It often seems that our world is obsessed with great deeds. We celebrate them from our athletes. We revere them in our warriors. We are promised them by our politicians. We publicize (and perhaps fabricate?) them on social media.
We are obsessed with great deeds, yes. And we are obsessed with them because they, surely, indicate greatness. And it is greatness that we are truly concerned with. Whether Messi or Maradona (or Pele or Ronaldo) is the #GOAT (“Greatest of All Time), whether LeBron or Jordan, whether Marino or Montana or Brady or Manning. Whether America needs to be “great” again or it always has been and remains so. Whether or not our lives are (or at least appear to be) “legen—wait-for-it—dary!” Whether we are great. Or not.
So it may be tempting to see, in our second reading this week, a Biblical “Who’s Who” of greatness. A laundry list of great deeds. An Evangelical stump speech or TED talk on the “power of faith.”
Faith, we are right to remember from the beginning of chapter 11, is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (11:1) Our text comes at the end of an extended historical recapitulation. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews has spent all of chapter 11 constructing a select summary of the legendary and patriarchal narratives of Israel’s history. Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, and Moses have been held up as exemplars of faith. And in 11:29 the author turns toward a more broad-brush narrative sketch. (He [or she! See those authorship debates. They make for great fun!(1)] even employs a common rhetorical device to speed the summation along in 11:32). By faith not only were the great deeds of the Exodus accomplished and the conquest of the Promised Land, but far more! Kingdoms conquered, justice administered, lions silenced, fire quenched, strength won, swords escaped, armies put to flight! What great deeds! And all, we are assured, achieved “by faith,” believing in the unseen. What an attractive selfie the scriptures provide for themselves! Who wouldn’t want some of this?
But we must take care to read our text all the way through, and to allow the letter-writer’s narration to develop.
Faith, it seems, is not just for accomplishing great deeds. It is also for enduring torture, mocking and flogging, chains and imprisonment. Faith is for being stoned to death, sawn in two and—far from just escaping the sword (11:34), faith is for being killed by the sword (11:37). Faith is more than assenting to the reality of the extra-sensory. It is radical openness to a future beyond our control. Faith is also obedience.
Further, where our worldly assumptions about greatness tend to result in “the great ones” being singled out, especially recognized, and lavishly rewarded, the “great ones” of our text “though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised.” (11:39) God has provided “something better” (11:40) than singular greatness: unity with all those who have gone before, and will come after—a “great cloud of witnesses.” (12:1)
As is always the case in Hebrews, the goal of our text is to point its readers to Jesus. So when we see the text progress from the heroes(2) of Israelite history and their great deeds, to the sufferings of “others”—most likely fellow Christians who had suffered persecutions—we are not witnessing a random list of faithful action. We are tracing a trajectory of faithfulness that culminates in the person of Jesus Christ, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” (12:2). The “we” and “us” of the text—the Church—we are indeed exhorted to great deeds. Great deeds of faith which, if they are oriented towards the crucified and risen Christ, are necessarily also deeds of obedience. They are deeds that participate in the shame of the cross—a shame that explodes worldly pretensions to “greatness” and reveals that the disgraced criminal on the cross is he who sits “at the right hand of the throne of God.” (12:2)
(1) While the interminable debates regarding the authorship and original audience of the letter yield little homiletical or pastoral fruit, it can be worth paying them some attention to have our eyes opened to the profound ways in which the text is written to a group of people who share a deep narrative identity.
(2) My NRSV gives the heading “The Faith of Other Israelite Heroes” to 11:29-39.