A few years ago I was sitting in my favorite Vietnamese restaurant having what is one of my favorite meals. I had been there often enough that the owner recognized me, and since there was no one else in the restaurant she started a conversation with me. She pointed at a book I had laying on the table beside me and said, “Are you a student?”
I told her I wasn’t, and she said, “Oh, you look so young. I thought you were a student!”
“I’m about 10 years out of my Master’s degree...so I’m not so young,” I said.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “I’m sorry for the mistake. I assured her it was a mistake I didn’t mind her making. Then she asked, “What do you do?”
“I’m a pastor.”
“You don’t look like a pastor!” she said. “You don’t look like any pastor I have ever seen!”
After a few more minutes of saying, “Yes, I’m a pastor.” She finally said, “I can’t believe you are a pastor. You are proof Jesus looks at the heart.”
I wasn’t sure how to take that last statement...a compliment...maybe?
Do you know what I like most about Jesus? I like that that lady is right. Jesus looks at the heart. He cares for everybody. In fact, our passage today is a great illustration of how Jesus’ mission included reaching everyone...even those whom people hated or thought were beyond God’s ability to reach.
Let’s read Mark 2:13-17
13 Once again Jesus went out beside the lake. A large crowd came to him, and he began to teach them. 14 As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him.
15 While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. 16 When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
17 On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Have you ever noticed there are people whom you just don’t like to be around? Maybe it is a group of people you find unbearable? Most people won’t admit it openly, but there are some groups we would just rather not be around. Maybe it’s the members of that OTHER political party or that other nationality or that think that way or who dress that way or come from that area. For the Pharisees in Jesus day the people they despised went by a simple and clear label that fully explained why you should stay away from them. They were called, “tax collectors and sinners.”
These were the people whom good Jewish boys and girls were to stay as far away from as they could.
Tax collectors were Jewish men who had sided with the Romans...traitors...who collected taxes from their fellow Jews. They were despised because they regularly hung around with Gentiles, they worked for the Romans, and they were notoriously dishonest. In the Mishnah and Babylonian Talmud, two of the religious documents of early Judaism, tax collecting was listed as a “despised trade;” meaning you could not worship God as a Jew and work in this field.
The other group lumped in here are called “sinners.” These are the people that don’t fit with decent society and will not obey the religious standards of the day. They were often immoral and refused to obey the ritual laws the religious leaders had established. Sometimes, though, they were people who because of their poverty or a disease were seen as unclean and not allowed to participate with the rest of decent society.
The Pharisees believed a person became ritually as well as morally defiled by spending any time with these people...so they avoided them and forbid others to spend time with them. These tax collectors and sinners were banned from the Temple; which was the only place they could be in the presence of God. These men and women labeled as “tax collectors and sinners” were outcasts and rejected. The tax collectors were rejected for political and ethical reasons, and the sinners for religious and moral reasons.
So when the Pharisees see this massive dinner party, and Jesus reclining at the table with tax collectors and sinners they are appalled. here is Jesus is reclining at the dinner table with these people, and everyone knew dinner was not just dinner in this culture. In today’s culture we will have dinner with just about anyone, but not so in Jesus day. Dinner was a special time reserved for friends, family, and respectable people.
One scholar, Jeremias, says,
“[Eating with these people] was an offer of peace, trust, brotherhood and forgiveness; in short, sharing a table meant sharing life.”This only further demonstrates to the Pharisees that Jesus is not worthy to be a religious teacher. How could he, if he had any understanding of God, sit at a table with these people knowing what they were like? He had to know their lifestyle. No self-respecting rabbi in Judaism would lower himself to be near these people, much-less eat with them.
Jesus is dangerous simply by his presence at a dinner table because he is declaring to the world God loves these people whom others consider outcasts and rejects. He loves them just as much they thought he loved the “respectable people.”
But not only is Jesus eating with the tax collectors and sinners, he is even willing to call them to be His disciple. Mark 2:14 says, “As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him.” Mark uses the exact same Greek structuring for this passage where Jesus called Levi, the tax collector, to follow Him as he does when Jesus calls Peter, Andrew, James, and John the chapter before. So not only is Jesus willing to eat with them, but he is willing to have them follow him as disciples too.
The Pharisees couldn’t restrain themselves any longer. They approach the disciples and ask, “Do you really want to follow someone like this? Someone who would allow these kind of people to follow Him? Someone who would eat with these kinds of people?”
We too have to ask, “What is it that caused Jesus to associate with these kinds of people? Why would he accept and eat with the people others are rejecting and turning from?”
It is because of the amazing, wonderful, scandalous thing known as grace. Mark 2:17 says, “Jesus said to [the pharisees], ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.’”
