Seeing the whole picture

Pentecost 12

Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16

Marian Free

In the name of God revealed in God’s Son Jesus Christ. Amen.

No matter how alert we are, none of us is ever able to see the full picture. For a start, we don’t have 360 degree vision, so from a purely physical sense what we see is limited. Even  when we are looking carefully at something, our attention will probably be caught by a particular detail and some aspects of what is before us will be missed. Two people can take photographs from the same spot, but the photos will reveal that what they saw was quite different. The same is true of “seeing” in the sense of comprehending. Few of us have enough information to really make sense for example, of the current situation in Syria. We know what the various news outlets tell us, but they in turn have been informed by either one side or the other and are telling the story from a particular perspective. Further, what is happening in the part of the country from which they are reporting might be quite different from what is happening elsewhere.

Several years ago when Australian troops were in Iraq and it seemed from the newspaper reports that violence was rife in that country, the ambassador (who lived there) informed me that the situation was nowhere near as bad as the media accounts. The images and stories which reached Australia were those which were likely to grab headlines and which in effect only gave us a small piece of the full story.

The same is true when we read the Bible. We are so used to seeing it from one point of view that we don’t see other possibilities or we can get so caught up in the big picture that we fail to see the detail or vice versa, we concentrate on details which means we don’t always see how they contribute to the artistry. This problem when, on days like today, we read only a very small part of one book of the Bible rather than reading it in its entirety. The book of Hebrews deserves more of our attention than the small sound bite provided by the lectionary for today. In fact, the Bible as a whole rewards us for deeper engagement. The more we read it, the more we understand, the more we study it, the more we appreciate the nuances, the intention of the various authors, the literary and rhetorical techniques employed to get the point across and so on. A person could read the same passage twenty times, only to see it in a completely different light on the twenty-first occasion.

The book Hebrews has been described as “a hidden treasure”. It is one of those books which is often overlooked because it is not easy to read and contains themes and allusions which are unfamiliar to a modern reader (and according to some scholars, equally unfamiliar to contemporary readers). Those who know it could probably tell you that it includes the verse which formed part of today’s reading: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (11:1), that it is here that we would find the reference to Melchizedek and the reference to being surrounded by “a great cloud of witnesses” (12:1). Other than that we might be struggling to think or to say what the book is about.

Yet scholars are impressed by the more “polished and eloquent Greek”, its approach to the Old Testament and its carefully constructed argument. A great deal of Christian theology and dogma derive from what some have called a masterpiece.

What we know about the book can only be derived from its contents. The emphasis on the Old Testament and Jewish sacrificial practices suggests that it was written for a community which had a good knowledge of Judaism and the comparison of Christ with Jewish practices and scripture implies that community was in danger of returning to (or being converted to Judaism). It is also apparent that the community had experienced some form of persecution (which included their property being plundered, 12:4). What we know as Hebrews appears to have been written to demonstrate the superiority of Christ over all other faiths, in particular Judaism, in order to prevent any of the recipients from returning to their former beliefs and to encourage perseverance in the faith, which will lead to the rewards which faith (and faithfulness) bestows.

In order to do this, the author uses the Old Testament to demonstrate that while Christianity emerged from and was consistent with Judaism, that Christianity was foreshadowed by the Old Testament and that the God who spoke through the Old Testament was the same as that who spoke through Jesus. At the same time, the author goes to great lengths to demonstrate the superiority of Jesus to all that has come before. Using a technique known as lesser to greater – if this .. then that – the author creates a sustained argument to prove that Jesus has replaced and superseded what came before. This has the effect of creating a sense of completion. There is no longer any need for sacrifices or for the priests to go into the inner sanctum. Thanks to Jesus there is no longer any need for any intermediaries between a believer and God.

Not only does the writer use proof texts and from the Old Testament to make a point but he (or she) pairs exposition with exhortation. That is, teaching is followed by application – this is what scripture says, therefore you should behave in such and such a way. The chapter considered today, chapter 11, recounts the faith of Old Testament figures and continues: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”

When we are given the tools to understand the book, we see things that we have never seen before and we can approach the text in an entirely different way.

In the decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection, different people experienced and expressed their faith in a variety of ways, responded to difficulties with various degrees of fortitude, struggled to come to grips with how faith in Jesus related to the faith that they had had before, tried to work out how to become a community of believers and to agree on what should and should not be considered Holy Scripture. The end result is what we know as the New Testament. As those first Christians endeavoured to make sense of what Jesus meant, and to work out how their lives should be lived as a consequence of faith in him, so we should seek to understand the legacy they have handed on to us in order  that we can be informed and enlightened by their efforts and come to our own deeper understanding of the faith that we share.

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