Wednesday 19th January
Hebrews 7:1-3ff. The priesthood of Jesus is of mysterious origin, like Melchisedek’s, which lasts forever. Just as Melchisedek blessed Abraham, so the priestly influence of Jesus is above and beyond that of the Jewish temple priests, and has worldwide power to save.
Mark 3:1ff. Jesus asks if it is permitted on the sabbath to do good; then heals the man with the paralysed hand.
Today’s readings impinge on the theme of warfare or conflict. Melchisedek meets Abraham on his way back from a short military excursion against some local chiefs, and blesses him ; then in the Gospel we have the conflict between the Pharisees and Jesus, about what is allowed on the Sabbath. He is “deeply grieved” by their insistence that not even a work of healing should be allowed on the day of the Lord.
The overriding concern of these texts is for the triumph of life over the forces of death. Hebrews concludes that like the mysterious priest-king Melchisedek, Jesus is a priest forever, with a power of life that cannot be destroyed. And in the debate about what is permissible on the Sabbath, Jesus makes clear that it is above all a day for life-giving activities. He stresses, indeed, the contrast between “good” deeds that preserve life, and “evil” deeds, that destroy it. For God is the Lord of life, not of death; of peace, not of violence; of justice, not of oppression.
The question about whether or when warfare is legitimate is a thorny one, to which we cannot find a definitive answer in the Bible, for it offers such a variety of viewpoints on the matter. Throughout the biblical period, wars and soldiering – both local and international – were an accepted part of life. There are some texts that give clear justification for defensive warfare, in the era of the Judges, or to repel the Assyrians, some even favoured a war of invasion, especially the conquest of the Promised Land, while other texts provide support for a fairly radical pacifism. Towards the end of the Old Testament period, the apocalyptic writers maintained that only God himself can legitimately make war on behalf of his chosen people.
What the Bible does say, unambiguously, is that we should live our lives fully, responsibly and with a sense of justice and compassion towards our neighbour. This can mean speaking out against evil and injustice, even at cost to ourselves. Jesus could have side-stepped the issue of how to keep the Sabbath, by healing the sick man in private, but he chose to confront the issue squarely and publicly, and performed the cure in full view of all. Even the normally peace-loving Abraham was drawn into action in order to rescue his relative from the violence of marauding local warlords – and is blessed by Melchisedek on his return from this righteous intervention. We need always to remember our Lord’s warning that “those who take the sword shall perish by the sword”, Matthew 26:52 and his explicit ruling out of violence, even in self-defence, Matthew 5:39. These ideals make it very hard for us to justify any militaristic adventures for the expansion of one’s kingdom or ideas, since the basic Christian call is not to be served, but to serve, Mark 10:45 and give one’s life in this service.
First Reading: Hebrews 7:1-3, 15-17
This “King Melchizedek of Salem, priest of the Most High God, met Abraham as he was returning from defeating the kings and blessed him;” and to him Abraham apportioned “one-tenth of everything.” His name, in the first place, means “king of righteousness;” next he is also king of Salem, that is, “king of peace.” Without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God, he remains a priest forever.
See how great he is! Even Abraham the patriarch gave him a tenth of the spoils. And those descendants of Levi who receive the priestly office have a commandment in the law to collect tithes from the people, that is, from their kindred, though these also are descended from Abraham. But this man, who does not belong to their ancestry, collected tithes from Abraham and blessed him who had received the promises. It is beyond dispute that the inferior is blessed by the superior. In the one case, tithes are received by those who are mortal; in the other, by one of whom it is testified that he lives. One might even say that Levi himself, who receives tithes, paid tithes through Abraham, for he was still in the loins of his ancestor when Melchizedek met him.
Now if perfection had been attainable through the levitical priesthood – for the people received the law under this priesthood – what further need would there have been to speak of another priest arising according to the order of Melchizedek, rather than one according to the order of Aaron? For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well. Now the one of whom these things are spoken belonged to another tribe, from which no one has ever served at the altar. For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah, and in connection with that tribe Moses said nothing about priests.
It is even more obvious when another priest arises, resembling Melchizedek, one who ha become a priest, not through a legal requirement concerning physical descent, but through the power of an indestructible life. For it is attested of him, “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.”
Gospel: Mark 3:1-6
Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.