Commentary on Heb 5:1-10
A lovely reading on how Jesus fulfils the role of our High Priest. In it we come to realise that the true humanity of Jesus makes him a more rather than a less effective high priest to the Christian community. This was something with which the ‘Hebrews’ for whom the Letter was written were having difficulty.
Every high priest is a bridge builder between God and his people. “Every high priest is chosen from among his fellow mortals and put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sin.” The writer is thinking mainly of role of the high priest on the Day of Atonement. This ritual was celebrated annually to atone for “all the sins of the Israelites” (Lev 16:34). It was on this occasion, too, that the “scapegoat” was sent out into the wilderness carrying with it all the sins of the people for the past year.
The priesthood, which is connected more with Aaron than Moses, will be treated more fully later in the Letter. In saying that no priest takes the role upon himself, the author may be referring to the fact that in Jesus’ time the office of the high priest was in the hands of a family that had bought control into it.
The priest “is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness.” “Deal gently” is a translation of the Greek word metriopathein (metriopaqein). This is the only time it appears in the Bible and it was a term used by the Stoics to express a perfect balance between too much and too little feeling. Here it corresponds more to our word “empathy”, the ability to enter into the feelings of others.
The priest, as a human being, is familiar with the sins and weaknesses of others because he experiences them in himself. And he has to include his own sinfulness in the offerings. The priest is no ‘super-man’. And he is a priest not because of his superiority over others but simply because he has been chosen among many to fulfil his intercessory role. This is something over the years which we have tended to ignore, with disastrous consequences in more recent times. As the reading says, it is precisely his sharing in the weaknesses of his fellow human beings which qualifies someone for the role of priest.
That is why the Levitical priest “must offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people”. And in our Eucharist too, the celebrant joins with everyone else in confessing his sinfulness during the Introductory Rite.
Being a priest is not an honour that one can confer on oneself; it is truly a calling from God. One “takes it only when called by God, just as Aaron was”. Even Christ did not take the honour to himself; it was conferred on him by his Father. And Psalm 2 is quoted in support of this:
You are my Son,
today I have begotten you
and again, Psalm 110:
You are a priest forever
according to the order of Melchizedek.
The author of Hebrews is the only New Testament writer to quote this verse of Ps 110 to show that Jesus has been called by God to his role as priest. The implication here may be also that Christ is a priest in the order of Melkizedek and in that of Aaron, the source of the levitical priesthood.
The reading now expresses in a most eloquent way how Jesus, our High Priest, really shared in the pain and sufferings of his brothers and sisters. It shows Jesus’ ability to sympathise with sinners, because of his own experience of the trials and the weakness of human nature, especially the fear of death. In his present exalted state, weakness is now foreign to him, but he understands what we suffer because of his previous earthly experience.
Some people tend to think that Jesus, as the Son of God and his divine nature, did not suffer greatly in his passion. On the contrary, the scene in the garden, when he sweat blood, indicates the degree of terror that he had with the prospect of what was coming. He begged, through prayers and silent tears, to be spared the pain of a terrible death by crucifixion. And yet, he offered himself so utterly to his Father, he submitted himself so completely that his prayer was heard.
But this did not mean that he was spared from suffering and death. On the contrary, he learnt through his suffering the real meaning of total listening and submission to and union with his father. “Although he was Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.” Jesus was not saved from dying because that was the ultimate purpose of his coming among us but he will later be rescued from death.
And so, in a complete meeting of wills with his Father, he “was made perfect”. He becomes for all those, who unite themselves completely with him, the source of salvation and of wholeness. He becomes our Priest forever, a “high priest according to the order of Melkizedek”. He does that by his total submission to the will of his Father and he points the way for us to follow.
This passage is so full of meaning for all of us. Pain and suffering of some kind will be part of everyone’s life. Like Jesus, we will often pray that that pain be taken away but sometimes we learn that it is precisely in the pain that God is to be found. He is there not to take the pain away, nor to help us get round it but to go through it. It is a paradox of life and one which we need to reflect on, namely, that a life entirely devoid of the challenge of pain is somehow an incomplete life. It is in dealing with our own pain and the pain of others that we grow in strength and maturity – and in love and compassion. And, strange to say, it is there too that we can find deep happiness.
And, when we are deeply puzzled by events like September 11 in New York or the tsunami in Southeast Asia and ask why so many innocent people suffer, we need to gaze at a crucifix and ask the same question: “Why did God not spare his own Son?”