Today we complete this year’s Lenten theme of human-divine covenants by reflecting on one more episode from the life of Abraham, which recalls his encounter with mysterious Melchizedek. Does this name “ring a bell”? I suspect that you might not have remembered this character or even noticed a reference to him today, as the passage that mentioned him was from the New Testament (Heb 5).
An obscure character, indeed, he is nonetheless important because here, Jesus Christ himself is called “the priest according to the order of Melchizedek.” Not an original thought, but a quote from Psalm 110, which paints a portrait of a future king who would not only restore the kingdom of Israel, but also serve as a priest to his nation. The segment from Heb. 5 is just a small snippet from the argument that spans this entire letter-sermon, whereby the author was trying to convince the first century home church somewhere in Asia Minor not to return to Judaism. To this end, the author made a series of comparisons between Jesus and the central authorities of the Jewish faith -- the prophets, angels, Moses, etc. -- each time, showing Jesus’ superiority over them.
The part of the argument that we catch up to today is the comparison of Jesus to the priests. Just as they had offered sacrifices in the Jerusalem Temple on behalf of their people, now Jesus Christ in his heavenly temple mediates between God and all people. In other words, the Jewish priests (previously all related to Levi, the great-grandson of Abraham) served only temporarily, until the advent of Christ. It is to support this claim that the author brings up Melchizedek, and asserts that Christ was more similar to him than to the Levites.
The comparison is supposed to be favourable because Melchizedek was “without beginning of days or end of life, and remains a priest forever”. His name means the “king of justice/rightful king”, and his title “the King of (Jeru)Salem” refers to peace, well-being, and completeness. To us, the argument might still not seem very impressive, so let’s now turn to the context where Melchizedek appears originally (Gen 14) to understand a bit better what the author of Hebrews was trying to do.
Recall that Abraham, already in his 80s, had journeyed for several years from Mesopotamia on the Persian Gulf, across the Arabian Desert, to the present-day Israel and beyond it to Egypt. As he did so, note that he’d amassed the wealth far surpassing that of many of his contemporaries, building massive herds of animals and caravans of servants. His entourage was so large that at one point, he had to part ways with his nephew Lot, as the arid area could simply no longer support all these people and animals.
At the same time, remember that this land that we call a Desert was not empty. Numerous ancient, semi-nomadic tribes warred with each other for dominance, slaves, and spoils. In one such conflict, Lot’s household, too, was captured. When Abraham heard of it, he gathered his strongest men, fought a gloriously victorious battle, and rescued him. It is then that he experienced this semi-mystical encounter with Melchizedek, called here the priest of God Most High, and King of Jerusalem (which would not belong to Israel for a long time yet!).
He appeared out of nowhere with some bread, wine, and a blessing - the gifts of a priest. In return, Abraham gave him a 10th of the spoils from his battle, leaving the rest for his military allis. It’s important to appreciate that this is the first biblical mention of any priest in the Scriptures. It would not be for many generations after Abraham that Aaron, Moses’ brother, would become the first priest in Israel, and the priestly tribe of the Levites would henceforth be supported by the 10th of the income of all other tribes.
In comparing Jesus to Melchizedek, the author of Hebrews asserted that Jesus’ priestly role both predated and outlived that of the Jewish ancestors. And now we, from the vantage point of a couple of millennia of the Chrsitian doctrine, may also observe that Melchizedek’s gifts of bread, wine, and blessing point to Jesus' Last Supper and our Eucharistic practice (something that the author of Hebrews might not yet had the chance to understand as well as we do!).
A small Jewish church in Rome, living in dangerous times and ready to return to the relative safety of Judaism, sorely needed to hear that their newfound faith in Christ was, in fact, the fulfilment of all the promises God made to their people beginning with their forefather Abraham. We all need a periodic reminder of the origins of our own faith, don’t we? And it is in fact, the Eucharist that refreshes and revitalizes our faith.
At the time of meeting Melchizedek, Abraham must have been physically famished after the battle, yet elated about his victory. Melchizedek brought both food/drink and the word of a blessing: "Blessed be God, the Possessor of heaven and earth Who gave you the victory over your enemies." Not a huge feast or a long sermon; just a simple meal and one sentence that sustained Abraham and saved him from pride and covetousness. So does the Eucharist, in a seemingly simple rite, meet our own spiritual needs, dispelling our illusion of independence from God in the moments of both weakness and success.
Who is blessing you today? Whom might you bless? How might we keep each other steady in remembrance of God’s promises? Melchizedek served an important scriptural role, yet we barely remember from the few references to him. Similarly, Christ miraculously met people’s most essential needs, yet often asked them to keep it a secret. Such is our own ministry: to bless those in need, quietly, and disappear without seeking any honor. We, too, come to church, tired and exhausted from our battles of life and work. How wonderful it is for us to share the gift of bread and wine and learn to sustain each other in imitation of what Christ has done for us. We don’t all have to be formally ordained as priests in order to bless each other in practical ways, and encourage each other in faith. In this sense, we are all priests “after the order of” our Prince of Peace.