Anthropologist James C. Scott says that there’s a difference between the way poor people talk “onstage” and “offstage.” Studying forms of everyday resistance among peasants in a small Malaysian village, he noticed how the poor and weak were good at acting like they recognized the authority of the ruling elite in public. “Onstage” they almost always gave the impression of complying with a social order in which they suffered injustice. “Offstage,” however, when no one in authority was around, peasants mocked the system through gossip, slander, stealing, dragging their feet, and sabotaging their masters’ plans.
Being offstage, out of the limelight allows us the freedom to speak the unspeakable, to tell the story as it really is to us and to distance ourselves from the authoritarian position of those who hold the power in our lives. Being offstage allows us to say what we really think about church structures, government leaders and policies and restrictive laws which dictate our behaviour in public even when they are in fact censuring who are and what we say to the detriment of sensible debate and discussion.
That is why we need to keep alive the tradition of comedy and humour in our society. Recent reactions to various comedians on radio, TV and the big screen smacks of those “onstage” wanting to dumb down debate and stifle anything that challenges stereotypes, political correct sacred cows and more. Comedy and humour is society speaking offstage, saying the things that need to be said, and highlighting issues that we have attempted to paper over, or simply recognizing a reality those onstage avoid. The problem with modern day humour is that so much is now deemed off limits that it is stuck in the gutter because there they can safely offend everybody not just individual groups sensibilities or political correct doctrines. If we aren’t careful we will lose all the opportunities to speak in a way that takes the debate offstage. This has probably already occurred through the development of experts and self-interest groups who control the debate on key issues such as global change, human rights, parenting and gender issues for example. There is little or no room for the voice offstage.
A group of people working to deal with poverty in a community were sitting around the table discussing the way forward when one of the group suggested that perhaps it would be a good idea to ask the people in the community themselves (something I have found to be the only thing to do); there was a lengthy silence as the group of experts looked uncomfortably at each other before the facilitator said, No that would only slow us down. AN opportunity was missed in our world of experts to hear what some of the answers were from the people who know and live and experience the questions.
In a society where the High priest held all the power, had great position and was the representative of all those onstage, the writer to the Hebrews suggests that not only was Jesus the high priest, but that he was also like us yet without sin. 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.
A Jewish priest was a direct male descendant of the Aaron, brother of Moses. During the existence of the Temple in Jerusalem, they performed specific duties in relation to the daily and festival sacrificial offerings. The high priest, selected from the group, sometimes held considerable political influence and also supervised during the key service of Yom Kippur. In the Second Temple period various high priests were appointed by both Jewish and non-Jewish political governors, becoming an issue of considerable controversy. Also in this period, the high priest sometimes served as the president of the ruling legislative council, the Sanhedrin.
The high priest was onstage – he was in the public eye and, along with all those who surrounded him, represented a part of society those offstage had to negotiate in their relationship with God. Often the high priests were corrupt and such power ensured that any relationship with them was an unfair one..
So when the writer to the Hebrews uses these words in relation to Jesus, he does as Jesus often did and speaks offstage, he turns them upside down and gives them a whole new meaning.
Jesus through his relationship with his Father, the God of Israel, was the one who came to intercede on our behalf, a truly priestly role. Not only did he intercede in his earthly life through his teaching and his actions, his example, but his unbroken obedience to his Fathers will took him all the way to the cross himself.
As a human being he came to experience what it was like to be among those who are offstage, out of the position of privilege, unable to be apart of the righteous because of their social position, their gender, their infirmities, hurt and shame. He took on our humanity in such a way that he became that humanity for himself.
Unlike those in power who speak through advisers and leaders about the needs and circumstances of the poor, the disabled, the troubled and the difficult, Jesus became human to experience that for himself, to place himself in the way of sin and to stare it down so that we too could do the same.
It is interesting that throughout Jesus earthly life his greatest recorded wisdom comes not from official debates with the keepers of knowledge, the experts, (with some exceptions) but with those who were offstage. He had the audacity to ask people what they wanted and gave it to them, he empowered people with words that spoke to their place in this world such as in the sermon on the mount, he stood with people who were about to be stoned for their actions by the self-righteous; it was what Jesus spoke to those off-stage which got under the nose of those in power, and what ultimately brought about his death.
Not only did he engage with humanity, he had the opportunity to sin and didn’t. He was one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. What a wonderful verse. He battled the temptation to sin as recorded in the desert after his baptism and then throughout his life for Luke comments that devil departed from him until an opportune time. Jesus knew what it was like to be tempted but he is an example to us that through relationship with him and his father sin is no longer our challenge.
There is much discussion theologically over the meaning of this verse. Some see it to mean that Jesus was impeccable, that is, unable to sin because of his divine nature. And for many years I found this understanding a stumbling block to faith. If Jesus was incapable of sin, he wasn’t like us at all, he only looked and acted like us, and I felt I was set up. How could someone who was incapable of sinning understand how I felt as a sinner and when I sinned? Was this some kind of cosmic joke?
Yet the power comes when I understand that Jesus was ‘peccable’, able to sin but because of his nature and his relationship with God chose obedience as the better way. Jesus became human and lived and died as the example of humanity living life to the fullest so that we too could become fully human.
Yes we do have a great high priest who intercedes for us and we have a great high priest who has lived the experiences of being ordinary and doing so with out sin.
And here is the possibility that Jesus life, death and resurrection brings to us, the possibility of knowing that we are not alone, unable to deal with those things which plague us, because Jesus is here, offstage with us and says in a clear loud voice within with authority, ‘I know what you are feeling and I know all is not lost, come to me and all will be well.’
14 Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession.
15 For 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.
16 Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.