You see Jesus didn’t come to call healthy people to himself...because healthy people don’t need a doctor. And those who think they are healthy can’t follow him because they think they already have things figured out. Jesus calls to those of us who recognize we don’t have it all together.
Many of us have had the experience in the church where people have put on a facade, a mask to the world around them that says, “I have it all together, and you should too!” and we know they don’t. But here we see Jesus saying, “Just when you think you have it all together...you don’t!”
We don’t have it all together. We are broken, hurting, scarred people who need God’s grace and salvation just like everyone else.
Levi recognized this while sitting at his desk. He was despised and rejected, and if he fit the typical understanding of a tax collector, he was a cheat and liar. He regularly charged people more than they actually owed to line his own pockets. So when this rabbi Jesus simply says, “Follow me,” he gets up from his table and follows Him. Something happens in that moment, and Levi recognizes that his old way of life is empty and leading nowhere. He gets up from his table, and steps into this wonderful thing known as grace.
A grace so amazing, Levi couldn’t stop with just receiving it...he calls all his friends together because he wants them to experience this wonderful thing he has experienced! He wants all of his friends to meet Jesus because here is a man who is willing to hang out with tax collectors and sinners. Jesus opened the door for these men and women, outcasts and rejects, to be in the presence of God.
One of my favorite verses is Hebrews 1:3, “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.” What that verse means is that if we want to know what God is like, how God would act, and what God would do in our world...all we have to do is look at Jesus. And here in this passage we see Jesus caring for those who are on the “outside.”
Our world has its own version of those who are on the outside...the tax collectors and sinners...those people whom the upstanding members of the church wouldn’t be caught dead with...and Jesus reminds us that he wouldn’t be having dinner at our house if he were here today...he would have dinner with THOSE people...
Anne Lamott in her book Traveling Mercies reminds us, “You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” Far too often the church creates a “list,” not a literal list, but an understanding of who good Christians should and should not hang around...and Jesus challenges our religiosity by reminding us, “I came for everyone!”
Welcoming today’s tax collectors and sinners into our gathering means church should be a messy place filled with imperfect people...because God is still working in people’s lives.
There was a young college student named Bill. He had wild hair, torn jeans, flip-flops, a Marilyn Manson T-shirt, but he had just recently become interested in Jesus Christ.
One Sunday he decided to go to church some place other than the college small group he had been hanging around; so he goes to the church across the street from campus. It was a conservative church with well-dressed and respectable people.
Picture the scene as Bill enters. He is wearing flip-flops, torn jeans, T-shirt, and sporting that wild hair. The service has already started, so Bill makes his way down the aisle looking for a seat. The pews are full, so he keeps walking. By now, people are a bit uncomfortable, but no one says anything. He continues looking for a seat, but finds only confused and uncomfortable gazes. When he realizes there are no seats, he simply squats down on the floor at the front. In the small group at his college fellowship this is perfectly acceptable, but no one had ever done it at this church.
The people became nervous, and you could cut the tension in the room with a knife. Just then a deacon gets up from his seat and walks slowly toward Bill. This deacon is in his eighties, and is wearing a three piece suit. He is known as a dignified and godly man. As he approaches Bill some people are thinking to themselves, “You can’t blame him for what he’s going to do. We can’t just let people come to church dressed however they want and sit on the floor like that!”
Silence fell over the church, and everyone’s eyes are on this deacon. When he reaches Bill the man drops his cane to the floor, and with a quite a bit of trouble and grunting he gets down on the floor next to Bill and just sits there.
When the pastor regained the ability to speak, he said, “What I am about to preach you may never remember, but what you have just seen I hope you never forget.”
About part way through that story...I bet you thought you knew what was going to happen didn’t you? As I read that story for the first time, I know what I thought was going to happen. I thought the deacon was going to ask the young man to find a more appropriate seat or, worse, ask him to leave. I don’t know if the story is true or not, but I certainly hope it is...I hope it is true, if not in fact, then in principle. That no matter how cleaned up we think we are...we are willing to say to people, “Come as you are you will be loved!”
Our vision as a church is to be a place that welcomes everyone on the journey of faith...that invites people to seek out this scandalous grace of God that is willing to associate with tax collectors and sinners...and with us. Our mission as a church is to help people take their next step closer to God...we say that because everyone of us has a next step...none of, if we are honest with ourselves, has it all together. And only when we realize just how much we need Jesus are we able to hear Him say, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” and then realize that he means you and me...that we are the ones who are sick...we are the sinners who need God’s grace.
For more information about Crossroads Vineyard Church in Huber Heights, Ohio check us out online at www.daytoncrossroads.com or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/daytoncrossroads