Strangers and foreigners on the earth (Hebrews 11; Pentecost 9C)

This week and next, the lectionary leads us into distinctive and well-loved feature of Hebrews: a lengthy paean in praise of “so great a cloud of witnesses” (11:1–12:1), in which each witness attests to a vibrant faith in God.

The author begins this paean (a song of praise) with a tightly-worded definition of faith, using complex technical terms which were used in philosophical discussions: “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen … what is seen was made from things that are not visible” (11:1–3); after the consideration of numerous instances of such faith, the section moves to a climactic vision of Jesus as “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (12:1–2).

The language of 11:1–3 is most unlike Paul’s usual terminology—one of the clear clues that undermine the claim that Paul wrote this letter. That claim, made by some patristic writers, debunked by others, cannot be substantiated. This is an anonymous work by an unknown writer. See

Whoever wrote this letter—described at the end as a word of exhortation (13:22)—accorded great value to scripture (the works that we have collected as the Old Testament in our Bibles). In arguing the case for Jesus to be seen “as much superior to the angels as the name he inherited is more excellent than theirs [the prophets]” (1:3), the author initially draws from a number of psalms to make the point (1:5–13).

In subsequent sections, we find that the author discusses Ps 8 (Heb 2:5–18); compares Jesus with Moses using Num 12 and Ps 95 (Heb 3:1–19); combines two psalms (Ps 2:7 and 110:4) to identify Jesus as “high priest according to the order of Melchizedek” (Heb 4:14–5:10); and then returns to the story of Melchizedek from Gen 14, linked with Ps 110 (Heb 6:13–7:28).

In a lengthy discussion of the priestly role of Jesus (Heb 8:1–9:28), Lev 26 and Jer 31 are considered; in a further discussion (Heb 10:1–39), Ps 40 is canvassed, along with Jer 31 once again, and the famous prophetic assertion, “my righteous one will live by faith” (Hab 2:3–4, cited at Heb 10:37–38; we find it also at Rom 1:17 and Gal 3:11). See emails at

Such faith is expounded with a series of lyrical descriptions of the faith of numerous scriptural figures—Abel, Enoch and Noah (11:4–7), Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (11:8–12, 17–21), Moses, the people at the Red Sea, and Rahab (11:22–31), judges, prophets and kings (11:32–34), and many others (11:35–38). Each of these figures shared the same fate: “they were strangers and foreigners on the earth” who “desired a better country, that is, a heavenly one”, and yet they each “died in faith without having received the promises” (11:13–16; see also 11:39).

Two pages from Papyrus 13 (dated 225–250 CE),
containing Hebrew 2:14–5:5; 10:8–22; 10:29–11:13; 11:28–12:17

Faith is described as something which is “hoped for, but not seen” (11:1). Such faith is a real thing, there is no doubt about it; but it cannot be documented or measured in specific, physical, tangible ways. It points us to something different, something other, than the obvious reality in front of our eyes. Faith, in the understanding of the author of this letter, invites us to look at the world in a different way; to perceive reality in a new fashion; to consider the evidence from an unfamiliar angle.

The portrayal of the figures of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Jacob in this reading is striking: “they confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth … they made it clear that they were seeking a homeland” (11:13–14).

In other words, as they looked at the people and the places where they were living, these ancient people of faith held out a firm hope for the ultimate goal that lay beyond where they found themselves at that time. In the end, they were not going to be bound by the restraints and demands of the immediate, observable present. They had a faith which swept beyond the immediate; for their faith was in the promise that God had extended to them.

Sarah, Jacob, Isaac, Abraham: each could look at their neighbours, and see the dislocation, hurts, and needs of their society. But as they looked at their neighbours, they were able to grasp the ways in which they might change those situations; they sensed the ways in which they might offer compassionate hope, and begin to transform their companions.

In other words, they looked with the eyes of faith; what they saw was far more than the flesh and bones, the tents and animals, in front of their eyes. They were able to see what might be; they were able to live in faith because of their belief in what was to be. They held fast to the belief that there was “a heavenly country”, and that God had “prepared a city for them” (11:16). It was this faith, in what God was calling them to do, and to be, which motivated and sustained them in their journeys through life. They were future-oriented people, partifipating in a pilgrimage towards a future goal.

Indeed, this view of things has been at the heart of the identity of the Uniting Church, over the four decades since it was formed. In the Basis of Union, the Uniting Church is described as “a pilgrim people, always on the way towards a promised goal; here the Church does not have a continuing city but seeks one to come.” This attitude of openness and expectation towards the future is one that runs throughout many of the paragraphs of the Basis of Union. It is at the heart of who were are as a church; it is the essence of our DNA as a community of faith.

The same attitude of openness towards the future is also articulated at the very end of the Basis of Union, in the final paragraph: “The Uniting Church affirms that it belongs to the people of God on the way to the promised end. The Uniting Church prays that, through the gift of the Spirit, God will constantly correct that which is erroneous in its life, will bring it into deeper unity with other Churches, and will use its worship, witness and service to God’s eternal glory through Jesus Christ the Lord. Amen.”

This positive and hopeful orientation towards the future resonates with what we read in the word of exhortation of Hebrews, concerning the people of faith from past eras. To return to Sarah and Abraham: “If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return” (11:15), the writer warns. But they were not fixated onto the past; rather, they were oriented towards the future. It was not the land they had left, which motivated them; it was the promise of what was to come, that guided them. That was the essence of their faith.

As Sarah and Abraham travelled this journey, as pilgrim people, so we also are invited to travel in similar manner – on a journey into the future, a journey infused with hope, a journey grounded in faith, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”, which was their fundamental resource for life. And so may it be for us.

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See also