Sunday, February 8, 2015

I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.

May my words be in the Name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: + Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

Imagine you were feeling ill and went to your doctor's office. Arriving, you find the door closed and locked; you ring the buzzer; a voice answers, asking what it is that you want. You explain that you're feeling quite poorly and would like to see the doctor. The response surprises you – the voice says sorry, but they really can't let any one who is sick in. Baffled, you buzz again, but they refuse to respond further, so you are forced to go home. 

A little time passes; not surprisingly you start to feel worse, much worse, so you decide that if your doctor won't see you, you'd better go the emergency room. So off to the hospital you go. At the reception desk, the nurse looks at you in complete horror. 'What are you doing here?' she cries. 'You're sick!' You try to explain that that is exactly why you are there, but she is having none of it. 'Out,' she cries. 

And when you refuse, begging for medical attention, she calls security. Two large, burly men come, and unceremoniously take you by the arms and escort you from the building, warning you of dire consequences if you should try to come back in. So there you are, standing outside in the cold, feeling worse than ever. You are sure at this point that there is something seriously wrong with you. You desperately need help. And you have no idea what to do, where to go.

If such a thing were to happen to you, you would be forgiven for thinking you were living in a novel by Franz Kafka, a writer famous for creating worlds whose protagonists are victims of mysterious and pointless persecution. After all, why would anyone in their right minds seek to deny a sick person access to medical treatment. Or, indeed, treat a hospital as some kind of fortress where those who are well take refuge from those who are sick. 

Yet this is what Jesus tells the scribes and the Pharisees that they are trying to do when they look down their noses at him for eating with 'tax collectors and sinners' and ask his disciples what he thinks he's up to. His response is damning, both for the critics of his day and for us: Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners. 

It is not for anyone, not for the scribes and the Pharisees, not for us, to try and keep anyone else away from Jesus, saying they are not good enough. The doors of his Church must be open to all; and we must never stand as door-keepers and try to keep others out – not literally, by standing in the doorway and telling them may not enter; or more subtly, by treating them in such a way that they know that they are not welcome.

But let us also not lose sight of the reason behind our Lord's radical inclusivity. It was not to celebrate the sins of these people, or to tell them that their behaviour was not sinful. Jesus was quite clear as to the reality of sin and the danger of it for each and every human being. In Mark 7 for example he gives a list of sins: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. And he does not list them to praise them but to condemn them – he calls them evil and says that they defile us. 

They are the disease and he is the physician; and he can not treat the disease and cure the illness if he has no access to the patient. Sin is a sickness of the soul; and the Word was made flesh so that sinners might be healed. Christ is the physician, his Gospel and his sacraments are the medicine, and his Church is the hospital in which sinners may be healed.

And, importantly, please note that when he tells the scribes and Pharisees that he hasn't come to call the righteous but sinners, that is not the same as telling them that they are righteous. In fact, Jesus calls them hypocrites often enough elsewhere in Scripture that we can be quite certain that he doesn’t consider them righteous. But then again, that shouldn't surprise us, for scripture also tells us that all are sinners and all have fallen short. When Christ says he has comes to call sinners, he means everyone: the scribes, the Pharisees, the tax-collectors, all those sitting around the table eating with him whom everyone knew were sinners … and every single one of us. 

I began with a nightmare scenario, of a sick person being denied access to medical care. There is a sadder truth to that scenario; for those who stand inside the hospital, thinking they are well and seeking to keep the sick out are deluding themselves; they are in fact also sick; and by their actions they are barring the door not to the unwell but to the physician who wishes to cure them. For we are all sinners, we have all fallen short; but Christ is the Physician and he is ready to heal us all. I pray that all will stand before him and say the words he himself spoke in scripture: Lord have mercy on me, a sinner. Amen

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