"A Hospital for Sinners"
Matthew 9:9-13 and following...
A long time ago someone gave me a piece of friendly advice, somewhere along the lines of "how to resist temptation." It went like this: "Don’t go anywhere you’d be ashamed to have Jesus go with you." At first glance, that seemed to be pretty good and practical advice – and destined to keep a conscientious person out of dark taverns, back alleys, and away from bad company. "Don’t go anywhere you’d be ashamed to have Jesus go with you." This is really good advice for a young person, I think – how to be an upstanding Christian, and a good role model for others. But then I started thinking – thinking about all the places that Jesus went, and all of the people Jesus associated with. You know, lepers, prostitutes, tax collectors, thirsty Samaritan women and curious Pharisees. I thought about the story we just heard, the one about Matthew sitting at his tax booth, and how Jesus called him, "follow me." And I thought about how after that it’s reported that Jesus is eating and drinking with "sinners" and tax collectors (perhaps some of Matthew’s friends), and the Pharisees – you know, the ones who are careful about where they go and who they associate with – ask some of his other disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?" It’s the question of people who understand my friend’s advice: "Don’t go anywhere you’d be ashamed to have Jesus go with you." They understand that this is good advice, if you want to be righteous, if you want to lead a good life, if you want to stay out of trouble. It’s the kind of advice we give our children, because we want them to stay out of trouble. But it also got me thinking, is that what it means to be a Christian and a follower of Jesus: that we stay out of trouble?
That’s the perception of the Pharisees, who are concerned with righteousness, with living a righteous life. We like to criticize them now, but for most of us, I think that we are still concerned with living a righteous life, aren’t we? Whether our version of ‘righteousness’ consists of regular church attendance (something I heartily endorse, by the way) and constant prayer, whether it consists in ‘healthy living’ – eat right, don’t drink, don’t smoke, whether it consists in trying to live a balanced life, whether it consists in a deep study of the Bible, whether it consists in a life of service to others, or advocacy for those oppressed, we are all, in one way or another, concerned with living a ‘righteous life.’ And Jesus, overhearing the question of the Pharisees, a legitimate question for people concerned with righteous living, blows them out of the water with his response: "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners."
Someone has said that there are two ways of looking at the church: That it is a gathering of saints, or a hospital for sinners. And of course, there is truth in both views – we who gather here today are God’s saints – we are God’s chosen and holy people, set apart for a particular purpose in the world. That’s what it means to be a saint. But oftentimes, when we think of the church as a gathering of saints, we also think about ourselves as people who are concerned about righteousness – our own and other people’s. We become concerned with ‘holy living’, which translates, in one way or another, into ‘staying out of trouble.’
A while ago I read a survey about health care which was done in Great Britain. You may or may not know that in Great Britain health care is universal -- free for everyone. However, the survey questioned the wisdom of this, and asked whether people who smoke, drink a lot, or eat poorly ought to pay for their own coverage. The title of the article I read was "Should sinners be made to pay?" And a lot of people who took the survey said, "Yes." After all, they reasoned, most people know the consequences of these behaviors, and the costs affect everyone, even those of us who take care of ourselves and stay out of trouble. However, the article’s author argued that this thinking is far too simplistic. It doesn’t take into account genetic factors for certain diseases – how some people can smoke for forty years and never get cancer, and others who have never smoked get smoking-related diseases. And, the author pointed out, what would probably happen is that many people wouldn’t pay – they just wouldn’t seek treatment, and, the author writes, ‘we would end up with a two-tier system such as in the United States where the most needy are excluded from the best care.’
We are all, in one way or another, concerned about righteous living, about holy living, but oftentimes the result is the same in the church as in the world: those who are most needy are excluded from the best care. So, there is another way of looking at the church: rather than a gathering of saints, we can look at the church as a hospital for sinners. This seems to be the way Jesus is looking at it, when he tells the Pharisees, ‘those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.....For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’
Not the righteous, but sinners. And lest we not realize the radical nature of this statement, consider who is included in ‘sinners’. There’s Matthew the tax collector, working for the Romans and cheating his own people. There’s the Samaritan woman who was married five times. Jesus comes for them, and for others as well, whether street people or corporate executives, addicts and AIDS victims, immigrants and wanderers and workaholics, the judgmental and the lackadaisical. Jesus comes to call sinners, and to call them to get up and follow him. Jesus comes to call sinners, and when we consider the church only as a gathering of saints, we run the risk of excluding the very people who need his care the most. We also run the risk of making the church into a great "self-help" center, where we are expected to heal ourselves by our own pursuit of righteousness. When we call the church a hospital, a hospital for sinners, we can see clearly our own need, and confess that only Christ can say the word, only Christ can heal us, only Christ can raise us from the dead, so that can get up and live, daily returning to the source of our healing and life. When we call the church a hospital, we realize our utter helplessness and the power of God’s love and forgiveness in our lives. As Martin Luther once said, "So we are now under the Physician’s care. The sin, it is true, is wholly forgiven, but it has not been wholly purged.... the Holy Spirit must cleanse the wounds daily."
The church is not a gathering of saints, but a hospital for sinners. You may worry that this seems a passive view, that if this is so, we might run the risk of seeing ourselves only as receiving care, but not as giving care to one another, or to others. And I admit, that this is a risk, when we think that way, until I think of a friend of mine, who has endured several hospitalizations, and so it quite familiar with hospitals. I remember one time when I visited her, that she had been carrying on quite a conversation with the woman in the next bed, and had found out some of her new friend’s concerns and worries and hopes. She invited all of us to pray together on that day, both giving and receiving God’s blessing. She realized that in God’s hospital, we are all both sinners in need of healing, and ministers empowered to share God’s blessings.
There is one more risk involved in seeing the church as primarily a gathering of saints, and that’s the risk of seeing ‘righteousness’ as ‘staying out of trouble.’ It’s the risk of seeing ‘righteousness’ as something we do by eating right, praying and staying away from the wrong people. In truth, righteousness is a free gift given to us in the love and mercy of God, and through the death and resurrection of Jesus. We are made righteous when Jesus looks at us, and calls our names, ‘Follow me.’ "Little girl, get up.’ ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well.’ And the result of Jesus’ call might be just the opposite of staying out of trouble. After all, we follow Jesus, who fed the hungry and ate with sinners, who forgave sins, who befriended the poor, and made the powerful angry. After all, we follow Jesus, who came into this troubled world to live and die as one of us, to heal us and to raise us and to gather us together as his own. You can’t say that he ever stayed out of trouble.
There’s a story about Henry David Thoreau, that at one time he was engaged in some civil disobedience that landed him in jail for the night. His friend Ralph Waldo Emerson came to visit him, and upon seeing him, asked, "Henry! What are you doing in jail?" To which Thoreau replied, "Waldo! What are you doing OUT of jail?"
Perhaps we ought to turn the question of the Pharisees around: instead of asking, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?", we need to ask, "why do we NOT eat with sinners more often? After all, who are we all, but sinners found by God's love? Jesus still comes not for the spiritually fit, but for sinners...for the immigrant and the executive, for the down-and-out and the successful, for the doubting and the certain, for those weary and well. He comes to lift us up, again and again, to remind us that we are his beloved children, and to say to us, ‘Follow me. Follow me into a troubled world, full of people like you: beloved sinners, children of God."