Weekly Meditation: 21st August 2016
The author of the letter to the Hebrews is one of the most impassioned writers in the Bible. He is so insistent about his message that one can envisage him as a lapel-grabber, and this week’s passage in chapter 12 finds him at his lapel-grabbing best. Throughout his letter, he has been building an argument, pleading with his audience not to turn back to Judaism. He recognises the temptations posed by the temple, the priests, the ceremonies, the sacrifices; but he sets forth the credentials of the greater high priest, Jesus himself, who far surpasses any ordinary human priest. Jesus, as the unique son of God, is superior to the angels, his priesthood is superior to that of Aaron, he is superior to Moses and so is the covenant he has mediated, his sacrifice is superior to the animal sacrifices that had to be repeated day by day, year by year, and so the forgiveness he offers is permanent and eternal.
Having listed the faithful men and women from Old Testament times, who faced persecution and danger for the sake of their future inheritance in the Kingdom (11:1-40), and having encouraged his readers to persevere (12:1-3), the writer reaches his climax in verses 18-29.
He recalls once more the Old Covenant, negotiated by Moses on Mount Sinai. He reminds his readers of the terrifying spectacle when Moses approached Sinai to receive God’s commandments that formed the basis of their law. No one, not even an animal, was permitted to set hand or foot on the mountain (Exodus 19:12-13/Hebrews 12:20), smoke billowed from it, there was thunder and lightning, and the Lord descended in fire (Exodus 19:16-18/Hebrews 12:18). It had been too much for the people to bear (Hebrews 12:20).
The writer of Hebrews recreates this scene, emphasising the noise, the smoke, the confusion and fear (12:18-21) then suddenly he changes his tone so that his readers must have felt that they had emerged from a storm and come to ‘Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God’ (12:22). The contrast is enormous. Instead of frightful trumpet blasts and thundering voices, smoke, flame and fear, there are ‘thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly’, the names of the redeemed are ‘written in heaven’, the righteous are ‘made perfect’ and they are under the New Covenant where the blood shed for them speaks not of retribution and justice (the blood of Abel – Genesis 4:10) but of forgiveness and reconciliation (12:22-24).
This same contrast, between Old and New Covenants, is demonstrated by Jesus in our gospel reading. A woman had been crippled for eighteen years, bent double. When Jesus encountered her, although it was a Sabbath, he laid hands on her and healed her. She immediately stood straight, and praised God (Luke 13:10-13).
The synagogue ruler was indignant, and challenged Jesus because the healing took place on the Sabbath day. Jesus always upheld the law and kept it perfectly, but he looked at its meaning and purpose – the spirit not the letter. Calling the ruler of the synagogue, and those like-minded, hypocrites, Jesus reasoned with them. Would they not set free their animals on the Sabbath so that they could drink? Was not a woman, a ‘daughter of Abraham’, worthy of the same consideration? The law was not for keeping people in bondage – either to fear as in Hebrews 12:20-21 or to pain and disease as in Luke 13:10-11. It had served its purpose in holding the nation of Israel together as a people distinct from the surrounding pagan nations, it had temporarily dealt with sin, and it had kept the people in a relationship with the Lord. It’s time was coming to an end now, however, as Jesus provided the ultimate answer to sin and suffering. Those who witnessed this miracle and heard Jesus’ teaching no doubt failed to fully grasp all its significance, but they rejoiced to see the religious leaders humiliated, and were delighted with all they observed Jesus doing in their midst.
By Susan Thorne