The Hospital for Sinners

"The Church is not a museum for saints, but a hospital for sinners." This is a saying that has been floating around for many decades, but nobody is exactly sure who said it. The advice columnist Abigail van Buren used it once, but it is unlikely that it is her own original saying. Many have speculated that the phrase may have originated from either St. Augustine or St. John Chrysostom.

Whoever said it first, the idea behind this phrase is deeply Orthodox. The Church is a place where we come not in order to celebrate our own spiritual health, but to receive spiritual healing from our Lord Jesus Christ. The Church is not a place that is only for those who are already perfect, but is a place that is here for all of us sinners who are still somewhere on the journey of healing. Another quote often attributed to St. John Chrysostom gives a similar lesson: "Enter into the Church and wash away your sins. For here there is a hospital and not a court of law. Do not be ashamed again to enter the Church. Be ashamed when you sin, but not when you repent."

In today's Epistle reading, St. Paul tells us that even the worst sinner in all of creation receives mercy from our Lord Jesus Christ. It is for the sake of sinners, and even the worst of sinners, that Jesus Christ came into the world. Jesus himself tells us as much in the Gospels: "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have come not to call the righteous, but sinners," (Matt. 9:12-13). Jesus Christ did not come to bring reward to the righteous and judgment to the sinner, but in order to save, rescue, and heal us sinners.

In our Church, we pray one phrase more than any other: "Lord, have mercy," "Κύριε, ελεήσον." In asking for mercy, we confess that we are on the road to healing, and not yet fully healed. The saints, it should be said, were also sinners. The saints were sinners who lived every day in repentance, and saw clearly that they were in need of more and more mercy and healing every day. The saints had a much clearer sense of their own sinfulness than we do, which is why St. Paul tells us "I am the foremost of sinners," (1 Tim. 1:15). This clear sense of their own sinfulness is what allowed them to have a repentance that was deeper than the depth of their sins.

This phrase "Κύριε, ελεήσον" has a meaning hidden in it. Ελεήσον comes from the Greek word έλαιον, meaning oil. In ancient times, oil was used as an ointment that was essential to the healing process. When the 'Good Samaritan' sees the man beaten down on the side of the road, Scripture tells us that "he went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine [ἐπιχέων ἔλαιον καὶ οἶνον]," (Luke 10:34). When we ask God for mercy—for έλεος—we are asking him to heal us from all that afflicts us. We are asking him especially to heal us from our own sinfulness.

The blind man in today's Gospel reading sees clearly his own need for healing, and he cries out to our Lord: "Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me," "Ἰησοῦ, υἱὲ Δαυῒδ, ἐλέησόν με," (Luke 18:38). Because he asked Jesus for mercy, Jesus showed him mercy. His eyes are opened, he receives his sight, and Jesus tells him clearly the significance of his healing: "ἡ πίστις σου σέσωκέ σε," "your faith has saved you," (Luke 18:42).

Let us not be ashamed to come to God with a repentant heart and a prayer for mercy. Jesus Christ hears our prayer for mercy, and he responds by showing us mercy. As we are all sinners on the path to wellness, let us take up with joy the lifestyle of prayer and repentance that leads to our spiritual health. Let us not be ashamed that we are not already perfect, but let us be bold in our repentance, because:

"Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. And I am the foremost of sinners; but I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience for an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life," (1 Tim. 1:15-16).