They that are whole need not a physician; but they that are sick
Last year David Cameron called “pockets of our society… not just broken but, frankly, sick.” He was referring not, of course, to politicians but to the riotous youth of Britain.
Jesus says, there is a problem with moral and spiritual sickness – a deadly one. Yet the far greater problem is people who deny their own sickness and point elsewhere to “pockets”.
The setting was a dinner party. Jesus was always at dinner parties. This one was thrown by His latest follower – a tax collector called Matthew. Tax collectors (or “publicans” in the KJV) were universally hated. They were collaborators with the enemy and white collar criminals – stealing far too much from their own people and supporting the Roman occupation. Naturally Matthew’s friends were not upstanding Jews. They were other “publicans and sinners” – notorious law breakers and miscreants. Yet Matthew wanted to introduce them to the Lord who had changed his life. And Jesus wanted to meet them and share life with them.
Appalled by this, the Pharisees do something very strange. They gatecrash the party and then complain about the guest list!
“They said unto His disciples, Why eateth your Master with publicans and sinners?” (Matthew 9:11)
Clearly the disciples were easier to talk to at this party. They were on the fringe of things – not too sure they should mix with the riff raff. Yet, from the heart of the party, Jesus overhears the pious objectors. He responds for all to hear:
“They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick… I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Matthew 9:12)
This is how we can understand Jesus’ preoccupation with the “sick” of society. He’s a Physician – a Doctor.
I’m a man, so I never go to the doctor. I complain about every cough and cold as if it’s bubonic plague, but I don’t go to the doctor. If I ever do, I like to save up sicknesses until I have a decent list. Why? Because no-one sits down with their doctor and says, “I’m a picture of perfect health, I thought you’d be impressed.” Instead of impressing them, you’re wasting their time. Doctors are for sick people. And Jesus is for sinners. Only for sinners.
What is a sinner? Jesus likens sin to sickness. It’s not really about the individual mistakes we’ve made. I feel guilty for all sorts of things that I’ve done in my past. But actually the problem goes deeper.
All those sins are like the spots you get when you have chicken pox. They come to the surface and they’re obvious to everyone. They are horrible, ugly, embarrassing, shameful. But the real problem is not the spots. The real problem is an underlying sickness.
And my sins – my spots if you like – will look different to yours. My sickness might show itself in pride and anger. Yours might come out as greed and gossip. And some will have really gross and obvious symptoms – like a tax collector. Or a rioter. But we’re all riotous at heart. Some have obvious spots, some not so obvious. Some are good at covering their spots, some are not. But we all have the same disease.
And we cannot cure ourselves. This sickness is not in our hair or we could shave it off. It’s not a skin complaint or we could buy an ointment. It’s not in our hand or our leg or we could amputate. No we have a sickness in our bones, in our blood, in our brain and heart and soul. We have a chronic, terminal illness called sin. And if we never come to the Doctor, that sickness will go on forever.
We have spoken about hell before as we’ve travelled through the Bible. This passage gives us one more window onto that dreaded reality. Hell is our sick human condition that is never taken to Jesus, never healed by the Doctor, just allowed to progress and deteriorate eternally.
But here’s the shock about hell. Hell is for the righteous. Hell is for those who consider themselves healthy, for those who refuse the Physician’s care.
Jesus is not the spiritual prize-giver – rewarding the good and punishing the bad. Jesus is the spiritual doctor – attending to the sick and only the sick.
A doctor cannot help you if you claim to be well. And Jesus cannot help you if you claim to be righteous.
Are you righteous? Or do you realize that you are a sinner? Do you point to “pockets” of sick people over there? Or do you admit that you need the Doctor?
The Bible is clear – and Jesus is clear – that no-one is actually righteous. Yet tragically, there are millions who fake it. They cover up their spots and act healthy. And the Doctor passes them by.
Jesus is for sinners. Only for sinners. In fact written across the gateway of heaven could be the sign: “Sinners Only! The righteous need not apply.”
Perhaps we need to stop pretending, to let the façade down and to admit “I am a sinner.” Not “a-sinner-but-trying-ever-so-hard!” Not “a-sinner-but-not-as-bad-as-some!” Just a sinner. That is who Jesus is for. He came not for the righteous but the riotous.