There is a troublesome assertion in today’s second reading: “Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered.” This verse conjures up an image of God as a disgruntled parent, who inflicts punishment on a disobedient child to teach the wayward one a lesson. Such an explanation for Jesus’ Passion is highly problematic, both theologically and pastorally. What was it that Jesus needed to learn? What needed to be “made perfect” in him? Does Jesus then treat us this way, who are called to “obey him” (Heb 5:9)?
The notion of obedience being learned through the imposition of suffering can be misused by persons in authority as justification for abusive behavior toward those who depend on them. In homes where there is domestic abuse, husbands beat their wives to teach them obedience and submission. Some parents use physical punishment to teach their children to respect their authority; there is an ugly history of slave-owners doing the same. Surely this is not how we should understand today’s readings.
It is important to understand the context of this passage from Hebrews, both within the whole of the document, and in the broader biblical and liturgical context. Today’s second reading is part of an elaborate exposition on Jesus’ high priesthood. The author knows that the earthly Jesus was not a priest (Heb 7:14); he speaks metaphorically, arguing that Jesus’ suffering and death have the saving effects that the temple sacrifices had, which were offered by the high priest. The author asserts that Jesus’ sacrifice put an end to all need for further sacrifices (7:27). In the section we hear in today’s reading, the emphasis is that in Jesus we have a “high priest” able to sympathize with us in every way.
Jesus is not removed from humanity in some inaccessible sacred sphere; he experienced everything that we do, except sin. The author of Hebrews is saying that the earthly Jesus, like all human beings, grew in consciousness of what his mission was and learned through experience the full meaning of what it is to be obedient to God. In v. 9, the verb teleiotheis, “made perfect,” does not refer to moral perfection, but has at its root a sense of “completeness,” “wholeness.” Thus, it is Jesus’ process of coming to a full understanding of his mission and its cost to him that the author speaks of as Jesus’ becoming “perfected.”
The whole purpose of this exposition in Hebrews is to exhort the hearers to imitate Jesus’ attitude toward God. As this Christian community experiences suffering, its members are directed to do as Jesus did. First, they should pour out their hearts to God, as Jesus was shown in the Synoptic Gospels to have done in Gethsemane. Similarly, the psalms of lament, like today’s responsorial psalm, supply a pattern. No human being, including Jesus, wants to suffer and die, and God hears such pleas. At the same time, Jesus approaches God with “reverence,” eulabeia (Heb 5:7), that is, awe before the power of God. He knows that God hears him, and at the same time he hears God and knows the cost of being obedient to the divine mission of extending salvific love to all. This is what the author of Hebrews wants us to emulate: obedience as faithfulness to God’s desire for life to the full for all, and a willingness to embrace the suffering the mission entails. We can learn this kind of obedience by imitating (“obeying”) Jesus (Heb 5:9).
This paradox is expressed with another image in today’s Gospel: that of a grain of wheat that is planted and dies, so as to produce much fruit. Death, in this metaphor, is not the end of life, but a transformation by which one is “made perfect,” that is, reaches the full flowering of God’s design. God is not intent on teaching us obedience by imposing suffering, but leads us to follow Jesus, trusting that God accompanies us and strengthens us through experiences of suffering and death, which bring the full flourishing of life.