My best friend Jorge and I have known each other since the seventh grade. We met at a church youth group event and quickly became friends. It wasn’t long before we had developed a dictionary-thick canon of inside jokes. We ate spaghetti together every Tuesday. We mastered Wii Tennis together. We went to church together. We survived high school together. We asked hard questions together. In college, we lived together. We travelled across the world together. We helped each other navigate relationships. We offered each other advice. We mourned with one another. We celebrated with one another.
Through it all, Jorge and I have always been able to have real, honest, raw conversations. He’s the friend I can always turn to. I know he will always listen, always understand, and always offer help when I need it—that’s just who Jorge is. But it also has to do with our shared experiences. He is able to relate to my struggles and understand what I may be feeling because he has gone through those same struggles or felt those same feelings. Or even if our experiences are not exactly the same, he knows me well enough to know what’s going through my head. When I tell him how weird it was to run into an old high school acquaintance, he understands and laughs with me because he totally gets that feeling. When I tell him that life’s got me down, he nods his head and empathizes with me because he knows exactly what I’m talking about.
Find yourself a friend like Jorge.
Hebrews 4:14-5:10 describes Jesus as a “great high priest”—meaning he’s someone who helps people be in right relationship with God. But Jesus isn’t just any high priest. Hebrews 4:15 says, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.”
Just as Jorge is able to empathize with me because he has shared in so many of the same experiences as me, Jesus is able to empathize with our weaknesses because he too was challenged in the same ways. Jesus, after all, was human. In our rush to emphasize the divinity of Jesus, we sometimes overlook his humanity. Centuries of Christian teachings tell us that Jesus was not merely some kind of god dressed up in a human costume, but that he truly was flesh and blood human. You know, the kind of human that begins life as a fragile baby; the kind of human that grows up and develops a personality; the kind of human that gets his feelings hurt; the kind of human that gets cranky when he’s hungry; the kind of human that cries when things are sad and smiles when things are good; the kind of human that pokes fun at his friends; the kind of human that has his doubts; the kind of human that is tempted to take the easy way out.
Jesus was human. That is good news! It is precisely because he was human that he is able to empathize with our weaknesses. Because Jesus understands our struggles, Hebrews 4:16 says, “Let us approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” Jesus’s ability to empathize with us leads to his ability to offer us grace. Just like Jorge offers me grace when I come to him with my struggles because he fully understands those struggles, so too Jesus meets us with grace when we come to him in our weaknesses. That is what makes Jesus the great high priest.
As a merciful, grace-giving high priest, Jesus is steadfast. While others might draw lines where their grace ends, Jesus is steadfast in his line-erasing, border-crossing, boundary-breaking free grace. When others pick and choose what kind of person can be made right with God, Jesus goes right ahead and takes the whole bunch. When others shake their heads in dismay at the folks he’s letting through the door, Jesus nods his head and keeps waving them in. Jesus is steadfast. He is not swayed by those who say some are unworthy. He is not convinced by arguments that some are just too far gone. Even when his own followers (including Christians today) advise Jesus to put a cap on it, telling him that it would be totally reasonable to close the door on those last few lost sheep, Jesus carries on.
Jesus’s grace is an unreasonable grace. Why? Because he understands the human condition. Jesus is like a good friend who already knows what it is you’re feeling before you even say a word. He himself has felt every shade of shame you’re feeling. He’s heard every insult that you’ve been told. He’s doubted his purpose just like you have. He’s been chased out of town, rejected by his own, and been passed around. That is why he offers an unreasonable grace. That is why he nods his head in agreement when you list your laments. That is why he cries when you cry.
And that is why he empathizes with you and advocates for you. That is why you can approach him with confidence, knowing that your feelings will not be invalidated; knowing that you will not leave feeling worse than before; knowing that you will not be shamed; but knowing that you will be met with grace and understanding. Jesus is the steadfast priest. He is unshakeable—unwavering in his grace-filled acceptance of you and in his never-ending ability to empathize with you.
As I write this, I realize that mercy, grace, and empathy are not always words that people use to describe their experiences with the church. Many have sought after Jesus the great high priest who empathizes with their weaknesses, but find him held hostage by Christians who are more willing to pass judgment than to pass the bread and wine. To those of you who have felt that way, know that Jesus too was rejected by the religious folks of his day. He is able to empathize with that experience and he invites you to join him in his mission of setting all things right and making all things just. And to the church, may we see more clearly than ever who Jesus is. May we see that he offers an unreasonable grace, and may we repent of the times we have failed to embody his empathy. Let us turn to Jesus, the great high priest, who has empathy for our weaknesses and join him in setting all things right and making all things just.