Today is the Feast of St. Matthew. The following is excerpted from the book “Who is Jesus Christ? Unlocking the Mystery in the Gospel of Matthew” by 1P5 contributor Eric Sammons.
Stories of personal conversion comprise one of the most powerful genres of religious literature. St. Augustine’s Confessions, a classic example of this type of work, has become the most influential text of its kind in the Western world. Its beauty and depth are evident in its opening words:
You are great, Lord, and highly to be praised: great is your power and your wisdom is immeasurable. Man, a little piece of your creation, desires to praise you, a human being bearing his mortality with him, carrying with him the witness of his sin and the witness that you resist the proud. Nevertheless, to praise you is the desire of man, a little piece of your creation. You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.
More people have probably been drawn to the Christian Faith by St. Augustine’s book than any other story of personal conversion. More recently, John Henry Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua has convinced many English-speaking intellectuals of the truth and beauty of the Catholic faith. Of course, St. Paul’s conversion is considered foundational to the origins of the Church; Luke finds it so important that he relates it on three separate occasions in Acts. And Matthew’s story of his own conversion is perhaps the most personal account found in the four Gospels (Mt 9:9-13). In typical Gospel fashion, the narrative is short and modest, yet it reveals a profound self-understanding and a deep dependence upon Jesus.
The story really begins when the Evangelist, after recounting the core of Jesus’ preaching in the Sermon on the Mount, begins to detail the other pillar of Jesus’ public ministry: healing the sick, the lame, and the possessed. Beginning in Chapter 8 and culminating in the story of the paralytic in 9:1-8, Matthew describes the healing of a leper, the cure of a centurion’s servant, the restoration of Peter’s mother-in-law, and the exorcism of two demoniacs. The disease of the person or method used by Jesus does not matter — the result is the same: instant healing.
But it is the curing of the paralytic that reveals the heart of Jesus’ healing ministry:
And getting into a boat he crossed over and came to his own city. And behold, they brought to him a paralytic, lying on his bed; and when Jesus saw their faith he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” And behold, some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins” — he then said to the paralytic — “Rise, take up your bed and go home.” And he rose and went home. When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men. (Mt 9:1-8)
The priority for Jesus as healer is the healing of the soul from the one disease that can afflict it: sin. The paralytic came looking for physical healing, but like any physician, Jesus looked beyond his patient’s surface problems to focus on the real crisis. By doing so, he could bring complete and total healing for the man, body and soul.
Sin is the most paralyzing force there is. It obstructs our freedom to be children of God. Paul speaks of the “slavery to sin” and the need to be freed through Christ to be a son or daughter of God. Forgiveness is the only medicine that can cure this paralysis; without it, guilt and shame weigh down the conscience, holding it prisoner to regrets and recriminations. Jesus understands this reality. By granting forgiveness to the paralytic, he heals him in a much deeper way than simple physical healing could.
The paralytic himself may not have understood his need. A person going to a doctor may only be aware of symptoms without understanding the underlying cause. A good physician, however, studies the symptoms in order to diagnose and treat the real disease. It would be foolish for the patient to argue with the doctor for not treating the symptoms directly. Likewise, when going to the Lord for healing, it is foolish to reject the medicine he prescribes. It might mean that the suffering present isn’t alleviated, but perhaps that suffering is a path to greater intimacy with Christ, and the Lord doesn’t want it to be removed for that reason. It might be through that suffering that the greatest healing can occur. It is the physician’s decision as to the course of treatment, not the patient’s.
Immediately after the story of the paralytic, Matthew recounts his own calling. This context is important: he has established Jesus as a true healer of body and soul to lay the groundwork for his own transformation.
As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax office; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him. And as he sat at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 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.” (Mt 9:9-13)
Here, Matthew is defending his apostolic call against those who might question a tax collector as one of Christ’s closest collaborators. As a tax collector, Matthew has the most despised of jobs: he not only had to interact with “unclean” peoples, but he also worked for the hated Romans. And if Matthew was like most tax collectors of his time, he collected taxes above the Roman rate in order to line his own pockets. On the Jewish social scale, he was no better than a prostitute — yet Jesus personally called him to be one of his inner circle of followers.
The beauty of this conversion story lies in Matthew’s recognition of his own state — he knows he is a “sinner,” yet he rejoices that his sinfulness has brought forth the great mercy of Christ. Furthermore, he is telling his readers that all who would follow Christ must first recognize their own sinfulness. Christ is not interested in the “righteous” — he wants to call sinners to his table and bring them to salvation.
