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Politics of Scripture

The Politics of a Homeland—Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16

The quest for a homeland and the experience of being a stranger and an alien—a refugee—in the world is central to the calling of the faithful in Hebrews 11. This reality should remain integral to our self-understanding as the people of God today.

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. 9 By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 11 By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old—and Sarah herself was barren—because he considered him faithful who had promised. 12 Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, ‘as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.’

13 All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, 14 for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.

Hebrews 11:1–3, 8–16 NRSV

Today’s gospel text (Luke 12:32-40) uses the image of a homeowner’s care for his property in order to illustrate the way in which one ought to be alert for the coming of the Lord. Interestingly, however, the epistle makes clear that for those in the genealogy of faith, such status remained literally out of bounds.

After recalling, in brief, the faithfulness of a long line of Jewish forebears recorded both in the Old Testament and, in the verses skipped by the lectionary text, the intertestamental texts, the author of Hebrews concludes by describing all of these faithful people as having “confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth” (Hebrews 11:13).

The first word, translated “strangers,” is the Greek word from which we derive the term xenophobia. It describes people who are understood in some way to be completely “different” from the majority group. The second term, translated “foreigners,” describes not just any kind of foreigners, but those who have taken up residence in another land—in the words of contemporary political speech refugees or aliens.

In other words, all of these faithful people whom the author of Hebrews describes lived and understood themselves to be on the margins—perhaps even beyond the margins—of their earthly homes. Their security was virtually nonexistent. Abraham had to negotiate with the Sons of Heth to even have a burial place for Sarah (Genesis 23:3-9). While he may have done well for himself in the new land in which he dwelt, his strangeness—his otherness—was never forgotten.

Is the lesson then that if we want to be faithful to Christ we should never buy a home? That we should seek out places on the margins to make “ready for the Son of Man” (Luke 12:40)? I don’t think so.

While early Christians largely remained a poor and marginalized group, as the Christian movement grew, Luke tells us about several key people of faith who did own their own houses, including such well known disciples as Simon Peter and Martha. In fact, it was in these homes and those of many others that the first Christians gathered to share their weekly meal (Acts 2:46-47).

Rather, the lesson that I hear in these texts is one of perspective. All of the faithful “considered” themselves to be strangers and foreigners. Perhaps not everyone in the genealogy of faith was, like Abraham, so literally set apart. But they, like the faithful who came after them, described in Acts 2 as opening up their homes and holding all things in common, understood that possession is not the end or the sum of one’s existence.

For this reason, Abraham not only lived as an alien in his new land, but also chose not to return to his old land. Because both homes—both physical spaces of existence—paled in comparison to the hope that he had beyond both lands. The author of Hebrews describes all of these faithful as not returning to their homeland (patrida, 11:15) because “they desire a better one” (11:16, translation my own to better reflect the original use of an objective pronoun).

This homeland, this promised place towards which the faithful look in Hebrews, is the same expectant moment of the coming of Christ described in Luke. It is the advent of God into our world—into our very homes and personal lives—in such a way that transforms the very nature of what it means to use such words. It is the experience of parousia—God’s dwelling and God’s Kingdom on earth.

How is it achieved? In God’s time and through God’s power, of course, but Scripture suggests that our answer should not end there. How does a home owner make ready to avoid being burglarized? How did Abraham secure a place for Sarah’s burial in a foreign land? Not by sitting idle.

The hope for a homeland, the promise of a time and place when all people can rest with true safety and security in the world God has given, does not come by building bigger walls or buying bigger guns. Scripture tells us, rather, that it comes by acting in faith.

Both the authors of Hebrews and Luke call us to follow in the footsteps of those who have gone before us, trusting the faithfulness of God, envisioning the promise of God’s different and more complete security. This faith and hope enables us to live in whatever momentary insecurity or discomfort may be required in order to pursue God’s purpose for God’s world and God’s people.

[Editor’s Note: This post was previously published on August 1, 2016.]

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