But when He heard it, He said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.”
Matthew 9: 12-13
For the past couple of weeks that we have been reflecting on the topic of feeling uneasy, you’ve hopefully noticed the icon of Christ which is on top of all of these recent reflections. We try to put an icon or other appropriate visual graphic with each Prayer Team message and this is the one we’ve been using. And it was not to make you feel uneasy.
This icon, for those who are familiar with it, is called “The Icon of Christ, the Merciful Judge.” And it is found in the Monastery of St. Katherine on Mount Sinai. What makes this icon unique is that the two sides of Christ’s face are totally different. If you cover the left side of His face with a piece of paper, so that you see only the right side uncovered, you will see that the right side looks very serene and merciful. If you cover the right side of His face, so that you see only the left side uncovered, you will see that the left side looks angry, austere, and sad. Hence, the name “the merciful judge.”
We know that Christ is both of these things. We know that He will have mercy on those who come to Him with a repentant heart, with faith, who have used their talents to serve others, and who have lived a Christ-centered life. We know that He will condemn those who have not repented, who don’t have faith, who have squandered their talents or served only themselves and who have not lived a Christ-centered life. How do we know this? There are several passages in the Gospel that tell us “The Kingdom of Heaven will be like this,” and proceed to outline a virtue that will stand us in good stead to enter the Kingdom and a vice that will keep us out. We know that in Matthew 25: 31-46, we read an account of the Last Judgment when God will separate all people into two groups, the sheep who will be placed on His right hand, and the goats, who will be on His left. Hence, the countenance of the right side of the face shows mercy and the left side shows judgment.
Here is one thing we don’t know—exactly HOW merciful is He going to be versus HOW judging is He going to be? And the answer to this question is “we don’t know.” Will half the people enter into the Kingdom of heaven? Is He going to “Grade on a curve?” Will most people get in?
The Bible verse from today, from the Gospel of Matthew, is addressed to those who criticized Jesus for dining with tax collectors like Matthew. They wondered openly why Jesus would choose to dine with sinners, and seem to scorn the temple elite. His response was that “those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” (Matthew 9:12) In other words, if a person presents himself or herself to a doctor and says “I am in perfect health,” there is nothing for the doctor to do for him or her. The doctor springs into action when someone says that they are sick. Those who came to Christ with a posture of self-congratulations for their sense of their own righteousness, Christ compared those to the ones who present themselves to the doctor in perfect health. Christ couldn’t do anything for them. The ones who came with repentant hearts, who approached with a posture of, “I am spiritually sick because of my sins,” these were, and are, the ones that Christ can heal.
The first step, then, in following after Christ is to recognize that we need His mercy, that we all suffer, to one degree or another, from our sins. The antidote to sin is repentance. Jesus affirms in Matthew 9:13 that He came not to call the righteous, but sinners, and to call them to repentance. He reassured them that repentance would be met with mercy. Failure to repent would result in judgment.
It is important to remember that repentance is a “continuous action,” as opposed to a one-time achievement. Graduation is a one-time achievement. Once a person is a college graduate, no one can take away that achievement. The journey to graduation is truly finished. Repentance is something that will continue throughout our lives. It is not a one-time achievement. Salvation is the end of the journey. Repentance IS the journey. Salvation, however, is not attained solely on our own merits. Why? Because there isn’t a certain amount of good deeds required for salvation. Those who reach salvation will each come with a different life record and a varied amount of good deeds. The second reason, which is the most important to remember, is that no matter how virtuous a life we’ve led, we are all going to fall short of perfection to one degree or another. And this gap between what we’ve done and what we should have done can only be bridged by the mercy of God.
The good thing about the Lord is to remember that there is judgment but there is also mercy. I’d like to think that God’s mercies will be based on our efforts. A sincere and consistent effort, as defined by HIM, not by us, will stand us in good stead at the awesome judgment seat, to receive His mercies on our many sins and shortcomings.
Faith is the crucial first step—we need to believe in the Lord. Works is the crucial second step. Works is how we express our faith. Works includes serving others. Works also includes repentance, refocusing ourselves when we’ve failed to love and failed to serve. The third ingredient comes from God, not from us, and that is grace and mercy, again to bridge the gap between what we’ve done and what we should have done.
Lord, thank You for the gift of Your grace and mercies which You give so freely. There is no one who doesn’t sin and fall short in some way. In the times I’m falling short, please forgive me. Give me a heart that desires repentance. Help me continually grow towards You. And in that day when I stand before You, as my judge, please remember me and have mercy on me. Amen.
In the words of St. John the Baptist, taken from Luke 3:8, “bear fruits that befit repentance.” Offer God your best today. Change what needs changing and continue to grow towards Him.