15For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.
We hear the word ‘sympathize’ and we think about a set of emotions, a process of identifying with the feelings of another. And the word ‘weaknesses’ makes us think of whatever weakness of character yields to temptation. It is weakness that keeps me eating potato chips when I know I should stop.
But the weakness that the author has in mind is not a psychological one; it is our human frailty, our mortality, our membership in a world that knows sickness and death, war and violence, slavery and subjection, hunger and greed. Jesus doesn’t “sympathize” with our human condition; he has tasted it fully. He as shared it. He has suffered it with us. (‘syn’ = ‘with’; ‘pathos’ = ‘suffering’, ‘misfortune’) He has borne the heat of the day, the aches of the body, the pain of loss. He has known hunger and fear and sorrow. He has shared our suffering and dying.
Jesus has shared our human condition – “yet without sin.” Meaning that in all the trials and struggles, pleasures and sorrows of life he did not break faith with God. His allegiance did not waver. He trusted perfectly. He walked the path completely.
There is nothing we experience as mortal creatures in a broken world that Jesus does not understand, that he did not share. He knows our stresses and fears and pleasures.
The testing is a testing of whether, in such a world broken and troubled, we will remain faithful and true. It is not whether we will succumb to some unhealthy pleasure; it is whether we will remain faithful when the price of allegiance appears too great. Peter in the house of the high priest is a testing. The three sleeping in Gethsemane is a testing. Jesus’ followers fleeing when the soldiers come is a testing.
Jesus understands all those tests. And he deals gently with us. So we come to the throne of grace boldly. When Jesus meets Peter at the seashore after the resurrection and asks him three times “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”, he is not twisting the knife. Gently he gives Peter the chance to rewrite the story of a three-fold denial with a threefold declaration of allegiance.
We are still disciples, still following Jesus on the path into the reign of God, still struggling to understand, still faced with moments of testing when it is easier to turn back, when it is easier to yield to greed or prejudice or pride or presumption. When it is easier to yield to silence or fear or some worldly attachment. When it is easier to succumb than show steadfast love to our neighbor and our enemies.
Jesus understands. But he does not leave us there. Like Peter he leads us back to the path of faithfulness to God and fidelity to our fellow travelers on this earth, our fellow children of a gracious but determined God.