The second reading for today, from the Letter to the Hebrews, Hebrews 5:1-6, describes the actions of the high priest. He is taken from the people and “made their representative before God to offer gifts and sacrifices for sin” (Heb 5:1). If we follow Thomas Aquinas’ Commentary on the Letter of Paul o the Hebrews, we may recognize that Thomas is not only applying the figure of “high priest” to Jesus but also subtly reminding present day priests of their ministry.
We may often think of Christ in His divinity and overlook that His humanity allows us to draw near to Him. St. Thomas Aquinas comments: “We have a great high priest and He is Christ: For every high priest chosen from among men, ought to be a man. But God willed that man have someone like himself to whom he might run” (Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Letter to the Hebrews, 241).
Thomas emphasizes that Jesus is high priest for us: “The end and utility is that He is appointed to act on behalf of men, i.e., for their benefit.” Christ, as high priest, acts for our benefit.
Thomas is aware that some priests think their priesthood is for their own aggrandizement or glory: “He is not appointed for glory or for accumulating riches or for enriching his family … But if he seeks his own, he is not a shepherd, but a hireling” (Commentary on Hebrews, 242).
Paul described himself as a “servant: “And ourselves, your servants through Jesus” (2 Cor. 4:5). Paul used his authority to build up others not to diminish them: “According to the power which the Lord has given me unto edification and not unto destruction” (2 Cor. 13:10).
The high priest has dignity, as being set over the others … in the things that appertain to God, as the Book of Exodus affirms: “You shall be to him in things that pertain to God” (Ex. 4:16).
Because the high priest is set aside for the things of God he should not involve himself in secular business: “High priests should not entangle themselves with secular business and neglect the things that pertain to God: ‘No man being a soldier to Christ entangles himself with secular businesses’ (2 Tim. 2:4)” (Commentary on Hebrews, 243).
The priest offers sacrifices for sins: “The act of the high priest is to offer gifts, i.e., voluntary oblations … and sacrifices for sins, i.e., which are offered to him to satisfy for sins: ‘The priest shall pray for him and for his sin, and it shall be forgiven him’ (Lev 4:26)” (Commentary on Hebrews, 244). The priest prays for others as well as himself.
The priest acts as a mediator: “He must be in the things that appertain to God; yet he should be mediator between man and God, [as Moses said] ‘I was the mediator and stood between the Lord and you at that time’ (Dt. 5:5)” (Commentary on Hebrews, 246).
The high priest reaches between God and people: “Just as he should by the devotion of prayer reach God as one extreme, so by mercy and compassion he should reach man, the other extreme. Hence, he says: who can have compassion on the ignorant and wayward: ‘Who is weak and I am not weak?’ (2 Cor. 11:29)” (Commentary on Hebrews, 246). Priests should bring God’s mercy and compassion to the people.
The priest pleads for those who are ignorant and also for those who know but sin.
Thomas explains the priest has mercy because he also is sinful: “The motive for mercy is because he himself is beset with infirmity. That motive is infirmity, and those who are sometimes infirm: ‘But we have this treasure in earthen vessels’ (2 Cor. 4:7). The reason for this is that he may have compassion on the infirmities of others” (Commentary on Hebrews, 247).
Thomas affirms that Jesus let Peter fall in order that he might be compassionate: “This is the reason why the Lord permitted Peter to fall: ‘Judge of the disposition of your neighbor by yourself’ (Sir. 31:18). Therefore, he says, because he himself is beset with infirmity …” (Commentary on Hebrews, 247).
Thomas thinks of the Scriptures: “Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I am weak” (Ps. 6:3) and “I am a weak man and of short time and falling short of the understanding of judgment and laws” (Wis. 9:5).
Thomas notes that humans, even if they don’t actually sin have within them the inclination to sin: “For carnal men have the weakness of sin within themselves, because they are not subject to sin; and they are also beset by the weakness of the flesh: ‘Therefore, I myself with the mind serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin’ (Rom. 7:25)” (Commentary on Hebrews, 247).
Thomas acknowledges that this inclination to sin was evident in the Old Testament priests but also in priests at present: “But the sign of this is that even in the Old Law (Lev 9), as well as now, as is clear from the canon of the Mass: ‘And to us sinners’, it has been decreed that the priest offer also for himself, which he would not do, unless he were oppressed by the weakness of sins, with which he is beset. Indeed, if he is in mortal sin, he should not celebrate. And therefore, he says: Because of this he is bound to offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people” (Commentary on Hebrews, 248).
Priests shouldn’t seek the honor of the priesthood: “God’s discipline does not allow anyone to take the honor to himself, by favor, money, or power … but is called by God, as Aaron was. Hence, those should be accepted who do not impose themselves” (Commentary on Hebrews, 249).
The Letter to the Hebrews asserts that Christ did not exalt himself. Thomas reflects: “He did not exalt himself to be made a high priest. For there are some who exalt themselves to become a priest, as hypocrites who demonstrate certain qualities, in order to be chosen or to obtain offices” (Commentary on Hebrews, 251). The Priesthood is not for the priest but for the people.
Thomas comments: “Christ not only did not make Himself high priest, he did not exalt himself to be made high priest: ‘I seek not my own glory; there is one that seeks and judges’ (Jn. 8:50), and later: ‘It is my Father that glorifies me’ (Jn. 8:54). This is true, insofar as He is man, because as God He has the same glory as the Father” (Commentary on Hebrews, 251).
Christ’s glory was in His relationship to His Father: “He was glorified by the divine judgment, because the Lord spoke to Him in Ps. 2 (v. 7): ‘You are my son: This day I have begotten you’, and in Mt. (3:17): ‘This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.’ Therefore, when He shows Him begotten from eternity, He shows His glory: ‘Who, being the brightness of his glory and the figure of his substance’ (Hebrews 1:3). As man He also receives the high priesthood from God: as he says also in another place: ‘You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedeck’“(Commentary on Hebrews, 252).
Christ is our priest, because He offered Himself to God the Father: ‘He loved us and gave himself for us an oblation and offering to God’ (Eph. 5:2).
Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.
References to Thomas Aquinas’ Commentary on the Letter of Paul to the Hebrews may be found on the web page of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington DC: http://dhspriory.org/thomas/