Saturday of Week 3 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Hebrews 11:1-2, 8-19

We begin today chapter 11 of Hebrews which is a magnificent hymn on the meaning of faith.

The chapter is summarised by the New American Bible in these words:

“This chapter draws upon the people and events of the Old Testament to paint an inspiring portrait of religious faith, firm and unyielding in the face of any obstacles that confront it.  These pages rank among the most lofty and eloquent to be found the Bible.  They expand the theme announced in 6:12, to which the author now returns (10:39).  The material of this chapter is developed chronologically.  Verses 3-7 draw up on the first 9 chapters of Genesis; vv 8-22, upon the period of the patriarchs; vv 23-31, upon the time of Moses; vv 32-38, upon the history of the judges, the prophets and the Maccabean martyrs.”

The author of Hebrews gives the most extensive description of faith provided in the New Testament, though his interest does not lie in a technical, theological definition.  In view of the needs of his audience, he describes what authentic faith does, not what it is in itself.  Through faith, God guarantees the blessings to be hoped for from him, providing evidence in the gift of faith, that what he promises will eventually come to pass (v1).  Because they accepted in faith God’s guarantee of the future, the biblical personages discussed in vv 3-38 were themselves commended by God (v2).  Christians have even greater reason to remain firm in faith since they, unlike the Old Testament men and women of faith, have perceived the beginning of God’s fulfilment of his messianic promises (vv 39-40).

Our reading begins with a description of what faith is, and then goes on to discuss the faith of Abraham.  The faith of some other Israelite heroes will be discussed in next Monday’s reading.

Faith is described in these words: “Only faith can guarantee the blessings that we hope for, or prove the existence of the realities that at present remain unseen.”  As described in the New American Bible translation: “Faith is the realisation of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen.”  We are dealing here with a description of faith, not a theological definition.

Faith and hope deal with realities for which we have no absolutely concrete evidence, but they are realities on which we are prepared to base our lives.  It does not mean that we have no evidence for these realities; at the same time they are of such a kind that we discover that by acting on the basis of their promise, we find what we are looking for.  It is not just wishful thinking or a wild shot in the dark.  No one who has genuinely based their lives on the Gospel message has been disappointed.

The Jewish Christians to whom the Letter is addressed have been discouraged by persecution in the past, so the author emphasises that it is only what is in the future and what is invisible that concerns hope.  The examples from the Old Testament are intended to show how faith is the source of patience and strength.

Indeed, says the author, it was because of their faith in God’s word that the ancestors of the Jews won approval from God.  The author then presents some magnificent examples of faith from the Old Testament.  He begins with Abel, Enoch and Noah and then goes on to Abraham, who is the subject of our reading.  Later, he will speak of Isaac, Joseph and Moses and others.  In general, Abraham is presented in the New Testament as the outstanding example of those who live “by faith” and as the “father of all who believe” (see Rom 4:11-12).

Abraham was called out by God from his birthplace deep in what is now southern Iraq and told to go to a strange, far distant land where he would find an inheritance for himself and his descendants.  He set out not really knowing where he was going or what was ahead of him.  This was his first act of faith.

He arrived, a foreigner and an outsider, in what was to become the Promised Land.  Following him were his son, Isaac, and grandson, Jacob, who were heirs of the same promise.  They lived in Canaan as nomads taking care of their flocks of sheep and cattle.  They looked forward to a permanent base, a city, “founded, designed and built” by God.  The “city” speaks of permanence, in contrast to the tents in which the patriarch lived.  That would not come for quite some time in the form of Jerusalem on Mount Zion, the citadel of King David.  But the real city is the “heavenly Jerusalem”, “the city that is to come” and the “new Jerusalem” (Rev 21).

Next, there is the faith of Sarah, Abraham’s wife.  She had borne her husband no children and hence no legitimate heirs.  Abraham did have a son, Ishmael, by Hagar one of his slave women, but he did not count this child as part of God’s promise.  Sarah never lost faith that God would keep his promise about Abraham’s inheritance, which could only come through a legitimate son borne by her.  And her faith was rewarded when, already well past child-bearing age, she gave birth to Isaac.  God’s action was clearly present in this event which was beyond all expectation, and yet so crucial for God’s promise to be realised.  Says the author of Hebrews,

Because of this, there came from one man, and one who was already as good as dead himself [100 years old, according to Genesis], more descendants than could be counted, as many as the stars of heaven or the grains of sand on the sea-shore.

The lateness and unlikeliness of the birth only emphasises God’s role in it.

The author then goes on to comment on the examples he has given (including those not in our reading).  What these people all had in common, was that they died before any of the things which had been promised became a reality. 

They saw them in the far distance and welcomed them, recognising that they were only strangers and nomads on earth.

They were nomads not only in the literal sense, but in the sense that this world was not destined to be their permanent home.

By speaking in the way they did they make it clear they were in search of their real homeland.  They were certainly not talking about the place they came from, because they could easily have gone back there.  They were on a forward journey from which there was no turning back.  “They were longing for a better homeland, namely, their ‘heavenly homeland’.”

“That is why God is not ashamed to be called their God, since he has founded the city for them.”  That is, he has prepared a lasting home for them, their permanent home with God himself.

The third and final example of faith is when, being put to the test by God, Abraham was told to make a human sacrifice of his only legitimate son, Isaac.  In human terms, this did not make any sense at all.  Abraham had been promised innumerable descendants, but that could only happen by Isaac having sons of his own.  With the death of Isaac, the promise had no way of being realised.  Yet Abraham, in a supreme act of faith and trust in God keeping his promise, proceeded to carry out God’s command.

We know that, just as Abraham raised the knife to kill his son, already bound on an altar, an angel of the Lord stopped him and substituted a ram for the sacrifice.  Abraham’s extraordinary faith was rewarded and God’s promise was fulfilled – and is still being fulfilled.  Says the author: “He was confident that God had the power even to raise from the dead; and so, figuratively speaking, he was given back Isaac from the dead.”   Some see in Isaac’s return from virtual death a symbol of Christ’s resurrection.

Clearly, the author of Hebrews tells these stories to encourage those to whom he is writing.  Because of their difficulties, their faith is weakening.  And, indeed, for the early Church in general, especially in times of great persecution, great faith was needed.  This is what the parables of the mustard seed and of the yeast in the dough are about.  What would they think of the billion Christians in the world today?

There are many lessons for us here.   In many parts of the world, including our own, Christians are in situations where their faith is under attack in one way or another.  In some cases, it may be direction persecution and harassment; in others, it may be the pressure from the surrounding culture.  We need to go back to the heart of our faith, the core vision that Jesus handed on to us.

Let us also go forward in faith and trust that God will keep his promises.

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