Lo, I stand at the door and hack
by Patrick Lafferty
Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.
In 1492, while Columbus was sailing the ocean blue, two families in Ireland—both the beneficiaries of the peerage system of land and title—were embroiled in a violent conflict over power. The Butlers, of the Earldom of Ormond, and the FitzGeralds, of the Earldom of Kildare, had let their longstanding feud give way to a smaller, Irish version of the War of the Roses.
At the height of the murderous feud, Jack Butler, a nephew of the Earl of Ormond, took refuge in the chapter house of St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin. He and his men were then surrounded by a contingent of FitzGerald soldiers. So much blood had been spilled already that Gerald FitzGerald, the premier earl of the clan, came to the cathedral overwrought by the madness of the conflict. He came not to smoke Butler out, but to press for peace.
FitzGerald called through the door of the chapter house for Butler to come out to discuss a truce. Sensing a ploy, Butler refused. There in the sacred space among bloodthirsty men, an impasse–until FitzGerald made a most astounding move.
He called for one of his men to chop a hole in the door dividing the two contingents. But rather than launch an assault he instead thrust his own arm—unprotected and unarmed—through the splintered opening. He extended his open hand, exposing his very body to whatever defensive or opportunistic measures Butler's men might inflict, in order to underscore his desire for peace and to validate the integrity of his offer. He knew what he might lose in offering his arm but the peace he sought was worth the risk.
The English have a saying about taking a risk for an unlikely outcome: "chancing one's arm." Ascribing the inspiration for the phrase to this dramatic moment in Irish history is more forced than found, but what happened at that door—now preserved in all its ruined glory in St. Patrick's Cathedral—could not illustrate the adage more vividly.
That Jesus understands Himself in part as a physician means that what we suffer from is something akin to an affliction—an inward, chronic, and festering condition, just as Mark reminded us last Sunday. But while the affliction has manifold consequences for life, the affliction's ultimate etiology—physicians' preferred word for cause—is found in an estrangement from God.
The sickness of those with whom Jesus reclined and who ate at table—bedside manner of the highest caliber—manifested in all sorts of mendacity, indulgence, and illicitness—the kind of behavior that got you labeled as sinner. But while each sinner played their unique riff on sin, they all riffed on a common theme: God was not to be trusted. Their sins were simply a symptom of their estrangement. A sickness, as Jesus characterizes it, that could only be remedied through a reconciliation.
And so, if you will, Jesus chanced His arm. To those who had defiantly shut the door of their hearts to God, Jesus, in His seeking and sitting with sinners—in His dining with and dying for sinners—hacked a hole through their intractable efforts to insulate them from God. And with a hand outstretched on a cross He thrust forward His promise of reconciliation, validating His desire and will for peace. He risked all to bring peace on earth, good will toward men with whom God is pleased.
He came to heal sinners by first and foremost healing what existed between them and God. But as the passage emphasizes, Jesus came to reveal the sickness of those who think they're well so that they might find a true wellness—a true righteousness—that loves those who are sinfully sick. His reconciliation is His remedy, a reconciliation between ourselves and God that then finds an almost genetic disposition toward longing to see that same reconciliation occur among others.
The extent to which we share the inclination of the scribes—the inclination that would prefer to wall up or burn down the door behind which those estranged from God hide—is the extent to which we have become insensible to our own versions of estrangement. Our anxieties and fits of anger, our failures to love and be thankful, our callous disregard for the needs right under our nose—they all point to our original malady to which Jesus applied the balm of reconciliation. That Jesus' chanced arm refuses to recoil when our hearts fail—He sympathizes with our weaknesses! (Hebrews 4:15)—is supreme evidence of steadfast love. On what basis can we withhold such?
What of you remains hidden behind a door, suspicious of the offer of reconciliation and peace? And notwithstanding the sinfulness of sin (Romans 7:13), from whom have you withheld love thinking their sinfulness warrants it?
He chanced His arm to bring us peace that we might chance ourselves in kind.