Hebrews 5:1-10 | Mark 10:35-45
Good old Melchizedek. Don’t you just love him.
His name occurs ten times in the Bible – eight of them in the book of Hebrews, of which we had the first two in today’s reading. Then there is one reference in the book of Psalms (which is where the quote used the Hebrews passage comes from), and one verse in the book of Genesis. Basically, if the author of the letter to the Hebrews hadn’t decided that he was important, he would have remained one of the most obscure figures in the whole of the Bible, a walk on part in a story that none of us ever read, known only to those who specialise in really obscure Biblical trivia. Generally only preached about by ministers who have lost a bet.
So who was he? Anyone? Let me tell you the story…
Back in the days of Abram (who would become Abraham, but this was much earlier in his life than that), Abram’s nephew Lot, who lived in the city of Sodom, had been taken captive in one of those battles between minor kings that seemed to define the social structure of the period. Abram had taken all his men – three hundred of them – and given chase, routed the other mob, and reclaimed all the people and goods stolen.
Returning whence he came, the King of Sodom came out to meet him, and when they met, they were joined by King Melchizedek of Salem, who was “priest of God most high”. And Melchizedek blessed Abram; and Abram gave him a tithe – one tenth of all that he had taken, before returning the rest (refusing even a reward) to the King of Sodom.
And that’s it.
That is the whole of the story of Melchizedek.
So how is it that he somehow takes on new life in the writing of the book of Hebrews? Why does the author describe Jesus as being “a high Priest of the order of Melchizedek”?
I guess there are three things about Melchizedek (apart from the fact that his name is just really fun to say) – they’re there in the story, but maybe not totally obvious.
The first, is that he is there as a priest of the most high God before there is any such thing. God hasn’t called a people yet – just Abram and Sarai. There’s no religious system, certainly no Temple. Moses and Aaron and the priesthood lie hundreds of years in the future. But here he is: Priest of the most high God. A priest existing outside of, beyond, perhaps, religious structures and ecclesiastical hierarchies; a priest who even the father of the nations gives tribute to.
Perhaps that’s a hint at why Melchizedek is seen as a type, an echo in advance, of Jesus.
Priest, and King. Another oddity, in a culture in which formal political and religious leadership have always been kept apart in an ancient version of the separation of powers; in the Kingdom of Israel the priests of God not only were not political leaders, they couldn’t even own their own land – they were not even kings of their own back yard. But King Melchizedek is the Priest of the most high God.
Priest and King, in the story of the people of God, will not come together again until Jesus is given those names in the early Church – indeed, in this letter to the Hebrews.
And just one more thing about Melchizedek; he is the king of Salem. “Salem”, as in “Jerusalem”. Salem, in Hebrew, means, simply, “peace”. In more modern Hebrew, you would say “Shalom” – or in Arabic “Salaam”. Melchizedek is, literally, “King of Peace and Priest of the Most High God”. Perhaps the echoes of Jesus become clearer still.
Oh, and if you were wondering “Jeru”, as in “Jerusalem”, means “teaching of” – so Jerusalem means “the teaching of peace”. Ironic, really, given the history of the place…
So this obscure figure, who enters into the narrative of the people of God only for a moment, nonetheless manages to take on an importance far beyond that of many who might have seemed, on the surface, far more influential, far more involved, far more committed.
In the economy of God it’s not always the most obvious people that are the most important.
A point that seems to have eluded James and John. They also seem to have failed to grasp another key truth, identified by the author of the letter to the Hebrews: “one does not presume to take honour, but takes it only when called by God”. James and John are fairly sure that there is honour due to them (for they were, after all, amongst the first of Jesus’ disciples, and they were very much in the inner circle, along with Peter). And they know that there is a kingdom coming; Jesus speaks of little else. And where there is a Kingdom, and a King, there are positions of authority and honour and power to be filled – surely, positions that will be filled by those who have been loyal and close followers of Jesus throughout.
We often portray the disciples as well meaning, well intentioned, often slow to learn, but always listening, a little, well, bumbling at times. With the exception of Judas (and maybe sometimes Peter) I think we also probably tend to think of them as a whole, as a group, as if they just went around together like a happy family.
But what we see in this story is a much more human image: James and John as men with ambition, manoeuvring for positions in the cabinet; the rest of the disciples angry when they find that this has been happening behind their backs.
But, Jesus tells them, that is not the way of his Kingdom. That, he suggests, with cutting sarcasm, that is the way Gentiles behave. The way people who know no better act. The way people who are not the people of God order their lives.
But it is not so among you. Not even “it shouldn’t be like that”. Jesus’ declaration is absolute. It is not like that among you.
Those who are great are not the ones who lord it over others. That might make them feel great, might make them look great, might even make people think that they are great. But they are not great.
The ones who are great are the ones who don’t think they are. The ones who serve. The ones who follow the example of Jesus, and give themselves for others. They might be also happen to be people with authority, with influence; they might also happen to be famous; they might also happen to be powerful.
But equally – or perhaps more – likely, they won’t. In his allegory of Heaven and Hell, The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis describes seeing a woman in heaven so obviously important and valued and recognised that he assumes it to be Mary, the mother of Jesus. But when he asks “is that… is it… her?” his guide replies “It’s someone ye’ll never of heard of. Her name was Sarah Smith and she lived at Golders Green”
“She seems to be… well, a person of particular importance?”
“Aye. She is one of the great ones. Ye have heard that fame in this country and fame on earth are two quite different things.”
So if those who are great are those who serve, I wonder who are the great ones in your life, in your experience. And I wonder when you are at your greatest…