai). Since, as verse 6’s rhetorical question implies, people can’t do (poesai) anything to us, God’s adopted children can loosely grip our money and other possessions.
We can literally “live without covetousness” (aphylargrios) because we know that God will always graciously provide us with everything we really need. Christians can be relaxed (arkoumenoi) about what God has given us because God know that God unfailingly protects us.
Hebrews’ author’s approach to Christians’ relaxed posture toward material possessions may seem novel, especially to his 21st century North American readers. As Tom Long (Hebrews, Westminster John Knox Press, 2012) notes, “What is inventive about this is, first, [Hebrews’] suggestion that the love of money is not so much the product of greed as it is the fear of abandonment, and two, the intriguing theological claim that when Jesus Christ grasps our one hand in love it frees us to open up the other clenched one and let the money go.”
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson makes its third theological assertion in connection to verse 7’s call to “remember” (mnemoneuete) our “leaders, who spoke the word of God to” us, as well as to “Consider their way of life and imitate (memeisthe) their faith.” Hebrews’ author goes on to insist in verse 8, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”
It’s, frankly, not easy to see how Christ’s unchanging nature is the grounds for appreciating, studying and being taught by Christian leaders’ way of life. Peeler (ibid) suggests that Hebrews’ author is saying that while the Church’s leaders were consistent, Jesus is even more consistently reliable. What’s more, though those trustworthy leaders either died or soon will die, the unchanging Christ will live and reign forever.
Hebrews’ author doesn’t explicitly theologically undergird the rest of chapter 13 ethical commands. But God’s character implicitly undergird God’s adopted sons and daughters’ Christlike ways. It’s not just that Hebrews 13’s ethics reflect God’s ethics. It’s also that God’s eternally reliability frees us to act like Christ, even when the consequences of such actions may threaten us.
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson strategically places Hebrews’ call to philadelphia, to what we sometimes call “brotherly love” (1), first. Perhaps that’s not just that such love fulfills one of the two most important commandments, but also that it’s the Christlike virtue that informs Hebrews’ other ethical commands. Jesus’ followers can accept the risks that come with unconditionally loving our fellow Christians in a variety of ways because we can count on God to provide for and protect us.
So Christians can, for example, according to verse 2, show strangers hospitality (philoxenias), not just because people were being hospitable to angels. We’re also ready, in The Message’s words, with a meal or a bed when it’s needed because God in Christ has been hospitable towards us. Jesus’ friends can run the risk of welcoming strangers because we know we can count on God to provide for and protect hospitable Christians.
In addition, this Lesson insists in verse 3 that we “remember” (mimneskesthe) what Long (ibid) calls “the wounded.” Christians can run the risk of standing alongside those whom the authorities imprison because we can count on God to protect us. Jesus’ friends can accept the risk of providing for people whom the authorities imprison because we know that we can trust that God will provide for us.
In verse 4 Hebrews author also insists that all Christians “honor” (timios) marriage. Christians can accept the risk that sometimes comes with guarding marriage against those who would harm it. God, after all, can be counted on to provide for and protect marriage’s protectors.
On top of that, as we read in verse 15, we can continually “offer to God a sacrifice of praise” (thysian aineseos). After all, it’s not just that God’s unchanging character gives us countless things for which to praise God. It’s also that Jesus’ friends can offer the sacrifice of praise to God because our Friend has offered the sacrifice of himself for us.
And, finally, God’s dearly beloved people can remember to “do good and to share with others.” This, in fact, summarizes what it means to love each other as brothers and sisters (1). Such selfless generosity, of course, always carries with it a certain element of risk. But it’s a risk we can accept because we can count on God to faithfully provide for and protect God’s dearly beloved children, both now and forevermore.
To Kill A Mockingbird’s Tom Robinson is man who’s African American whom the authorities accuse of assaulting a white woman. The attorney Atticus Finch courageously accepts the unpopular responsibility for and challenge of defending Robinson.
Atticus’ daughter Scout has a classmate named Walter Cunningham whose dad leads the lynch mob that hounds Robinson. But since young Walter is too poor to afford lunch, Scout’s brother Jem invites him to come home with them for lunch.
The Finches beloved cook whom the family calls “Cal” sets a place for Walter. There he promptly pours molasses all over his vegetables and meat. This visibly and audibly offends Scout’s culinary sensibilities.
So Cal basically drags her into the kitchen and says, “There’s some folks who don’t eat like us, but you ain’t called on to contradict ‘em at the table when they don’t. That boy’s your company and if he wants to eat up the table cloth, you let him, you hear?”
“He ain’t company, Cal, he’s a Cunningham,” Scout rages. “Hush your mouth,” Cal angrily replies, “Don’t matter who they are, anybody sets foot in this house is your company, and don’t let me catch you remarkin’ on their ways like you was high and mighty! Your folks may be better than the Cunninghams but it don’t count for nothin’ the way you’re disgracin’ ‘em.”
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