There was once a man who knew he was ill but had no idea that his illness was terminal and fatal. One day a physician happened to pass the man and after recognizing the signs and symptoms of his deadly disease, immediately approached him to offer medical care. The sick man accepted it and was now on his way to recuperation and rehabilitation. This man was named Matthew. He suffered not from a bodily sickness but from a sickness of the soul caused by sin and its effects. The passing doctor is Jesus Christ, the Great Physician who comes to heal those infirmed and disabled from the effects of sin (Matthew 9:9-13).
Like St. Matthew we too suffer from the sickness of sin and its terrible effects. For some sin is a mild illness while for others it has become a terminal disease. No matter the degree of sin it is always dangerous. Venial sin can lead to more serious sins, especially mortal ones that become an obstruction to God’s life-giving grace. If there is no immediate repentance, the craving for sin slowly increases resulting in less prayer and dependence on Christ. Eventually one becomes enslaved to the sin through compulsion and addiction. Misery and despair gradually consume a person in this state and freedom from a sinful lifestyle now appears insurmountable and impossible.
Matthew, the tax collector was not only consumed by greed and a lust for power and wealth, he was also disliked for his profession. Toll or tax collectors at the time of Jesus would often coerce people into giving more money than required. Collectors were Jewish and worked for the Roman Empire, an enemy of Israel. Roman authorities only required fees from collectors once a year. This allowed collectors to charge high toll rates so that they could pocket the excess revenue. Imagine if IRS agents cheated us for a profit or US Customs officers collected expensive fees every time we entered the country. The Jewish people thought of tax and toll collectors as dishonest swindlers and traitors. Jesus, however, saw Matthew as a child of God who would one day become an Apostle and who would enjoy the glory of the Father in Heaven for all eternity. When we stray, Jesus goes in search for us and like St. Matthew, when finding us, embraces us with compassion and fatherly affection. Christ is always near us, but it is us who turn away from Him.
In an instant, the Great Physician of souls is ready to resuscitate our soul with an embrace mercy and forgiveness. The Pharisees criticized Jesus’ merciful approach of associating with tax collectors and sinners at table or in public places. However, His critics who were sinners themselves should have joined the other sinners gathered around Christ. People outside and inside the Church sometimes view it as an exclusive country club for the pious and righteous, rather than a hospital for sinners. A person sick with bodily illness is first treated to stop or control symptoms, then diagnosed, and provided medication and rehabilitation. In a like manner, when one acknowledges and confesses their sins, Christ Himself operating in and through the priest controls the symptoms of sin with His mercy and forgiveness, diagnoses the severity of the sin with His council, and prescribes the sinner with penance and prayer. We are then rehabilitated through personal prayer, the Word of God and the Holy Eucharist.
When we return to Jesus he does not ask that we first do laborious works and pray numerous hours of prayer as a requisite for forgiveness. It would make no sense if a sick person would heal themselves prior to going to the doctor. God takes us as we are and makes us new again. Like the Apostle St. Matthew, Jesus calls us to turn away from sin and to follow Him into the hospital of His charity and mercy, the Church.
Fr. Leonard Mary