What is your test for deciding who you will and will not hang out with?
Don’t pretend that you don’t have one. We all do. It’s part of our nature. How can I say such a thing?
Well, let me make a view observations, and let’s see if you have ever seen or done these things.
Have you ever been in a store just walking up and down the aisles and seen someone you know but don’t want to talk to, and then started looking absentmindedly at all the items on the shelf–hoping that the other person won’t notice you–or if they do see that you are obviously engrossed and not able to talk? Ever done that one?
Have you ever purposely skipped a party, church, or social gathering because someone you know might be invited or come to that same event?
Have you refused to purchase a red and white shirt or a gold and black shirt because of the proximity to a certain town?
Here’s one that I used to do at my previous congregation. Every month we did nursing home services, and there was one particular resident who I did not care to visit with. Every time we went in to give her communion, she would go through a laundry list of everything that was wrong with her. One time, she even showed me pictures they took during her colonoscopy. After several months of this, I would approach her room on padded feet; I would crack open the door ever so slightly in hopes that she was asleep; I would do it as silently as possible because if even the slightest squeak happened, this lady would wake up and see me. If I managed to crack the door and see that she was asleep, I would happily walk on to the next church member. Hence a revelation of one of my tests as to whether or not I want to hang out with someone: I don’t like someone who constantly seeks attention by talking about how bad they have it.
But, as bad as that might sound, I’ve also been on the receiving end of such tests. Years ago, when I was a senior in seminary, I preached at a little country church in Rosebud, TX. It just so happened that one Sunday, they were having a pot luck, and my wife and I were asked to join. We were also invited, as guests, to head to the front of the line. We did, and we sat down at one of the tables there. Interestingly enough, all of the other tables filled up first, and then the table at which Dawna and I sat started to fill up. However, it filled up at the place farthest from us first, until the folks who went through the pot-luck line last ended up taking the seats closest to us. We were definitely the outsiders there.
And the question becomes, do you ever get from being an outsider to an insider? In some places, the answer is unequivocally no. I remember being at Crossroads one day a couple of years ago sitting and shooting the breeze with Bonnie and some of the customers. I was listening to a conversation behind me where one of the old timers from here made the comment about another person, “I don’t know why he thinks he has any say around here. He’s only lived here for 25 years.” You know, I had heard that such things were said in some places, but that was actually the first time I had ever heard it.
What is normally behind such comments is–you are not like me. Between you and me are certain social norms, and unless those norms are removed–in other words, unless you become like me, then we cannot be considered on an equal plane. At the extreme, these divisions can cause all kinds of conflict. The media highlights those extremes: Republicans versus Democrats; male versus female; black versus white; homosexual versus heterosexual; liberal versus conservative; rich versus poor. And in the extremes of these movements, you are not welcome if you share another view. In fact, oftentimes you are escorted out of the room; out of the venue; shouted down; even threatened with violence.
The question fast becomes: can we ever achieve some semblance of a peaceful and respectful society if we hold onto such divisions? Can we make place for the other if we become so entrenched in our own positions that we avoid people because they do not live up to our standards?
Let’s see what the Gospel has to say to this as we look at this next story from the book of Mark chapter 2.
This text begins with Jesus moving out from the house in Capernaum where he had just established that He had the power to forgive sins, and teaching crowds by the Sea of Galilee. As Jesus travels, He comes across Levi sitting in his tax booth–now, the actual word in Greek is toll booth. While traveling from one part of the country into another, there were certain tolls that needed to be paid much like the tolls we pay on toll roads today. There were no electronic passes that you put on your car to drive back then, and the toll system was set up in quite a different way. You see, to get a job monitoring a toll booth, you told the government how much revenue you would provide for them. The government granted you the job based upon how much you said you could make for them. Then, not only would you charge enough to pay the government back, you would also tack on your own fees to pad your own bank account. This led to a system which was ripe with fraud, and toll collectors were absolutely despised.
How much were they despised? Let me quote to you Mark Edwards in his commentary. I personally think this is priceless, “The Mishna and Talmud [Two commentaries on the first five books of the Bible–...register scathing judgements of tax collectors, lumping them together with thieves and murderers. A Jew who collected taxes was disqualified as a judge or witness in court, expelled from the synagogue, and a cause of disgrace to his family. The touch of a tax collector rendered a house unclean. Jews were forbidden to receive money and even alms from tax collectors since revenue from taxes was deemed robbery.”
How would you like that job? Most of us might not appreciate the social stigma associated with such a job, but these jobs were actually in high demand because it was a quick and easy way to get rich. Levi had such a job, and was probably doing quite well. Though despised by many in society, he was well off, so it is actually quite surprising that when Jesus said, “Follow me,” Levi simply got up and went.
What makes this so surprising is the fact that Levi has a government job. You see, Simon, Andrew, James and John could always go back to fishing if following Jesus doesn’t work out. Levi will not be able to return to his. Someone else will take the position, so Levi is giving up quite a bit to follow Jesus. But he is going to go out with a bang.
The scene quickly shifts to a dinner celebration where Levi and his associates have joined Jesus and the disciples. As they feast together, the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax-collectors, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does he eat with tax-collectors and sinners?’
The scribes of the Pharisees are very much put off by what they see. Jesus has made a name for himself proclaiming the nearness of the kingdom of God; He has healed the sick; and He has shown authority to forgive sins. Why in the world would he associate with toll collectors and others who were considered sinners?
