Jesus is still walking to Jerusalem as we encounter him in the Gospel today; and as he walks, he teaches. The teaching is meant to be an encouragement, for he knows that what lies ahead in Jerusalem will shake their faith in him. So he encourages them to adopt an alternative to the dominant consciousness that possesses so many people; namely, the anxious project of survival, the constant concern for food, clothing and shelter. The alternative consciousness proposes that we consider life as a gift given from beyond itself. This gift is given us without us working for it, and the source of all life feeds it. God feeds us so our lives can unfold from the inside into a beautiful outside.
Adopting the consciousness of life as a gracious gift is a risky business. It may compromise the struggle to survive. So Jesus precedes this teaching with the very familiar words, “Be not afraid.” When we accept life not as a struggle but as a gift, we become a delight to God. When we are able to let go of the endless quest for more possessions, we are able to hand on the gift that God has given us by sharing with others. Once life is received from a bountiful Giver, whoever receives it naturally gives this life to others. The Gospel of St. Matthew conveys the same message using different words. “Without cost you have received; without cost you are to give” (Matthew 10:8b)
Adopting this consciousness requires faith. Chapter eleven of the Letter to the Hebrews begins with a definition of faith. The sacred writer tells us that faith is about things that we hope for but which we have not seen. You might say that this definition is the antithesis of the popular euphemism that exclaims, “Seeing is believing.” We only hear a few verses from this chapter, most of them about Abraham. He is held up as an example of someone who has believed God’s promises to him even though he is unable to see or to explain how those promises are to come to fruition.
Chapter eleven offers many more examples of people in the Hebrew Scriptures who also have placed their faith in God’s promises. The writer cites the examples of Abel, Enoch and Noah who all lived before Abraham as well as eleven other people, all of whom come after Abraham. In fact, chapter eleven might be read as a review unit on the Hebrew Scriptures. However, the sacred writer then makes a rather stunning statement. “All these died in faith. They did not receive what had been promised but saw it and greeted it from afar and acknowledged themselves to be strangers and aliens on earth. All these, though approved because of their faith, did not receive what had been promised.” In other words, they all believed, but their faith was never realized. In some ways, the sacred writer may be torpedoing his own point. Luckily for us, chapter eleven is followed by chapter twelve which we will hear next Sunday. God’s promises were to be fulfilled in the person of Jesus whom none of the people of the Hebrew Scriptures would ever meet in their lifetimes.
In that respect, we are all so much more fortunate than these examples that the author of the Letter to the Hebrews holds up to us for emulation. We have realized the fulfillment of God’s promise because we have come to know Jesus through the Word of God and through the sacraments of the Church. Each of the sacraments is an opportunity for us to encounter Jesus just as really as those who walked with him to Jerusalem. When we were baptized, we encountered Jesus for the first time by dying with him and rising to a new life with the Holy Spirit. When we receive Eucharist, we take the Body and Blood, Humanity and Divinity of Jesus into our very flesh. When we express sorrow for our sins and receive absolution, we experience God’s mercy and forgiveness in a very personal encounter. When we are confirmed and anointed with chrism, we accept our place in the flock that we call God’s chosen people. When we are ill or fragile with the burden of years, we encounter Jesus as the Healer through the Sacrament of the Sick. Each encounter is another way that God continues to feed our lives so that our inner beauty can blossom into a beautiful outer reality. Jesus’ words to his disciples as he walks to Jerusalem still echo true today as we continue on our pilgrimage to eternal life with God.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M.