Faithful heroes then and nowBy Reta Halteman Finger
In the previous column we saw how the writer of Hebrews preaches a sermon that alternates between teaching theology and discussing its ethical implications. Using our high school English grammar, we can also say that the “indicative” of the teaching leads to the “imperative” of the ethics. Since A is true, therefore, we must do B.
All of Hebrews 11 is indicative, using examples from Scripture to illustrate the definition of faith — confidence in God’s faithfulness even when promises are not yet fulfilled (11:1-2). Though we recognize heroes like Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Rahab and Daniel, we also find questionable characters such as Samson and Jephthah (11:32). The writer also includes examples in 11:34-38 from the inter-testamental books of the Maccabbees, which describe the unspeakable tortures law-observant Jews suffered during the Maccabbean revolt of 167 B.C. The reason they “did not receive what was promised” (11:13, 39) was, according to Hebrews’ author, “so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.”
Hebrews 12, then, provides the “imperative” that follows. Therefore, being surrounded by such a cloud of witnesses, let us run the race with perseverance — especially now that we have Jesus as our perfect model (12:2-3).
Why does the author plow through centuries of Hebrew history to make this point? Clearly, he or she is writing to a Jewish church being verbally and economically victimized (10:32-34) but not yet martyred (12:4). Such harassment and constant warnings not to “fall back” imply that the larger, law-observant Jewish community persecutes these believers for following a leader who was publicly shamed by crucifixion as a criminal (12:2).
Rather than interpreting their suffering as punishment so that they lose faith, the author assures them in 12:5-11 that God is disciplining them in the manner of a loving parent. This discipline “later yields the peaceful fruit of justice” (in Greek, “righteousness” is equivalent to “justice”).
From our standpoint nearly 2,000 years later, we still work and wait for this “peaceful fruit of justice.” Along the way, we have seen justice movements in the abolition of slavery, women’s equality, Indian independence, civil rights for African-Americans, the abolition of apartheid in South Africa and many smaller victories. Often success comes by two steps forward, one step backward. Will the Occupy movement affect the staggering economic inequality in the U.S.? Will Israeli settlers ever un-occupy the Palestinian West Bank?
Our three texts are pregnant with other ideas that connect to current realities. A few examples: Heb. 11:2 can help us integrate our faith statements with present scientific discoveries. God prepared the worlds “so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.” The July discovery of a Higgs-boson-like particle at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider in Europe brings to mind all the invisible protons, electrons, quarks and other particles far too small to be seen — but in their interactions they hold our universe together.
Psalm 46:1-3 speaks of earthquakes and tsunamis, and the “changing earth.” How does God help us through events like the 2011 tsunami in Japan? Will God deliver us from climate-change catastrophes caused by human activity? Or is God’s method to send us prophets in the form of climate scientists like James Hansen and political activists like Al Gore and Bill McKibben?
Which brings me back to Noah in Heb. 11:7. I’ve been thinking a lot about Noah lately — building a boat on dry land amid scorn from everyone else. Today, in the face of record heat, drought, ice-melt and sea-level rise, we need many Noahs to stand up to climate-change deniers, fossil fuel corporations and nations who as yet have little political will to confront our impending global disruption.
Reta Halteman Finger, of Harrisonburg, Va., is retired from teaching biblical studies at Messiah College.
Comment on the article Faithful heroes then and now
Please keep comments civil. MWR editors reserve the right to remove any comment. When posting a comment, you agree to the MWR Comments Policy. Name and comment will be posted; commenters are strongly encouraged to give their full name. Email address is for follow-up only and will not be made public.