GOSPEL, FIRST READING & PSALM TRANSCRIPT (Subscribe or Login for Full Transcript):
I’ve talked about this in other videos. If you look at the parables of Jesus, they’re not just nice stories so that the farmers and the fishermen and the children could understand…simple stories so people can understand the kingdom of God. No, that’s not actually it. A lot of times what they are, they are simple; anyone can understand them. But they frequently include a surprising element, a twist, some unexpected element that’s meant to shock you or get your attention or turn upside down your ordinary expectations.
And that’s very true of this parable here because he says, “When you go to a marriage feast, don’t take the place of honor.” Instead, what do you do? Take the lowest place; take the lowest seat. That way, he says, you won’t end up being shamed, because if you take the high seat, the host might say to you, “actually I need you to move down the table to the bottom. Someone of more importance has come in.” I don’t know if this has ever happened to me, I’ve gone to these banquets where I’m speaking (or something like that) and they’ll say, “Here, come sit at table number one.” And I always feel a little nervous there. I was like “Where is table 25?” Because according the gospel, you don’t want to sit at the special people’s table, you want to go and sit in the back of the banquet hall. Actually, you know, as I’m thinking of this parable, this is the one parable Catholics take literally right? Because when we go to a Catholic church, no one wants to sit in the front pew. Have you ever noticed that? It’s very, very fascinating. Even if there’s only 8 people in church, they’re going to get 6 or 8 aisles back away from the altar. And maybe that’s because we’ve all (you know) somehow imbibed this parable on a very deep, deep level. Go to the back pew. I’m a Catholic. I’m following Jesus’ teaching in Luke 14.
In any case, that’s not what people would do normally. Normally there was a pecking order (a social pecking order) and (you know), whether it be maybe the priests or the scribes, or maybe if you remember the party of Herod (like a Herodian), if you’re in the upper echelon of society, you take the highest spot, not the lowest. Jesus flips that. That’s the twist. “Take the lowest seat.” And when you do that, what will happen is the host will come and he will say, you friend, go up higher and then you will be honored in the presence of all as opposed to being shamed in the presence of all. Now, this isn’t just a nice piece of ethical advice about how to act at a banquet. As you know, Jesus’ parables take earthly realities, but they’re always about heavenly realities. They’re always pointing forward to the nature of the kingdom of God. And usually if you want to see the meaning of the parable, you can go to the end. And at the end of the parable it was standard in Ancient Jewish parables for there to be what’s called a nimshal
. The best English translation of this that I can think of is “upshot.” So what’s the upshot of the parable? What’s the point, so to speak? Usually you’ll find the point at the end, not always, but usually. And here Jesus says, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Now in the parable Jesus is talking about being humbled or exalted in the context of a banquet or wedding feast, but if you know Jesus’ teachings elsewhere, what will he use a wedding feast as an image of? The image of the kingdom of God.
So for example, in Matthew 22 Jesus actually says, “The kingdom of Heaven is like a wedding feast that a king put on for his son.” So the imagery there is of the joy of salvation, the joy of the world to come. The joy of the kingdom of Heaven is really only comparable to the joy of a wedding feast. So if you’ve ever been to a really great celebration at a wedding, a beautiful holy couple that are united in Holy Matrimony (in the sacrament of marriage) and then you’re celebrating that sacramental union; it’s awesome. It’s amazing. You just feel overcome with joy, filled with joy — at least that is how it should be. Jesus says, well that’s what the kingdom is like, elsewhere. So given those parables elsewhere, what he’s really talking about here is how people should act in the kingdom of God. So if you want to be exalted in the kingdom of God, what do you need to do? You need to act humbly now. You need to cultivate the virtue of humility now so that you seek the lowest place in this world, so that when the banquet of the kingdom comes you’ll be exalted.
SECOND READING TRANSCRIPT (Subscribe or Login for Full Transcript):
What's Hebrews talking about here? Okay. Well, in this case, I think it actually might be helpful here to speculate a little bit more about the audience of the letter to the Hebrews. So if you look at the letter to the Hebrews as a whole, and you take the title seriously, one of the first things you'll notice is that the letter to the Hebrews seems to have been written to the Hebrews. Sorry, I couldn't help that.
