Mention 1 Corinthians 13 and the response is predictable: “Oh
yes, Paul’s exquisite homage to love.” Mention Hebrews 11 and the response is
less certain if it exists at all.
Yet this frequently overlooked chapter is to faith what First Corinthians
is to love. It would not be a stretch to position the two in tandem since “So
faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1
Perhaps part of the problem lies in the relative difficulty of the
two texts. The Letter to the Hebrews, whose author is unknown, reads more like
a theological sermon, dwelling at length on the priestly ministry of Jesus.
Readers may simply not read far enough into the text to reach Chapter
11. Whatever the reason, this beautiful passage continues to be unfamiliar
Invisible Comes First
“Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence
of things not seen,” says the writer, launching what is apparently a favorite
theme. “By faith we understand that the universe was ordered by the word of
God, so that what is visible came into being through the invisible” (11:3).
I find that statement so relevant in an age that tends to upend it.
Today’s scientific worldview, of undeniable value, nonetheless discounts
or discards that which does not lend itself to proof through scientific methods.
The author of Hebrews contends it’s just the opposite; the unseen is the precursor
of the visual.
He then addresses himself to the faith demonstrated by “the ancients”:
Abel, Enoch, Noah and the father of faith himself, Abraham. “All these died
in faith. They did not receive what had been promised but saw it and greeted
it from afar...“ (11:13).
Over the years, in times of discouragement, I have often returned
to that verse. Will I live to see the fruits of my labors?
Probably not, but that puts me in rather distinguished company as
I look at the lives of these and hundreds, no, thousands of others throughout
human history who trusted their God to utilize their efforts however and whenever
he saw fit. It reminds me of a poster inscribed, “Life should be lived for something
that outlasts it.”
Firm, Informed Faith
Taking up the roster of faithful forebears, the writer speaks
of Isaac, Jacob, Moses and the Judges; of David, Samuel and the prophets and
what they endured rather than betray their faith. None of these stalwart souls
who lived two to four millennia ago had the benefit of the teaching of Jesus.
Nor could they read the writing of great thinkers who followed him, helping
us to grasp his meaning.
If they stood firm, understanding so little of the God they served,
how much more should be expected of 21st-century me? How great my faith should
A beloved Jesuit friend and spiritual director habitually asked
us to pray that his faith might be increased. What seemed absurd to me then
becomes clearer every time I read Hebrews 11. “I do believe; help my unbelief”