GOSPEL, FIRST READING & PSALM TRANSCRIPT (Subscribe or Login for Full Transcript):
When Jesus responds to him he says, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” Now in the Greek it actually is a little bit stronger because Jesus says no one is good but the one God, heis ho theos. Heis
meaning one, God from the Greek word theos.
So heis ho theos,
no one is good but the one God. Two elements of that are interesting. First, the one God in a Jewish setting would be an allusion to the famous Shema. The Hebrew expression:
Hear, O Israel: the Lord is God, the Lord is one.
It’s a quotation from Deuteronomy 6:4-6. It was recited by Jews three times a day in the First Century A.D. You over and over, to this day Jews will say the Lord is one, the Lord is God, hear O Israel. This is one of their basic prayers. And so when Jesus says, “no one is good but the one God,” on the one hand he's alluding to the famous Scripture that is the foundation for monotheism. For the idea, the belief, the conviction among Jews that there is only one God. And yet at the same time he says something strange to the young man. He says, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but the one God.” Now that has led some interpreters to argue, Aha look, Jesus here is denying that he's God, right, he's denying his divinity, and skeptics will actually say that, they will point to this passage from Mark 10. Skeptics today who say, oh, Jesus was just a prophet, maybe he saw himself as the Messiah, but he never claimed to be God. They’ll point to Mark 10 and say look right here, Jesus denies that he’s God when he says, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” I mean doesn't that sound like Jesus is saying I'm not God, God alone is good. Well, maybe at first glance, but it's important to remember that Jesus speaks in riddles over and over again. It’s also important to note that if you read it carefully, Jesus never denies that he's good and he never denies that he's God. What he does is he poses a question to a young man who is kneeling before him, and he says why do you call me good, when as you know, and any Jew would know, no one is good, truly good, except the one God. So as we’ll see in a few moments, in the church's tradition here, the church fathers always interpreted this passage as not a denial of Jesus’ divinity but a question, a riddle, that is inviting the young man to move beyond the appearance of Jesus as just one more good teacher and to recognize the truth of the fact that Jesus is in fact the one God who is truly good, right, and who’s come down from heaven as man to give salvation to his people.
You can actually see that this is implied in Jesus' question by looking at the shocking aftermath of Jesus' statement. After he tells the young man to keep the commandments, he does something really unprecedented, he adds something to the Decalogue. He adds something to the 10 Commandments, right. Now most Jews would say: “You want to enter into eternal life? You have to keep the commandments, you have to keep the Decalogue,” but Jesus says well actually you're lacking something, right. When the young man says hey, I’ve kept all of those commandments, I haven't killed anyone, I haven’t stolen, I’ve honored my father and mother; Jesus says this, you still lack something. What do you lack? He says, “Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor…[then] come, follow me.” So notice two elements here. What is this young man lacking? What is going to keep him from entering into eternal life, inheriting the kingdom of God? First, his attachment to his wealth, and second, his unwillingness to follow Jesus as a disciple. What Jesus is saying to him is, in other words, you not only have to keep the commandments, you also have to detach yourself from your possessions and you have to come and you have to be my disciple; you have to follow me. That's the 11th commandment so to speak; you have to follow Jesus.
Now press pause there for a moment. Those verses alone make it clear that when Jesus says, “why do you call me good,” he's not denying that he himself is good, because if he were denying that he himself were good it would be absurd for him to say “oh, I'm not good and, by the way, in order to enter eternal life you have to come and follow me and be my disciple.” That doesn't make any sense. Think about it, if Jesus was denying that he was God when he says, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone," he would also be denying that he was good. If he was denying that he was good, it would be absurd for him to tell the man that if you want to enter into eternal life you have to leave everything and come and follow me, right. But if he's God who’s become man, then the radical call that he's making to the young man, and the radical addition of discipleship to the 10 Commandments makes sense. In other words, who has the authority to add to the Shema and to the 10 Commandments? Well it's the God who gave the Shema and gave the 10 Commandments, who's now become man in Jesus Christ.
SECOND READING TRANSCRIPT (Subscribe or Login for Full Transcript):
Now, the third image he uses to describe it is that he compares it to a two-edged
sword. The Greek word there, machaira
, would have been familiar to first century readers, because it was the kind of sword that was used by Roman soldiers. So if you have a single-edged sword, that’s very helpful. But a double-edged sword is even more deadly. It’s even dangerous to use it, because as you swing it, you’ve got to be more careful with a double-edged sword than a single-edged sword that you don’t hurt yourself. So it’s the kind of weapon — it was an effective, deadly Roman weapon in the first century AD. And he uses this machaira
, this image of a two-edged sword to describe what Scripture does, how the Word of God is living and active. So he says it’s:
… sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow …
It’s kind of an interesting image. Do we normally think of Scripture as piercing us, as cutting us down to the very depths of our soul, much less using the imagery here of dividing joints and marrow?
So pause for a second here. Just as I’m reading this, it makes me think of my own experience growing up in the south. I grew up hunting with my family — a long tradition of hunting. And when you’re out hunting in the woods, one of the things you have to do is clean the animal. And you’ll realize very quickly the problems that will come if you’ve brought a dull knife rather than a sharp knife. If you’re trying to actually pierce through the joints or pierce through the marrow of the bone, those are the most difficult parts of an animal to cut in two. If you’ve brought a dull knife, you’re not going to be able to do it without a lot of effort, whereas a very sharp knife can make it easy to do that.
So he’s describing here that Scripture is like an extremely sharp double-edged sword that can cut through joints. It can even cut through marrow, the bone itself, so that it pierces us right down to our very soul, all the way to the spirit of a human being.
