This "King Melchizedek of Salem, priest of the Most High God, met Abraham as he was returning from defeating the kings and blessed him;" and to him Abraham apportioned "one-tenth of everything." His name, in the first place, means "king of righteousness;" next he is also king of Salem, that is, "king of peace." Without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God, he remains a priest forever.
See how great he is. Even Abraham the patriarch gave him a tenth of the spoils. And those descendants of Levi who receive the priestly office have a commandment in the law to collect tithes from the people, that is, from their kindred, though these also are descended from Abraham. But this man, who does not belong to their ancestry, collected tithes from Abraham and blessed him who had received the promises. It is beyond dispute that the inferior is blessed by the superior. In the one case, tithes are received by those who are mortal; in the other, by one of whom it is testified that he lives. One might even say that Levi himself, who receives tithes, paid tithes through Abraham, for he was still in the loins of his ancestor when Melchizedek met him.
Now if perfection had been attainable through the levitical priesthood, for the people received the law under this priesthood, what further need would there have been to speak of another priest arising according to the order of Melchizedek, rather than one according to the order of Aaron? For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well. Now the one of whom these things are spoken belonged to another tribe, from which nobody has ever served at the altar. For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah, and in connection with that tribe Moses said nothing about priests.
It is even more obvious when another priest arises, resembling Melchizedek, one who ha become a priest, not through a legal requirement concerning physical descent, but through the power of an indestructible life. For it is attested of him, "You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek."
The Lord's revelation to my Master: 'Sit on my right:
I will put your foes beneath your feet.' (R./)
The Lord will send from Zion your sceptre of power;
rule in the midst of all your foes. (R./)
A prince from the day of your birth on the holy mountains;
from the womb before the daybreak I begot you. (R./)
The Lord has sworn an oath he will not change.
'You are a priest for ever,
a priest like Melchizedek of old.' (R./)
Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, "Come forward." Then he said to them, "Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?" But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, "Stretch out your hand." He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.
Today's readings raise the theme of conflict and finding solutions. Melchisedek meets Abraham on his way back from a short military excursion against some local chiefs, and blesses him; then in the Gospel we have the conflict between the Pharisees and Jesus, about what is allowed on the Sabbath. He is "deeply grieved" by their insistence that not even a work of healing should be allowed on the day of the Lord.
Notice how even the normally peace-loving Abraham was drawn into action in order to rescue his relative from the violence of marauding local warlords, and is blessed by Melchisedek on his return from this righteous intervention. We need always to remember our Lord's warning that "those who take the sword shall perish by the sword" (Mt 26:52) and his explicit ruling out of violence, even in self-defence (Mt 5:39). These ideals make it very hard for us to justify any militaristic adventures for the expansion of one's kingdom or ideas, since the basic Christian call is not to be served, but to serve and give one's life in this service (Mk 10:45).
The thrust of these texts is for the triumph of life over the forces of death. Hebrews concludes that like the mysterious priest-king Melchisedek, Jesus is a priest forever, with a power of life that cannot be destroyed. And in the debate about what is permissible on the Sabbath, Jesus makes clear that it is above all a day for life-giving activities. He stresses, indeed, the contrast between "good" deeds that preserve life, and "evil" deeds, that destroy it. For God is the Lord of life, not of death; of peace, not of violence; of justice, not of oppression.
The question whether warfare can legitimate is a thorny one, to which we cannot find a definitive answer in the Bible alone, for it offers such a variety of viewpoints on the matter. Throughout the biblical period, wars and soldiering, both local and international, were an accepted part of life. There are some texts that give clear justification for defensive warfare, in the era of the Judges, or to repel the Assyrians, some even favoured a war of invasion, especially the conquest of the Promised Land, while other texts provide support for a fairly radical pacifism. Towards the end of the Old Testament period, the apocalyptic writers maintained that only God himself can legitimately make war on behalf of his chosen people.
Our Bible says, unambiguously, that we should live life fully, and with a sense of justice and compassion towards our neighbour. This can mean speaking out against evil and injustice, even at cost to ourselves. Jesus could have side-stepped the issue of keeping the Sabbath regulations, by healing the sick man in private, but he chose to confront the issue squarely and publicly, and cured the man in full view of all. In all circumstances, genuine compassion must trump convention or regulation.
Jesus declares that works of love and mercy may and should be done on the Lord's Day. He himself does God's work on the Sabbath by healing the withered hand of a man in the synagogue. Yet, perversely, some religious and political leaders began to plot together to destroy Jesus, for doing such an unorthodox thing. This is just in the third chapter of Mark's gospel, and, yet, it points ahead to the end of the gospel story. It was because Jesus was dedicated to doing God's work among the poor and the marginalised that he was crucified.
Jesus' life shows clearly that good works do not always bring their proper reward in this life. It is a strange paradox, but one that is often true to life, that good can sometimes provoke an evil response. The goodness of some brings out evil in others. Yet Jesus teaches us that goodness is its own reward. He himself persisted in the good work that God gave him to do, regardless of his hostile reception by the authorities. We try to be faithful to what is right, because it is what God wants of us and not because of any praise it might bring us. We remain faithful to our calling to share in Jesus' work of bringing healing and life to others, no matter what it may cost.