The Letter to the Hebrews calls itself a “message of encouragement.” (Hb. 13:22) It was written to a congregation in danger of falling away from faith due to complacency. Complacency has been a perennial problem for Christianity. There have always been those among the baptized who believe that mere reception of Baptism or the Eucharist is a magical guarantee of salvation. There have also always been those who doubt God’s mercy so profoundly as to think there is no guarantee of salvation. In both cases, it is easy to fall into the complacency of faithlessness, either from presumption or despair.
The author exhorted the congregation to persevere on the path of discipleship. This encouraging message was based on the example of Jesus who remained faithful to God despite suffering rejection, humiliation, and death.
Today’s second reading says that when Jesus prayed, “he was heard because of his reverence.” (Hb. 5:7) “Reverence,” in this context, is neither merely an interior attitude nor a physical act of devotion; it is, in fact, the combination of both an interior disposition and physical action. Jesus’ “reverence” was his undivided loyalty to God expressed in a life of justice and mercy. The author of the letter encouraged the congregation to imitate the example of Jesus’ reverent life.
At this point in Lent, and at this point in history, a message of encouragement might be welcome. For the past four and a half weeks, we’ve been selflessly and heroically denying to ourselves the fundamental necessities of life: chocolate, carbs, and adult beverages. On a more serious level, the pandemic has been a long, wearying ordeal that has yet to end. A message of encouragement would be welcomed by all, I think.
There are, however, two prerequisites for receiving and hearing real encouragement. The two prerequisites are defined by the two causes of complacency mentioned above.
The author of the Letter to the Hebrews had one goal in mind when she or he wrote the text. The complicated logic and rhetoric of the document serve to communicate the message that Jesus was the only appropriate sacrifice to bring forgiveness of all sin and, at the same time, the only appropriate priest (or mediator), to offer the sacrifice. The first prerequisite to receiving and hearing a message of consolation is to have put one’s faith where it belongs: in the one who “was heard because of his reverence.” (Hb. 5:7)
There are many possible objects of faith and many motivations for making the choice. Everyone makes the choice, but not everyone makes it appropriately. The modern atheists put their faith in humanistic values; one would think a cursory reading of human history would be enough to discourage such a choice. Informed consumers put their faith in their appetites and desires; this choice is unwise for the same reason as the preceding choice. Insecure religious adherents put their faith in popular devotions and heroic practices; again, confer above. In contrast to these, Jesus, the appropriate sacrifice offered by the appropriate high priest, is the only choice that leads to salvation.
The second prerequisite for receiving and hearing a message of encouragement is rather subtle. Some people might well disagree with me on this point, but I maintain that hearing a message of encouragement depends on one’s ability to maintain hope.
Humanists and consumers are deceived by the unconditional value they mistakenly attribute to optimism. Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and others claim that if humans shed their tribal ideas and associations, human society could achieve lasting peace, justice, and equality. The evidence for this claim is rhetorical rather than real. Consumers, for their part, believe that if they could only attain the right blessing, benefit, or product from God (or the world), they would feel assured of lasting happiness. The choice to place one’s trust in something finite, whether it is a thing, a product, a possession, a person, or a society is a choice for self-imposed disappointment. No finite object can ever be worthy of one’s ultimate trust.
Only those who are willing to place their hope unconditionally in God can receive and hear a message of consolation. Unconditional hope in God runs counter both to unredeemed human nature and our contemporary culture. It requires that we set aside trust in ourselves in order to trust the One whom we are not.
When Jesus, our sacrifice and high priest, prayed on our behalf, he was heard because he was completely obedient to God and completely selfless. We, too, can be heard because of our reverence – if we are willing to place our trust where it won’t be wasted and hold fast to hope that we don’t create for ourselves. There is boundless encouragement to be found in the Scriptures, but it is found only by those who imitate Jesus’ reverent life.