Robert Guelich says it very well when he writes:
From the standpoint of the Pharisees, Jesus was doing that which was ritually defiling through disregard for the laws concerning table fellowship and clean and unclean foods. Neusner has pointed out the importance of those concerns among the Pharisees before A.D. 70. Part of the concern grows out of fear that one not only will be ritually defiled but also be morally contaminated by such company. Eating with someone had special connotations. “It was an offer of peace, trust, brotherhood and forgiveness; in short, sharing a table meant sharing life.” Eating together created a special bond or fellowship through the eating of the broken bread over which the host had spoken the blessing. Therefore, guests were selected very carefully.
In the scribes’ eyes, Jesus was not being selective enough about who he kept company with. Jesus was defiling Himself by being around those who were corrupt, deceitful, sinful. They were scandalized by what they saw Jesus doing.
Jesus retorts with a common saying nearly everyone agreed upon, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” This is actually a profound statement of Jesus’ purpose as the Messiah. It’s a profound statement about the Kingdom of God.
First, let me quote William Lane as he adds an important detail about what Jesus was doing, “The expression used in Ch. 2:15, “they reclined at table together with Jesus,” suggests that Jesus–the Messiah–and not Levi, was the host at this festive meal. When this is understood, the interest of the entire pericope centers on the significance of Messiah eating with sinners. The specific reference in verse 17 to Jesus’ call of sinners to the Kingdom suggests that the basis of table-fellowship was messianic forgiveness, and the meal itself was an anticipation of the messianic banquet. When Jesus broke bread with the outcasts, Messiah ate with them at his table and extended to them fellowship with God.”
The Messiah was extending fellowship with God toward tax collectors and sinners. However, this in and of itself wasn’t a huge deal. Most Jews agreed that God wanted fellowship with sinners. God wanted sinners to follow Him. That wasn’t an issue, but something else really was. And what was that something else?
We return to what Mark Edwards says in this extended quote:
But what exactly was it about Jesus’ association with such people that offended them?... Their opposition is the more explainable on the ground that reform was not the fundamental assumption of Jesus’ ministry, as it had been for John the Baptizer, for instance. There is no word in the call to Levi and in the dinner with sinners about repentance. Repentance, in fact, is curiously absent from Jesus’ proclamation in Mark. The scandal of this story is that Jesus does not make moral repentance a precondition of his love and acceptance. Rather, Jesus loves and accepts tax collectors and sinners as they are. If they forsake their evil and amend their lives, they do so...not in order to gain Jesus’ favor but because Jesus has loved them as sinners...The fact that Jesus can be found in the company of people such as Levi reminds us of the difference between his mission and that of the scribes. They come to enlighten; he comes to redeem. Given that mission, it is as senseless for Jesus to shun tax collectors and sinners as for a doctor to shun the sick. The grace of God extends to and overcomes the worst forms of human depravity.
Do you see the radical nature of God’s grace here? Do you see the radical nature of what Jesus does here? Do you see how this flies in the face of what we normally practice when it comes to our associations with others? The scribes and the Pharisees would not associate with you until you cleaned up your act. It was assumed that God would not associate with you until you cleaned up your act. It is assumed by many of us that we will not associate with another until they agree with us. But Jesus does the exact opposite. He sits down in fellowship with unrepentant sinners; calls them into a relationship with Him; and then watches the transformation occur. It’s completely and totally backwards according to the world’s standards.
But in reality it is the only way God can have fellowship with us. For there is no way we can completely clean up our act. The scribes and the Pharisees show this in their own self-righteousness. They believe that people can cure themselves. They believe that people can become righteous before God on their own. And because righteousness–to them–is a self-help project, they hold others in contempt. And when you hold someone else in contempt, are you practicing genuine love and compassion?
If our relationship with God is up to us, then we will inevitably become self-righteous. But if our relationship is dependent solely upon God’s grace, then no one is allowed to boast. No one has the right to be contemptuous. No one has the right to shun another because that other fails to live up to certain expectations. You don’t live up to those expectations either!! The scribes need Jesus just as much as those toll collectors and sinners need Jesus!! Oh, and we know that Jesus will also dine with those scribes and Pharisees in His ministry. Jesus will fellowship with them as He held fellowship with Levi and the other toll collectors and sinners. God’s grace is to be extended to all. And our sinfulness will indeed rub off on Jesus. He will become tainted with our hatred, our self-righteousness, our discontent, our desire to draw lines and avoid people who do not agree with us. He will take all of these things upon Himself and put them to death with Him on the cross. He will become sin who knew no sin so that we can be forgiven. It is He who hosts the heavenly banquet; who welcomes all not based upon what we do but based upon what He has done.
And when you realize that you are at the banquet not because of who you are but in spite of who you are...
When you realize that your place at the table was not earned by you but given to you...
When you realize that Jesus has invited others who are not like you; who desperately need His love just like you need His love...
You realize that the heavenly banquet is made up of people who are not like you, and you have the opportunity to show a different reality “on earth as it is in heaven.” You realize that the love of God in Jesus Christ provides a tremendous basis and foundation to overcome differences that arise. You and the other are both sinners; Jesus has sought both of you out; and Jesus has redeemed you both through His death on the cross which revealed the nature of the God who so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him.
If you focus on what God has done for you and for those who are not like you, then you will not shun the other; you will have compassion and understanding, and you will work toward peace. Amen.