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Tested in Every Way

Jesus can truly sympathize with our sinfulness because, being free from it, he understands it better than we do.

Homily for the Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2021

Brothers and sisters:
Since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens,
Jesus, the Son of God,
let us hold fast to our confession.
For we do not have a high priest
who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses,
but one who has similarly been tested in every way,
yet without sin.
So let us confidently approach the throne of grace
to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help.

-Heb. 4:14-16

The message of this lesson from the epistle to the Hebrews is a truly amazing and deeply encouraging thing, a message that can deepen and solidify our affection for Christ our Savior as it also instructs us about what is really going on when we say that he is our Savior.

What could it possibly mean to say that Jesus is a high priest who “has been…tested in every way, yet without sin” and so sympathizes with our weaknesses so that we can receive mercy and grace when we most need it?

First off, he is God, and so as God has no weaknesses, is in no sense vulnerable or limited. Then, as God who took to himself a human nature, he is sinless, and has none of the effects of sin that imply concrete, personal sin.

How could such a one sympathize with our weaknesses and need for mercy and pardon? He is perfect naturally as God and morally as a man, so how on earth could he have experienced our misery as sinners to such a degree as to sympathize with us?

The most we might imagine is that he could, in the manner of a moral superior, graciously condescend to us, knowing that we are weak, but without himself having experienced our weakness.

Our religion is, however, completely opposed to such a prissy image of the holier-than-thou Savior. True, he is holier than we are and infinitely so, but as St. Paul tells us, he did not cling to the perfection of his divinity, but rather, “humbled himself, obediently accepting death, death on the cross.” Death is the most definitive and basic effect of the fall of our first parents and also of our own falls into sin. And it was this effect of sin that he completely embraced, even though he was a man like us in all things but sin, as we have heard today. Our God took to himself a human nature so that he might save us as one of us, with a full appreciation of our sin and its effects in our lives.

In fact, he is so perfect that his experience of the effects of sin is more realistic and to the point than ours, and that is why he has an infinite sympathy for sinners. As St. Thomas says in commenting on this very passage, the Savior does not judge us sinners, except by the standard of mercy, and he intercedes with us as our advocate by the standard of complete personal faithfulness. He will never abandon us or give in to the opinions of others; he always defends us.

He has won the right to do so, because he has been tested like us in every way, yet without sin. This does not mean that he was just acting, as though being tested without sinning was some kind of performance. No! His being tested without sinning means that he understands most perfectly what being tested and sinning is actually all about.

You see, when we are tested and still fall into sin, our sin darkens our experience and makes it difficult for us to perceive both what is wrong with sin (since, after all, we gave into it and made it our own false good) and what is the meaning of the immediate and long-term necessary effects of sin.

The evil of sin is in the malice of our wills turned away from God and toward one of his lesser gifts, and in the case of really deliberate mortal sin it is the choice of our own will, pure and simple, before God’s will. This latter choice would be so deep and spiritual in a negative sense that it would escape our feelings and imagination. It is a state of sin, but it cannot be imagined or felt. Only divine knowledge can understand the “mystery of iniquity” as St. John Paul II called it. It is a non-experience, the cancellation of the goodness of what God has created. Only a divine understanding could take such a thing in.

What we do experience, and feel, and imagine, are the effects of sin. Jesus our sympathetic and merciful Lord experienced the effects of sin, but he did not sin himself, but yet he understood what sin is in a way we never could.

For us, there is for us no possibility of experiencing mortal sin itself, it is too deep a matter, and we do not want to look into the abyss to try to fathom it. No way! We can commit a mortal sin, but we cannot understand it by the experience of our understanding.

Rather, we experience the effects of sin as shame in the first place, a shame that is riveting and trying sometimes, and also as sadness, weariness, confusion, sickness, and as death. We have only to see Jesus in the garden of Gethsemani to perceive this.

But none of these effects is sin. Why? Because they are not sins themselves. The effects of sin of which I speak are punishments, corrections for sin, but not sins.  In fact, they are the good God’s remedy for our sins. They point out the fact of sin, but they do not multiply sins.

What we are saying here is simply this: Jesus understands and felt in his human nature exactly what it means to be a sinner. And yet he understood even more, since the sinner cannot understand what sin really is or how bad it really is. Only he can as both God and Man.

Knowing all this and having felt it, he is not the Lord of guilt-trips, or of despair, or of self-hatred. No, he is the Lord of mercy, always defending us, even when we do not even defend ourselves.

The simple fact is that we are not good judges in our own or anyone else’s case. Only Jesus who sees and experienced sin’s nature and ramifications can judge, and his judgement is always mercy to those who turn to him.

Discouragement is practically the devil’s only weapon. With such a High Priest who makes it a matter of his own honor to defend us continually before the Father against Satan, “the accuser of the brethren,” what have we to fear? Let us flee to him with confidence. Confidence is all that is needed with such an advocate and judge. Rejoice, sinners, and lay hold of what the Savior offers you.

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