No, what does that mean, to the Hebrews? Remember, if you go back to the Acts of the Apostles in chapter six, you have a debate that breaks out in the early Jerusalem church between two groups of believers, the Hellenists and the Hebrews. And if you look at that passage in detail, scholars have pointed out that what this appears to be is a division between Greek speaking believers and Semitic speaking believers. Now there's some debate about whether they're speaking Hebrew or they're speaking Aramaic, because that's still a scholarly debate. Let's just go with Hebrew, because that will keep it more straightforward. And you can see how, even to this day, when you have linguistic divisions within a single church, it can be a cause of conflict and miscommunication and confusion.
So there's a conflict that breaks out between the Hebrew speaking Christians and the Greek speaking Christians. And as a result, you have the seven men who are chosen to be deacons to begin assisting the Apostles in their ministries, in order to solve this problem in the church. If that passage is describing a group of Hebrew speaking Christians, then a strong case can be made that the title of the letter to the Hebrews, the fact that it's dedicated to the Hebrews, means that this letter was addressed to a similar group.
Now the big catch, the big problem with that hypothesis, is that the letter to the Hebrews, the letter called the letter to Hebrews is written in some of the most sophisticated Greek, the most sophisticated Greek, of any other letter in the New Testament. So it's a little strange. If you were writing to the Hebrews, meaning Hebrew speaking Christians, why would you write in Greek? Not just any Greek, but very sophisticated Greek. And there are different solutions to this that have been given. One of the most ancient solutions that goes back all the way to the 3rd and 4th Century among some of the Church Fathers, is some of the Church Fathers believe that the letter was actually originally written in Hebrew, but it was later translated in Greek. So for example, one Church Father suggested that Paul wrote the letter in Hebrew, in a very sophisticated Hebrew to members of the Jerusalem church, and that Luke later translated it into his very fine Greek, for which he is known.
The answer to that question is outside the boundaries of this particular video, but for our purposes here, whatever language the text was originally written in, it seems to have been written to Christians who are being persecuted, facing some opposition, and not just opposition, they seem to be facing a temptation to go back and participate in the sacrifices of the Jerusalem temple. That's why so much of the letter to he Hebrews is focused on showing that Christ is the true high priest, not of the earthly temple in Jerusalem, but of the heavenly temple in the heavenly Jerusalem. And that's where the true sacrifice is, the sacrifice of Christ who's crucified, died, rose, and ascended into the heavenly sanctuary, the heavenly Holy of Holies.
And so if that's correct, if the letter to the Hebrews is meant to help Christians not fall back, not to help Jewish Christians not begin practicing the sacrifices of the Old Testament temple, the earthly Jerusalem temple, but to participate in a new covenant, rather, then this final chapter makes sense, because the section for today, what Hebrews is doing is drawing a contrast between two mountains. One of them is Mount Sinai and the other is Mount Zion. Zion is the mountain on which the temple of Jerusalem was built. But in this case, the Zion in question is not the earthly Zion, but the heavenly Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem.
So let's go back and look at the passage with that contrast in mind. First, he begins by saying:
you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers entreat that no further messages be spoken to them.
Now that's an illusion to the book of Exodus 19 and 20, when God appears in the cloud of glory on top of Mount Sinai, speaks out of the cloud, and the people become terrified at the voice that they hear coming from the cloud. And they don't want to even go near the mountain of Sinai, but they send Moses to be their mediator, to be their intercessor on their behalf, the go between them and God.
What the author of Hebrews is saying here is that his readers have not come to a visible mountain that can be touched, namely the earthly visible mountain of Sinai, the mountain of the old covenant. Instead, they have come to Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering.
