December 6, 2017
“’Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.’” Mark 2:17
The Pharisees simply didn’t understand what Jesus was up to when he called rather despicable (read: unrighteous) people like Levi the tax collector to be his disciple, or when he ate and drank with deplorable “sinners and tax collectors”. In the Pharisees’ moral landscape, there were two types of people—the righteous and the unrighteous, the worthy and the unworthy, Law-keepers and Law-breakers. And in that moral landscape there wasn’t much of a path from unrighteousness to righteousness. What was it that the Pharisee Nicodemus said? “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb?” (John 3:4). In other words, it’s impossible, and radical even, to suggest that the unrighteous could change. They’re bad people, and by hanging around them, Jesus seems to be one of them. Why else does he “eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (Mark 2:16). If Jesus were truly a teacher from God, then he would be hanging around the right(eous) sort.
Jesus’ moral landscape, in stark contrast to that of the Pharisees, makes change—or better yet, transformation—central to his mission as the Messiah. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God,” he tells Nicodemus (John 3:3). Unless a profound and radical change takes place, a person can’t so much as catch a glimpse of God’s kingdom. To the Pharisees he says, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). Jesus the Messiah is in the business of healing the sick, raising the dead, and turning lives around. It’s not only possible to change; it’s also necessary, and for Jesus, quite normal.
This change, however, does not come about through our moral efforts or through our decisions to try harder. We can’t will ourselves into righteousness. St. Augustine says as much: “To descend into sin, that free will, through which man corrupted himself, was sufficient, whereas to return to righteousness he needed a physician, since he was sick; he needed a giver of life, since he was dead.” Jesus came not to tell sinners to get their act together; he came not to tell the sick to get better or to tell the dead to raise themselves. Jesus came to save, to heal and to raise the dead. Jesus says, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
The word “call” is crucial. In the beginning God “called” into existence the things that were not. The world had no ability to exist until God spoke it into existence. We call this event “creation”. Similarly, Jesus calls sinners into righteousness; he calls the dead into life; he calls the sick into health. They had no ability to be righteous, alive or healthy until Jesus spoke it into existence. We call this event “new creation”, and it is the only way we’ll ever change. The application should be clear: if we want to change, to see transformation in our lives, the right approach isn’t a reinvigoration of our moral striving; it’s rather by hearing again the voice of Jesus calling us into righteousness. As the great hymn (381 in the Hymnal) has it: “Thy strong word bespeaks us righteous; bright with thine own holiness.”
How are you approaching the season of Advent? Are seeking above all to hear the creative call of Jesus?