Saturday of the 1st Week in Ordinary Time
Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 2:13-17
Like you, I’ve learned over the years that sickness can be a great teacher.
The first thing sickness has taught me is that you don’t have to feel sick to be sick. I think Matthew would agree. My guess is that he felt just fine sitting at the customs post. It’s hard to say why; as a tax collector, Matthew was among the most notorious sinners. Maybe he had grown used to it. Sin can be that way; we might feel uncomfortable at first, but if we persist in sin we grow used to it, to the point that we are willing to rationalize it rather than see ourselves the way we really are.
But no ordinary man was passing by that day; it was, as Hebrews said, the One from whom nothing is concealed, and to whom all must render an account. Of course, Matthew knowingly rendered nothing, and the encounter may not have seemed like much: A passing glance and the words, Follow me. But Jesus didn’t need many words, for from him they are sharper than any two-edged sword, able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart. And they had an effect; as Scripture says, Matthew got up and followed Jesus. We shouldn’t pass too quickly over that, for the word Mark uses to describe Matthew rising from his post is a variation of the word he will use to describe Jesus rising from the dead. Matthew, spiritually as good as dead, experienced a very real kind of resurrection. He had a new lease on life that only God can give.
That brings me to another thing sickness has taught me: There’s nothing like the joy of knowing that you are healed. Again, I think Matthew would agree. Look at his reaction; if he was worried that people would hold his past against him, or that he was leaving a really well-paying job for an uncertain future, he didn’t show it. All that seemed to matter to him was that he call his friends together and celebrate; share his joy. I think many of us can identify with him. Think of that moment in Confession when you’ve heard those words, “I absolve you…” It can feel like a sixteen-ton weight has been lifted from your shoulders! No wonder he wanted to celebrate. And consider the impact this healing had on him, the gospel that bears his name; the millions of people he has helped bring to Christ, the countless souls whose faith he has helped strengthen.
Therein lies the lesson. Christ calls us to follow him not only that we may have life ourselves, but that we may give life to others. How do we do that? By using the gifts we’ve been given. Perhaps you are an exceptionally generous or welcoming person, a good teacher or organizer; maybe you’re good at helping people, consoling them, or encouraging them to stay strong in the faith. There are many gifts; I can provide you with lists if you’re interested. Whatever the gift, the important thing is not having it, but sharing it. When you do that, three things happen. First, you give glory to God who gave those gifts to you; second, you strengthen your own faith; third, you experience the joy of watching the faith of others come to life through you.
That brings me to another thing sickness has taught me: We have to do what we can to stay well. The first thing, one I resisted for years, is making regular trips to the doctor. I know in Matthew’s case the doctor came to him, but remember that Christ comes to us, too; most perfectly here at holy Mass, but no less in any of the Sacraments, even those devoted to healing. So, meet him there. He’s waiting to heal us, we just have to let him. It can be frightening, but don’t let it; as the author of the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us, remember the sympathy and the mercy of Christ. He understands our weakness perfectly; he too has been tested.
And that’s the final thing sickness has taught me: No one gets better alone. Matthew was called alone, but he didn’t follow alone; there were many disciples. In fact, of all the evangelists, only in Matthew’s gospel does Jesus use the word, church. Thus, as Christ himself established it, our encounter with God must go through other people. This tells us at least two things. First, we need each other. Most particularly, the Church, this parish, these people, need you; they need the gifts that God has given you. And you need them, for they have gifts that make you stronger, too. Second, it tells us what the scribes in the gospel could never understand; that the mercy of God is so powerful that people can be called holy even though they are sinners, and can remain one body even though they are so often bitterly divided. As the old saying goes, the church isn’t a shrine for saints; it’s a hospital for sinners.