To this day, people still think of him every time they hear the finale of Gioachino Rossini's William Tell Overture. You know who I'm talking about. He was one of six Texas Rangers, riding in the sun. They rode into an ambush, and all were killed but one. This single survivor laid there on the trail, and was found by Tonto and lived to tell his tale. He wore a mask as a disguise and thus began his fame, and rode a silver stallion - the Lone Ranger is his name.
For all of the Lone Ranger's fame, his identity has remained a mystery. Some people think that behind his trademark mask is the historical Western hero Wild Bill Hickok. And yet, in episode after episode, distressed damsel after distressed damsel would be rescued without ever learning his name. Indeed, it even became customary at the end of each episode to ask, "Who was that masked man?" And the answer would always be the same: "Why, he's the Lone Ranger!"
In our reading for today from Hebrews 7, we are introduced to a lone ranger of sorts. He is a curious and cryptic fellow, being "without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life" (verse 3). At least we know his name, though: Melchizedek. Melchizedek was the king of Salem, an ancient name for Jerusalem. In Genesis 14:17-20, after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Melchizedek appears to Abraham and brings his some bread and wine and blesses Abraham. In gratitude, Abraham offers him a tithe. After this, Melchizedek simply recedes into the pages of history.
Who is this masked man? And how can he be without father or mother, without genealogy, and without beginning of days or end of life? Such obscurity has led some biblical interpreters to the conclusion that Melchizedek was a Christophany. That is, he was a preincarnate appearance of Christ. This is why, these interpreters would say, he is described so mysteriously by the preacher of Hebrews.
I am not sure this is the best interpretation of Melchizedek's identity. A common Jewish interpretive principle - and really, a common Jewish interpretive trick - involves looking at what is not mentioned in a text and then assuming that because it is not mentioned, it did not happen. The Jewish philosopher Philo, for instance, argued that since Cain's death is not mentioned in the Scriptures, Cain did not die. Such arguments are, of course, utterly arbitrary since no written account contains every possible detail of any given happening. But this seems to be the tact that the preacher in Hebrews is taking. Because Melchizedek's origins, birth, and death are not mentioned, he must not have any origins, birth, or death, says Hebrews' preacher. This description of Melchizedek, in turn, helps him connect Melchizedek's identity closely to Christ's: "[Christ] has become a priest not on the basis of a regulation as to his ancestry but on the basis of the power of an indestructible life" (verse 16). Like Melchizedek, Christ has no beginning and no end. He is our ultimate high priest who "does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself" (verse 27).
We will never get full insight into the identity of Melchizedek. He will forever remain a "masked man." The good news, however, is that while Melchizedek the priest remains masked, Christ the priest does not. For Christ has been "revealed in these last times for your sake" (1 Peter 1:20). The mask is off. Jesus' goodness, life, and salvation have been revealed. That is why the preacher of Hebrews later says, "Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith" (Hebrews 12:2). We can fix our eyes on Jesus because he is not enigmatic and hidden, but glorified before our very eyes through the cross. He is our great, unmasked high priest.