One of our most common ailments may very well be that we do not see ourselves as one of the sinners, but as the righteous. This is no less true of those in the Church. By outwardly following the precepts of the Church, we may consider ourselves above those who explicitly reject the Church’s teachings, such as those who engage in homosexuality or other sexual immorality. Yet we are no less sinners than they, in need of Christ’s redemption. If a person does not think he is spiritually sick, why go to the Physician of souls? Matthew is trying to remind his readers who they are in the eyes of God: sinners in need of redemption. But God looks at “sinners” in mercy, not judgment; the mercy of a father who was willing to give up his only Son in order to restore his children to health.
The early Church Fathers, especially in the East, were particularly devoted to the image of Jesus as the Divine Physician. Clement of Alexandria writes:
The good Instructor, the Wisdom, the Word of the Father, who made man, cares for the whole nature of His creature; the all-sufficient Physician of humanity, the Saviour, heals both body and soul. “Rise up,” He said to the paralytic; “take the bed on which you lie, and go away home;” and straightway the infirm man received strength. And to the dead He said, “Lazarus, go forth;” and the dead man issued from his coffin such as he was ere he died, having undergone resurrection. Further, He heals the soul itself by precepts and gifts – by precepts indeed, in course of time, but being liberal in His gifts, He says to us sinners, “Your sins be forgiven you.” (The Instructor, Book 1, Chapter 2)
Clement recognizes the unity of the body and soul within each person.
The Church has always had to battle against forces within her that attempt to denigrate the body, or to establish a didactic of body/soul dualism. Christianity, however, is an Incarnational faith. Christ in his Incarnation united his divine Person to a body, and in so doing, redeemed the physical world. Historically, when groups like the Gnostics have tried to disconnect the human person from the body — believing that the body is either unnecessary or inherently evil — two extremes developed: on one side, a total asceticism, and on the other, a libertine attitude. For if the body has no relationship to the soul, what one does with the body becomes isolated from a person’s spiritual development. Yet the Church teaches that man is fundamentally a unity of body and soul, and Jesus, as the Divine Physician, looks to cure both. His healing ministry did not just consist of spiritual healings, although they had priority; he also healed bodily ailments. These two aspects of man, body and soul, must remain in communion in order for man to be truly human.
The actions of the saints throughout the ages witness to this dynamic. Physical healings abound in their biographies, and these healings do not merely point to God’s power in their lives: they are true acts of mercy in which people are freed by the saint’s actions from an affliction that weighs them down. Christ’s physical healings are instances of the mercy of God piercing the world, touching the body to draw the soul closer to him.
Only when we are in harmony with God do we experience true harmony between body and soul. We were created as a body-soul composite, intended to be in union with our Creator, and the union between God and man effects a union within our own being. Thus, sin is the ultimate attack against the natural unity between body and soul, and each sin committed causes great harm to both.
But the Divine Physician, in his great mercy, has given us a remedy to this disease in the sacraments. These seven gifts are the highest reflection of the body/spirit unity that exists in the life of Christ, God made man. Like the Incarnation, each sacrament is a physical reality that God’s presence makes spiritually beneficial. The Fathers saw the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, as the medicine Christ uses to cure the deepest ailments of man. St. Ignatius of Antioch called the Eucharist “the medicine of immortality, and the antidote to prevent us from dying, but [which causes] that we should live for ever in Jesus Christ” (Letter to the Ephesians 10). The Eucharist is the divine food that strengthens us against sin and temptation:
As bodily nourishment restores lost strength, so the Eucharist strengthens our charity, which tends to be weakened in daily life. (CCC 1394)
The other sacraments also heal the disunity caused by sin. Baptism removes all sin and gives new life to its recipient. Confession repairs the harm sin causes and restores the soul to health. And through the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, the Divine Physician gives his patients the grace to accept their injuries and afflictions. Although Jesus no longer walks the earth as he did in first-century Palestine, he has left his Church with his healing medicine to cure and heal each person of the infirmities that afflict him.
We all seek healing for our afflictions, spiritual and physical, and Matthew’s encounter with Christ is a model for meeting the Divine Physician. Recognizing the need for healing, the Christian places himself in the hands of the merciful Lord. The prayer of the ancient Divine Liturgy of the Holy Apostle and Evangelist Mark beautifully reflects the disposition each Christian should have toward Christ:
But do Thou, O Lord, the physician of our souls and bodies, the guardian of all flesh, look down, and by Thy saving power heal all the diseases of soul and body.
Eric Sammons, a former Evangelical, entered the Catholic Church in 1993. He is the father of seven children and author of seven books, including The Old Evangelization: How to Spread the Faith Like Jesus Did.