May 20th Mark 2b “Jesus Loves Society’s Rejects”

A reminder:  There will be parking lot worship at 10 am on Sunday.  On Monday, the Waconia American Legion will be leading a brief service in our cemetery at 9:30 am.

Dear Sisters and Brothers,

Most cultures consider traitors to be the worst people.  In countries that have been conquered, collaboration with the enemy is seen as betraying your homeland.  Palestine was a territory of the Roman Empire and the tax collectors (for the Roman government) were well paid and protected, but they were hated by their respectable neighbors.  Apparently, they socialized with other people who had no social standing (like prostitutes and petty criminals).  Today’s passage follows Jesus in his encounter with a tax collector named Levi.

Once again Jesus went out beside the lake (the Sea of Galilee, which is a freshwater lake). A large crowd came to him, and he began to teach them.   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.

So, Jesus treats this tax collector (also called a “publican”) the same as he did the fishermen.  As the fishermen left boat and net, Levi abandon’s his tax collector’s table.  It is remarkable behavior, but  Levi is committed to Jesus very quickly.

There is some uncertainty about Levi’s identity.  His father’s name, Alphaeus, is said for one of two reasons.  Either it is to distinguish him from another man named Levi in the larger company of followers, or it is because Alphaeus was a person that Mark and his readers knew.  The uncertainty comes in when you realize that the gospel of Matthew tells a very similar story of a tax collector called to follow Jesus, but it is Matthew himself who is the tax collector. Is Matthew another name for Levi or are they two tax collectors that were called in the same way?  We aren’t sure, but the main point is that Levi is a tax collector.

We are not told about an invitation, but Jesus and his disciples end up at Levi’s house for dinner.  In a world where food was hard to come by, tax collectors could be counted on to feed you if you befriended them, but at the expense of your reputation.

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.  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?”

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.”

Again, Jesus is judged by respectable people for not living up to their expectations.  They assume that by eating at the tax collector’s house Jesus has lowered himself, but instead his presence raises the spirits of poor and oppressed people.

All around the world, there are cultures that consider sharing a meal to be an intimate thing that shows mutual affection and respect.  To “sit at table with someone” was a symbolic way to demonstrate that you are family to each other.  Later on, that is one of the basic meanings of the practice of sharing communion.

It should be said that people became tax collectors as a last resort to keep themselves and their families fed, clothed, and housed.   It was not a job that you aspired to unless you were a social outcast or at your wit’s end.  Like the women who lived in the degrading role of prostitutes, it was mostly a sign of desperation forced upon them.  People grudgingly paid their taxes, and someone had to do it, but they hated the tax collectors and thought of them as traitors.

When hearing his critic’s disgust, Jesus says, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Jesus had (and has) a deep love for people who had suffered through their lives.  These outcasts had the advantage of being honest with themselves about their own brokenness.  The Pharisees, Scribes, and other respectable men were not willing to speak of their own brokenness.  Then, as it is today, public figures would always deny wrong-doing to prevent their opponents from having ammunition against them.  There was so much deceit and self-righteousness that we primarily seen the Pharisees and others as being hypocrites who pretended to be completely righteous.

The approach Jesus will take is that all people are bound to sin and need God’s mercy.  When confronted with self-righteous people, Jesus points out their hypocrisy.  Many times, Jesus makes it clear that no-one is free from sin that is pushing them away from God.  There is no one who is able to enter God’s kingdom without God’s intervention and mercy.  Instead of making the divine law easier for people to follow, he lets people know that the law is harsher than they expect.  You can’t stay a clean piece of fabric in a world of mud.  Staying free of sin is like a fish trying to be dry.  Salvation comes to us because God loves us as if we were still helpless infants, who still need to be feed, washed, and changed.   This will become clear as we make our way through this Gospel.  If Jesus is to be seen as a doctor, it would be good to picture him as working in the Emergency Room or even as a doctor who arrives with an ambulance.

Questions To Ponder: Instead of the self-righteousness that we are sometimes tempted to pretend, how would Jesus want us to behave?  And do we show enough love for society’s rejects?  And are we wary enough of people who claim to be righteous?

Blessings,

Pastor Rick