So this is obviously a metaphor. It’s an image, and it’s not the only time this image of the sword is used for the Word of God in Sacred Scripture. For example, in the book of Revelation 1, there’s a famous vision of the risen Christ, where the same imagery is used, again, metaphorically. Listen to this for just a second. This is when John has a vision of the risen Christ appearing to him as the Son of Man in glory. And he says in Revelation 1:12-13:
Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden girdle round his breast...
And he goes on to describe the apparel of the Son of Man, and if you skip down to verse 16, it says:
in his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth issued a sharp two-edged sword …
… same word, machaira …
… and his face was like the sun shining in full strength.
Now what does that mean? It doesn’t mean that Jesus literally had a sword coming out of His mouth. It’s an apocalyptic metaphor, an apocalyptic image for the prophetic word, for the power of the word of the Risen Christ, of the spoken word of Jesus. So this image isn’t just for the Word of God in Scripture, it’s also for the Word of God spoken by Christ Himself, because every word that He uttered is the living and active word of God. He is the word made flesh who speaks the word to us, and in this case is speaking it to John in this famous apocalyptic vision that John has in the book of Revelation.
So if you go back to Hebrews, what Hebrews is doing here is describing the efficacious power of Scripture to pierce us to the heart, and then as he says in the second verse:
… and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him…
… meaning God…
… no creature is hidden, but all are open and laid bare to the eyes of him with whom we have to do.
Now, if you haven’t had the experience of going hunting and killing an animal and actually cleaning it and carving it open, you might not realize that he’s continuing the metaphor here. What he’s saying is just like we would use a sword or a knife to pierce through the joints and marrow of a beast, of an animal in order to expose what’s inside of it, so too God uses His word to pierce us to our hearts, to our souls, and to our spirits … so that our innards (so to speak), our interior dispositions of the heart, are laid bare, are brought open.
It reminds me — if you don’t mind me telling this — when I was a little boy, my daddy would clean rabbits in the backyard. He would cut them open, and he would show us the heart — he’d say, “Look, here’s the heart — to kind of give us an idea of what the central organ was that kept the animal alive. Same thing with the deer. It’s very striking. I can still remember seeing that as a boy, the interior life of that animal, the physical life being exposed.
Well, that’s the image that Hebrews is using here. That’s what Scripture does to us when we read it. It convicts us, but it also exposes us. There’s a certain danger, in a sense, with the reading of Scripture. And it’s not just the reading of Scripture too. It’s also hearing the Word of God preached and hearing the Word of God proclaimed. It has the power to change us. It has the power to transform us. But it also has the power to expose our hearts when they’re sinful, when they’re not ordered toward God.
And we actually get this image again elsewhere in the New Testament, just as a kind of parallel to illuminate what Hebrews is saying here. If you go to the book of Acts, a similar image is used on the day of Pentecost. When Peter gives his first homily and he preaches to the people in Jerusalem who have gathered together because they have seen these signs that have taken place with the apostles, Peter gets up and he gives his first major sermon after he receives the gift of the Holy Spirit. And he accuses his audience of participating in the crucifixion of Christ: “You crucified the one who was Messiah.” He says, Acts 2:36:
Let all the house of Israel therefore know assuredly that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.
These are the same crowds that had gathered seven weeks before for the feast of Passover when Jesus was executed. And listen to how they respond. He says in verse 37:
Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brethren, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ…
And sure enough, that day three thousand of them do repent and are baptized and receive the grace of salvation. So again, this image of being cut to the heart — it’s describing the prophetic power of the Word of God, but also its ability to affect a change of heart within the person who hears it or, more likely in the case of Hebrews, who’s reading it in Scripture … either way, although Scripture was often read aloud. That’s the ordinary mode of proclamation. It has the power to transform the heart of the person who hears it with an open heart, who receives it with an open heart and allows it to really expose in this case (the case of Acts) the sin of the heart and the need for repentance.
And this is one reason, as we reflect on this, that — I think, at least — people are sometimes reluctant to read Scripture. There are all kinds of reasons, all kinds of excuses for not reading the Bible on a daily basis. People will say, “I’m too busy,” “I have too many things to do.” “It’s too difficult to read Scripture.” The Old Testament, for example, is very difficult to follow. The book of Revelation is a little terrifying. Hebrews is very theologically sophisticated. So you can always come up with different excuses for why you don’t read Scripture, but one of the excuses (one of the reasons, I should say) that is sometimes lurking under the surface is that reading Scripture can be very convicting.
A lot of times Jesus — in particular in the Gospels — doesn’t mince words. Like when He says:
I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter… (Matthew 12:36)
… the Gospel of Matthew. “What you’ve said in secret will be proclaimed from the rooftops.” Those are hard words, and they are convicting words. And they serve to, in a sense, cut open our hearts and expose what needs to be exposed so that we can change, so that we can be moved to repentance. And that’s what the letter to the Hebrews here is giving us in this really beautiful passage about the power, the energy, and the efficacy of Scripture. And it’s real simple. The reason Scripture has the power to do that is because it’s not just a dead letter. It’s not just a book. When we read Scripture, the logos
of God, the Word of God, we’re also encountering the logos
of God that is the person of Christ. Every time we read Scripture with an open heart, we’re actually encountering the Word … not in the same way as in the Eucharist — it’s the Word made flesh in the Eucharist, the substantial presence of Christ — but in this case it’s the Word inspired, the one who comes to us through the living Word of God that is active and sharper than any two-edged sword.
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