For Oct. 21, 2012: Proper 24, Year B

The Reading            Isaiah 53:4-12

Today’s reading from Isaiah is one that we associate with Holy Week. It speaks—at first from the point of view of those who benefit, later from the point of view of God—of a mysterious figure who suffers grievously in order that others may be spared the punishment they deserve.

The Response            Psalm 91:9-16

The Epistle            Hebrews 5:1-10

Hebrews 5:1-10 explains how and why Jesus Christ is the ultimate high priest, in both senses of the term: he is human, so he understands human weakness; he is God, but served humbly just as, in today’s gospel, he calls us to serve; he knows what it is to sacrifice—and to be the sacrifice. Melchizedek, which can mean ‘king of righteousness’, is the king and priest who came to Abram in Genesis bringing bread and wine.

The Gospel            Mark 10:35-45

 

Further thoughts

The Melchizedek who is Jesus’ prototype in the book of Hebrews is named in Genesis 14:13-20: as the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah and three other kingdoms flee from an unsuccessful revolt, their overlords the Elamites capture Lot, who is the nephew of a certain Hebrew that the world will later know as Abraham. Blood being thicker than water, Abram combines his own forces with those of his neighbor Mamre and Mamre’s brothers Eshcol and Aner and goes to Lot’s rescue.

Abram’s forces rout the enemy and take Lot and and his goods plus, one surmises, prisoners and booty. On the way back, Abram meets the king of Sodom—Lot’s king—in the Valley of Shaveh. Also there is Melchizedek, king of Salem (which is Arabic and Hebrew for ‘peace’) and priest of God Most High. This is in the time before the Levites in Israel were set aside as priests; indeed, neither Israel nor the tribe of Levi even existed. Now it was not unusual for a king also to be a priest. Unusually, though, Melchizedek comes to Abram rather than making Abram come to him, and Melchizedek brings bread and wine. That is, even though Melchizedek is a king and Abram is not, Melchizedek serves and honors Abram before blessing him.

What a contrast this is with the bumptious Sons of Thunder, James and John, demanding their places at Jesus’ left and right hands in heaven! It’s easy to laugh at their lack of polish, at least when I’m not wincing at how much it looks like my own.

And yet the most valuable servant is not the one who passively waits for orders but rather the one who takes initiative. James and John, and the almost irrepressible Peter, have caught glimpses of what Jesus is doing on earth; whatever their mistakes, they are doing their best to live into the vision given their understanding of the way the world works. That God Almighty is also in the business of seeking dirty feet to wash remains a startling concept, two millennia and thousands of Bible studies later. As I struggle to reconcile Jesus’ vision of servant leadership with the facts of worldly hierarchical life, I have a good model to follow in Melchizedek’s graceful integration of the exalted roles of king and priest with a personal reality in which, by God’s grace, he is clearly pretty well over himself. I have a very long way to go to match Melchizedek as a servant, let alone Jesus—but, as with James and John and Peter, there’s grace and work and hope for me, too, in Jesus’ vision.

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