October 27, 2013, Pentecost 23 – Don’t Lie to the Doctor
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The Pharisee in the story traveled home from the temple and Jesus tells us that he was not justified; he didn’t receive God’s mercy and go home to a fresh start like the tax collector did. And we might think that that was because even though he did lots of truly good things on the outside – fasting and tithing and praying – still on the inside he was sinning because he looked at other people with contempt. So because his heart wasn’t right, God, who is really good at seeing into people, didn’t send him home justified. But the truth is that the reason the Pharisee did not receive God’s mercy is because he didn’t ask for it. And the reason he didn’t ask is because he really didn’t know that he needed it.
Jesus once said, “Those who are well don’t have any need for a physician. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” And the people that came crowding around to hear him were just the sort of people that the Pharisee in the story would call sinners – the rabble, like the tax collector in the temple, and prostitutes, the unwashed and unworthy. Even one of the twelve apostles, Matthew, was a tax collector. God has always had a heart for the poor and the sick and the helpless, and people recognized Jesus’ compassion and they came out by the thousands. For the most part, it wasn’t the righteous, the religious people who had their lives in order and who carefully followed the letter of the Law in all they did, who became Jesus’ disciples. Mostly it was that teeming horde of sinners.
And the reason so many more sinners responded to Jesus than good upstanding citizens is not because he likes them better. It is because until people will admit they are sick they won’t cry out for the help they need. When Jesus talks about humility, he isn’t talking about putting ourselves down or pretending we are less important than we actually think we are – it’s completely the opposite of that. Humility is first and foremost honesty. If we humble ourselves we admit our need; we admit that we are sick and in need of a physician’s help.
Several years ago I took my Mom to the emergency room for an illness, and I stayed with her when the doctor came in to ask her all those questions they have to ask you, and he asked her if she was a smoker. Now, my Mom didn’t smoke a lot, but she certainly was a smoker, but she was ashamed to admit it and she just out-and-out lied to the doctor. And I don’t think that’s all that uncommon. We say yes, we have absolutely remembered to take our medication on time every day and we’ve done all those physical therapy exercises faithfully every single day and no, it doesn’t hurt anymore. We are afraid or embarrassed to be honest, and so we fail to seek the help we need from the very person who is able to help us. And that is a complicated thing, of course, because even if a human doctor is in possession of all the information he might not be able to do us any good.
But it is a very different thing with God, because he IS able to bring the healing we all so desperately need. We are born into a sinful world and just like babies that are born with AIDS or drug dependency, we all come into the world in need of God’s mercy. Those cancerous cells of sin and death infect all of us from the very beginning. Even the tiniest baby who can’t possibly “do bad things” suffers pain and fear and sickness just because she is a daughter of Adam and so she has been born into this broken creation. When we baptize a little baby, we are coming to ask for the mercy of the great physician who is able to give her life and a wellness that outlasts any harmful thing she might encounter in the world. She is marked as Christ’s own forever.
But as we grow into adulthood we have a very hard time being honest about our weakness and need. Humility is an uncomfortable thing. We don’t like to think that we aren’t really just fine as we are, or at least we would be if we just try a little harder. That’s where religion comes in very handy, because we convince ourselves that we are just hunky dory as long as we follow the 10 commandments or meditate every day or give generously or keep away from drinking and smoking and bad language. Just like the Pharisee in the story, we thank God that our lives are all in order and neat as a pin (not like some others we could name) and we live our days trying to be good people, and all the while that infection of sin is festering inside us. There is nothing wrong with doing good things, of course, just like the things that the Pharisee did, fasting and prayer and tithing, are very good things to do. But if we are so busy trying to be good on our own that we refuse to be honest about our failures and our desperate need for mercy, we shut ourselves off from the only one who can really help us, the one who is always ready to give us a fresh start.
There is one other thing that I want to say about this story. When we do what the Pharisee did, when we look on other people with contempt and compare ourselves with them so that we can show everyone we are much better people than they are, I think it hardens our hearts against the grace of God. It is a very difficult thing, but something I pray we can all be learning with God’s help, is to be able to look on every other human being and not to see their sin or their weakness or their laziness or their unpleasantness – but to see the face of Christ. The very person that we most despise, the man or woman or child that we most lightly dismiss as worthless, is absolutely precious in the sight of the Father.
If you have ever had a child that you love with all your heart who was very, very sick, you know the feeling that you have that you would give up anything at all, you would risk anything and everything to make that child well again. That kind of love is the love the Father has, not just for nice people or good people, but for all people. Not one person is worthless, not one is beyond redemption, not you in your most discouraged moments, and not the most broken person you might encounter. It’s not for us to know what God will do in anyone else’s life, but we must never treat with contempt any creature for whom Christ lived and died. That is something I think we will be working on for the rest of our lives, but if we humble ourselves in honesty, admitting our many failures and seeking God’s mercy, he will never fail to hear us and to heal us.