Once again the second reading today is from the ancient Christian essay we know as Hebrews. We have been reading selections from Hebrews for several weeks now. Today is our final reading from this book of the Bible.
In these weeks we have considered the themes of this ancient essay used by primitive Christians to express their faith. On this last day with this book of the Bible, let’s summarize the themes of Hebrews.
First, it is written as ancient world religions are giving up on the idea of sacrifice to gods. This first century decline in sacrifice as a religious practice took place in many of the religions of people in the Mediterranean basin. A new first century religious spirit brought new religious activity as the old temples were abandoned or destroyed. People sensed that God is not rightly worshipped by the killing of animals, but by living a compassionate and courageous life. As the ancient sacrificial system dies, Hebrews sees Jesus as the end of sacrifice, and the end of that way of relating to God. Jesus is cast as the final sacrifice. Christianity is cast as a faith on the cutting edge of change.
Then secondly Hebrews points to faith as the most important thing. By faith we are saved and led. And the great first century Christian ode to faith is found in the chapters of this book. Faith, confidence, and trust in Jesus, not sacrifice, molds and shapes our lives.
Third, in Hebrews not only sacrifice, but all the symbols of the old faith tradition are not discarded, but reworked as metaphors for a new vision of hope for the world. The old Hebrew faith is not so much rejected as it is reshaped so that it becomes refocused on the plan of a loving God for this wayward planet. In Hebrews, our religious tradition is not the truth in itself. But our past points to our future truth, still being shaped in the hands of a loving God.
Fourth and finally, in these closing chapters of Hebrews, the way of Jesus, the new life in Christ leads us into a new ethic for Christians. God calls faithful and loving people to live in a new way so that their own lives and the lives of those around them might be transformed by the winds of change blowing through the first century.
Do you remember those Ten Commandments from the book of Exodus? Part of the old Hebrew tradition? Well, these verses today are the Ten Commandments of the book of Hebrews: the new commandments we are given to mold and shape our life together. These new Ten Commandments echo the old commandments, but they are also different. That’s the way Hebrews is. Not only in this first century essay are the commandments slightly different, but how they work is also different. They are not presented from on high with the sense that you must obey them or else. Nor are they presented as simple and easy suggestions. They are presented as principles which help us in our personal lives and in our life together, an agenda for a new Christian community. What are the Ten Commandments in this chapter of Hebrews? We have them in our verses this morning:
1. Be compassionate for love matters more than anything else.
2. Show hospitality. Offer food and shelter to those in need or in transition. Hospitality is the most important virtue.
3. Remember those who are in prison. Visit them. Why? Because prison is the most hopeless place humans find themselves, and if we are a people of hope, that is where we should be. In light of the great numbers of prisoners we have in this nation and state, this is a timely commandment.
4. Practice faithfulness in sexual matters. Human sexuality is best found in faithful relationships. Faith is important in Hebrews, and it means living in trust and confidence with your partner.
5. Keep your life free from the love of money. This is a significant commandment in our society so often marked by greed. And the best way to live this commandment is to give some money away.
6. Stop being afraid of everything. You have God on your side, quit acting out of fear.
7. Consider our leaders, and move them with our own example, actions, and votes to do the right thing whether they want to or not. Stop blaming them. Change them.
8. Focus over and over again on Jesus who is always there.
9. Go to church now and then, and praise God instead of whining about things.
10. Share your stuff. It’s good to share your things; it makes everyone happier, including you.
These ten guidelines from Hebrews shape a way to live, a vision for life which is still useful for us, and in some ways may be more applicable to our own time and place than the first century out of which they come. We say farewell now to the book of Hebrews.
If Hebrews today presents an agenda for right living, the reading from the gospel of Luke focuses everything on just one principle: humility. Jesus tells a story based on an ancient proverb or saying: our first reading this morning. Now humility may be difficult for us to work with. Some of us really need to learn to speak up for ourselves, and humility may not be the most important virtue for which to strive. Others of us have become so self-centered in this narcissistic age that we are unable to conceive of humility let alone live by it.
However, the humility of which Jesus speaks in his banquet parable may not have much to do with the strength of our own self esteem. In the example he gives, humility happens when we let others lift us up rather than ourselves. Humility involves letting others into your world and life, allowing others to express their opinions about you. We get into trouble when our own opinion of ourselves does not let others express their regard for us. Humility is allowing others to express their opinions about you. Sometimes those around us might need to be encouraged to constructive criticism. And sometimes they will offer words of praise. But the point of humility is that others have an opportunity to honor the humble guest.
And the parable is a call to all banquet halls (a metaphor for all congregations, communities and families) to be places where people are lifted up rather than put down. It is a call for our congregations and all family and loving partnerships to be places where people feel gently affirmed and lifted up, even as they place others in the seats of honor.
In the parable, humility is achieved by allowing others into your world and life, being aware of them, and then breaking bread with them. But then notice how the parable closes. Those on the edges, the poor, those in need, are also invited to the banquet. All are invited to the table of the Lord. Deeper humility is found when we admit outsiders and strangers to the fellowship we share, into the community of caring conversation and mutual regard. And in that larger mix, as people live and break bread together, we will all find our place, discovering at this banquet there really is no place more important than another.
Humility is an important Christian virtue, but this morning it is not so much about our self esteem as about our willingness to open our lives to those around us and their opinions. Perhaps in our own time when everyone is shouting as loud as they can at the top of their voices about how right they are, and how important their opinion is – well in our own time, this call to gracious humility may be the most important commandment of all. Amen.