Bible: A Savior who knows our weakness
October 16 — Hebrews 4:14-5:10; October 23 — Hebrews 7:1-3, 19b-28; October 30 — Hebrews 12:1-13
Heb. 4:14-5:10 discusses Jesus’ role as high priest, emphasizing his divinity as one who has “passed through the heavens.” This divine focus is also turned around, however: Jesus can sympathize with us, the author says. He understands our weakness. I wonder, though, if it’s enough to say he sympathizes?
Sympathy is generally applied to those we feel bad for, despite not having experienced what they are experiencing. Sympathy implies kindness and compassion but not necessarily understanding. Empathy goes beyond that: If I empathize, it is because I have been there, or someplace similar, too.
There’s a place in our lives for both sympathy and empathy, and I wonder if Jesus has a little of both, as well. Being human, he must empathize as well as sympathize with us, having been tried and tested as we are, though perhaps he can only sympathize with our experiences of giving in to weakness.
The text goes on to explain that Jesus deals gently with us, because he understands — because he is “subject to weakness” just like us. Yet the passage continues to confound me, because I don’t know what it means for him to be subject to weakness as I am, yet remain somehow apart. How does Jesus both empathize as one who has been there and still stand apart — different, divine?
Heb. 7:1-3, 19b-28 continues to discuss Jesus’ priestly identity, emphasizing that he is “holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners and exalted above the heavens.”
Again, the author emphasizes that he is separate. And yet, he is not, or at least not entirely. He need not offer sacrifices daily, the author says, as other priests did, because he sacrificed himself once, for all. Thus not only does he not have to continue sacrificing again and again, neither do we. We can serve as priests without perfection, because of him. Instead of sacrificing over and over, we need only accept his grace repeatedly — a task easier said than done, admittedly.
The last text in this group, Heb. 12:1-13, emphasizes training and discipline. I love this metaphor, and it also makes me uncomfortable. Run! Persevere! Do not grow weary!
As an active person and a former athlete, these commands resonate with me. But sometimes I do grow weary. Sometimes I am unable to run. Is this always a result of a lack of discipline? No, not always (though certainly at times). Sometimes I am incapable on my own. Sometimes the road seems too hard.
And so this image of God as a parent disciplining a child unsettles me. In my faith, sometimes I am not the kind of older child who can respond to discipline. I am not there yet, not grown. I am more like a toddler, still developing, unable at times to control my outbursts.
Yesterday, as a parent reprimanded a crying child on my bus ride home, I thought to myself, “When has telling a crying baby ‘Be quiet!’ ever worked?”
Most of the time, spiritually speaking, I’m more like the tired, hungry child on my bus at supper time, using the means I have to express my discomfort. I don’t need discipline so much as I need a mothering God to comfort me, to tell me we’ll be home soon, to say she understands, she knows what it is to be tired and hungry, too.
So I look to Jesus, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith,” and I remember how he called the children to himself elsewhere in the Bible. I may grow weary — I will grow weary, in fact — but I will not lose heart.
Meghan Florian, of Durham, N.C., works in the Center for Theological Writing at Duke Divinity School. She is a member of Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship.
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