Luke 10:25-37 & Matt 9:9-13
The Holy Apostle and Evangelist Matthew was in an occupation that was despised by all, he was a tax collector. As he was going about his business one day, our Lord Jesus Christ called to him to leave the business of the world and attend to the business of heaven. Immediately St Matthew got up and left everything behind in order to follow Christ. Not only did he go after Jesus himself, but he also invited many of his acquaintances and coworkers to come to his home and hear the teaching of Christ. Some of the Pharisees, who counted themselves to be righteous and who prided themselves on their own purity, saw that Jesus was surrounded by those who were despised and who were openly dishonest and they then judged Jesus and condemned Him for associating with such people. Perceiving their condemnation, Jesus answered the Pharisees saying, “They that are whole need not a physician, but rather those that are sick. … I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”
The Pharisees considered themselves to be righteous – they kept the law strictly and followed every little thing to the letter. They struggled to keep themselves clean and pure by separating themselves from every source of sin and uncleanness. Up to this point, they were on the right track, but then they made an error – an error that goes back to the very beginning of mankind and our first parents. They trusted in their own efforts and relied not upon God but on their own strength and their own works for their salvation. They could not see that they had abandoned the very first and greatest of all the commandments to love God and instead loved only themselves. They could not likewise see that they had similarly broken the second great commandment and instead of loving their neighbor, they judged and condemned him. They did not see that they were infected by sin and therefore did not see their need for a spiritual physician to cure them. They trusted in themselves for their salvation and so rejected the salvation that came from God.
This great truth, that Jesus came to call sinners to repentance, is one that we often forget. We forget that we too are sinners and that we must constantly struggle with the infection that lives within us. We seem to think that by our own efforts we can achieve our salvation – if only we keep every little law and regulation; if only we adhere to every little requirement of the fasts; if only we say all our prayers at exactly the right time and in precisely the right order; if only we keep ourselves pure; perhaps then God will see that we aren’t such a bad person after all and reward us. But this is not what Jesus said to do. He is not looking for our sacrifices – that is, He is not looking for us to achieve holiness on our own – but He desires mercy – that is, He is waiting for us to realize our own helplessness, our own sinfulness, our own faults and weakness and to come to Him seeking forgiveness and healing from our spiritual sickness. The scripture tells us that no man is without sin and that if only we confess our sins, if only we admit that we have sinned and turn away from our sins, then He will forgive us and heal us.
Our spiritual elders and fathers of the Church teach us that the very first effect of striving to come into the presence of God through prayer is that we become aware of our own sins, which in turn leads us to repentance. This is because when the uncreated light of Christ shines upon us, we do not at first see the light, but we only see what the light reveals – and the first thing that is revealed is the presence of our sin that we might root it out and dispose of it. Without setting this foundation of recognizing that we are weak and sinful and of weeping for our sins and repenting then there is then no possibility of progress in the spiritual life. Without repentance, then even the scrupulous keeping of every little provision of the law is empty and void and of no effect. We must have repentance first and only then can we begin to work toward righteousness.
The righteousness of the Pharisees, because it was not based in repentance and dependence upon God, is self-righteousness, based upon one’s own efforts. And self-righteousness is filled with pride, for we constantly look at ourselves to see how we are doing and then we compare ourselves with others to see whether we are better than they are. Thus the pride of self-righteousness leads to judgement and condemnation not of one’s self, but of everyone else around us. This stands in stark contrast to the righteousness that we receive from God for we begin not with how good we are, but with recognizing our own sins. Then when we look at others we do not see their sins, but we see only that they, like us, need help. This breeds not judgement and condemnation, but compassion and love for others.
You can see therefore the relationship between the commandment to love God and the commandment to love your neighbor. The love of God brings us to an awareness of our own sin and unworthiness; it reveals to us our weakness and poverty; it brings us to repentance. Repentance then allows us to see that we are not above others but that we are all in need of God’s help and mercy together and so it breeds compassion and love for our neighbor. If we do not love our neighbor, then that is an indication that we do not love God. If we did love God we would not condemn others for the very same sinfulness which fills us and we could not help but have compassion on others just as God has compassion upon us.
This call to repentance, to seeing our own sins and seeking forgiveness and healing from God is the essence of the call of Jesus Christ to St Matthew. Our Lord called him from a life of sin, of dishonesty, of contempt and selfishness and brought him to repentance. This was possible because St Matthew saw that he was indeed a sinner and that there was no righteousness within himself. He saw that he was trapped by his sins but that Jesus Christ offered to him a way out of the trap. That way out led through repentance and the mercy that is offered by Christ.
In the life of the Apostle and Evangelist Matthew, we see the effect of this forgiveness and mercy for he was transformed from a tax collector and self-centered sinner into a man whose love for God and for his neighbor was so great that he traveled to the ends of the earth to share with others the grace and mercy that he had received. After the Ascension, St Matthew remained in Jerusalem for a few years and at the request of the Christians there put down in writing his memories of the life of Christ and this became the Gospel of Matthew that we read today. He then traveled east into Persia to preach the Gospel and then south into Africa. He spent many years traveling around the kingdom Ethiopia – the area that now encompasses the nations of Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia – and even to the edges of Ethiopia, to the fringes of civilization where he preached to the tribes and peoples that were still barbarians. In Ethiopia, he gave his life in martyrdom and in so doing destroyed the idols and converted the whole kingdom to Christianity. All this he accomplished, not by his own strength or ability, but by the strength of the grace of God that came to him as a result of repentance and because of the love of neighbor that this brought about.
Like the Apostle, we too are called to come into the presence of God and to see, if we will, our own sins illumined by the divine and uncreated light of Christ. Seeing our sins, we are faced with two choices – we can choose to fall into despair because our sins are too great to overcome on our own, or we can choose to embrace the mercy of God and depend on His love, His help and His grace to forgive us and deliver us from our sins and set us on the path of righteousness. If we do humble ourselves and, recognizing our own weakness, accept the divine grace that is offered by our Lord Jesus Christ, and if we then integrate that grace into our own being allowing it to transform us into the likeness of Christ, then we will join the Holy Apostle and Evangelist Matthew and all the other saints in the Kingdom of God.
Posted by: David Moser