Monday of week 4 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Heb 11:32-40

We continue today another part of this wonderful passage about faith and what our Old Testament predecessors were prepared to undergo in order to preserve the integrity of their faith and trust in God. Many of the sufferings described are similar to those experienced by Christian martyrs in later centuries.

The author begins by mentioning some well-known personalities but does not describe particular qualities in detail. Among those mentioned are Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and “the prophets”.

Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah all appear in the Book of Judges, as leaders of God’s people. David is, of course, King David who succeeded to Saul and is one of the most human and endearing characters in the whole Bible and an ancestor of Jesus. Samuel is the prophet who lived in the time of Saul and David and anointed both Saul and David as kings, one succeeding the other. (cf. 1 and 2 Samuel).

He then gives a brief list of exploits done for God but without attributing the actions to particular people. His readers would have known well the examples given.

It includes those who

– conquered kingdoms

– administered justice

– obtained promises

– shut the mouths of lions

(Samson, “though unarmed, tore a lion to pieces as one tears a kid”, Judges 14:6; David told Saul that, as a shepherd, he had killed a lion to protect his sheep, 1 Sam 17:34-35; Daniel remained unharmed though cast into a den of lions, Daniel 6:19-23)

– quenched raging fire

(the three young men, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, friends of Daniel, survived unharmed in the furnace into which Nebuchadnezzar had had them thrown)

– escaped the edge of the sword

– won strength out of weakness

(Gideon, who lamented his weakness, is given strength to overcome the Midians, Judges 6:15; Samson, made weak after his hair is cut, destroys the Philistines when it grows again, Judges 16:15-22; also women like Esther who overcame powerful enemies of God’s people)

– became mighty in war

– put foreign armies to flight

– women who received their dead by resurrection

(the prophet Elijah restores life to the son of the widow of Zarephath in whose house he was given hospitality, 1 Kings17-24; the prophet Elisha brought the young son of a Shunammite woman back to life, 2 Kings 4:8-37)

– were tortured, refusing to accept release in order to get a better resurrection (among those tortured were Eleazar in 2 Macc 6:18-31, who chose death rather than eat pork and so deny his Jewish faith, or the martyrdom of the seven brothers, killed in front of their mother, for the same reason, 2 Macc 7)

– suffered mocking and flogging, even chains and imprisonment

(this may refer to Jeremiah)

– those who were stoned to death, sawn in two, and killed by the sword

(according to 2 Chron 24:21, Zechariah, son of Jehoiada the priest, was stoned and legend has it that Jeremiah met the same fate; there was also a legend that Isaiah had been sawn in two by order of King Manasseh)

– those who went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented

– those who wandered in deserts and mountains, in caves and holes in the ground.

And yet, in spite of these heroic exploits in the service of Yahweh, they “did not receive what was promised”. Only when Jesus came and made his supreme sacrifice to reconcile all of us with God could they also be, together with us, be made perfect.

The heroes of the Old Testament obtained their full reward only after the saving work of Christ had been accomplished. This is the meaning of Jesus, after his death, descending to Sheol, the place of the dead, and bringing all of these people with him to glory. After the death of Jesus, Matthew tells us, “the tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised” (Matt 25:52) and “He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the saints in prison” (1 Pet 3:18-19).

Now, however, they already enjoy what we Christians who are still struggling do not yet possess in its fullness. Although we live in the age of Jesus, we still have to prove ourselves by our faith and the record of our lives lived in that faith. But we have many models in both the Old Testament and in Christian times to inspire us.

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