So pause there. What the author to the Hebrews is assuming here is that his readers will know, and this is very important, that in ancient Jewish tradition, the earthly temple was viewed as being a pattern, a visible symbol, of the heavenly temple. So if you go back to the Old Testament in Exodus 25, when God tells Moses to make a tabernacle, he says, "Make it according to the pattern of what you saw when you were on the mountain." So even the earthly tabernacle in the Old Testament was patterned on a heavenly invisible tabernacle that only Moses was able to see, namely the heavenly tabernacle.
In the same way, the author to the Hebrews is saying:
you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering,
And here's the key line:
and to the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven
Now the Greek word here for assembly in the RSV, the Revised Standard Version is ecclesia
, which is ordinarily translated as what? Church. So literally what it says is you've come to the church of the firstborn who are in heaven. Now why does that matter? It's because what Hebrews is doing is showing that the Church Triumphant is the actual assembly, so to speak, of believers. It's where the believers come whenever they worship, whenever they're gathering together in worship, they're not going to the earthly temple in Jerusalem. They're not going to the visible mountain of Sinai. They're actually being gathered together in communion, not just with the invisible angels, but also with the invisible saints, the ecclesia
, “the assembly of the first-born” from the dead “who are enrolled in heaven.” And they are in communion with the “spirits of just men” who have been made what? Perfect.
So what is this? This is a vision of what would later go on to be called the Church Triumphant, the church in heaven. And I cannot stress enough just how important it is to understand that when we talk about the mystery of the Church, we're not talking first and foremost about the Church Militant, the church on Earth. A lot of us, when we talk about the Church, we tend to refer primarily to the earthly institution. And of course it's true that that is the Church. But remember there are always three aspects, three dimensions, three distinctions, within the one mystery of the Church. There's the Church Militant, the church on Earth, the institutional visible Church we have here. There's the Church Suffering, which is the Church of the souls of those who are in purgatory, who are united with Christ, but have not yet entered into the beatific vision. And then there's the Church Triumphant, which is what Hebrews 12 is describing her. The souls of righteous men made perfect.
Which by the way, sometimes people will respond to the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says, "Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." They'll say, "Well, that's impossible." Well, you better hope it's not impossible because that's what heaven is,. In heaven, the saints no longer sin. They are perfectly just or perfectly righteous, through God's grace having made them perfect. It's not through their own effort, but through the gift of grace.
And so what Hebrews is saying here is when you worship, where are you going to choose to go? Are you going to go to the visible mountain of Sinai? Are you going to go to the visible temple in Jerusalem? Or are you going to realize that through the blood of Christ, the mediator of the new covenant, we've been given access to the assembly of the firstborn, who are enrolled in heaven, to commune with the souls of just men made perfect and to the enumerable angels in heavenly array who worship God, not in the earthly, but in the heavenly Jerusalem? That's the city to which you actually belong.
Now for my money, I can't help but wonder here, if the reason Hebrews ends this passage for today, not just with the Church Triumphant, but with the blood of Christ, is because this isn't just about worship in general, but about the Eucharistic assembly in particular. Why does he shift all of a sudden from talking about the heavenly Zion to blood? Well, as any 1st Century Jew would've known, the reason you go to the temple is not just because God's there. It's not just because it is the dwelling place of God, but it's because it's the sole place of sacrifice. The temple is where the blood of the animals is poured out on the Day of Atonement, on the sacrifices of Yom Kippur, in order to reconcile Israel to God. Well, here, in the same way, Hebrews is saying that in the heavenly Jerusalem, when you come to the heavenly Jerusalem, you're coming to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, “and to the sprinkled blood that speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel.”
So what is this sprinkled blood of Jesus? How do you come to the sprinkled blood of Jesus? I would suggest that the way you come to the sprinkled blood of Jesus is by coming to the Eucharist. In other words, Hebrews 12, I would suggest, climaxes with an implicit reference to the Eucharistic blood of Christ as the way that we have access to the liturgical worship of the heavenly Jerusalem and the Church Triumphant. And if you have any doubts about that, you can actually just keep reading, although it's not in the lectionary for today... For full access subscribe here >