Have you ever been somewhere that you felt out of place? Like you don’t quite belong where you are. That is an unpleasant feeling. It might makes you feel that you are unwanted there, that you are somewhere you shouldn’t be. It might even make you feel threatened. Maybe you are at a sports tryout and you don’t know anyone there. You don’t know the gym. The coaches are strangers. You see people that obviously know each other and are laughing, but you are all alone: left out, excluded and unaccepted. You sit wondering if you are good enough to be there, or maybe if you smell funny or have the wrong clothes on. It is hard not being accepted.
Have you ever been on the other side of that. Where you are the one on the home turf. It’s your building, you know everyone there, they are your friends, and then you see someone who doesn’t quite fit the mold of the others. They are alone, by themselves, maybe they don’t seem to have the athletic level to be there, or perhaps they are not quite the economic level to be there. What do you do? Do you move toward them to help or do you just remain as is.
The place I felt this the most was when I first went to a Bible believing/gospel preaching church at the age of 18. I had been to church a handful of times before that. The churches I went to were largely dead. It didn’t seem like anyone there particularly cared about the sermons and nor were they looking for something to live for God. They were there out of sheer duty. Church was just something to get out of the way so you could get on with life.
But in college I went to a church that people knew the words to songs, they were living out their faith, they really believed this stuff, and it made me feel awkward. I was into the party scene and living it up. I knew those things were wrong so as I sat there, I was scared what people might think of me. I was scared they might find out who I really was and not want me there. I didn’t know how to enter their conversations or what to talk about. I was intrigued by Christianity but wanted to learn from a distance, and frankly that’s the only way I thought I could learn. I sat quietly in my chair waiting for service start and all the sudden some guy did the unthinkable. He stood up, held his hand out to me, and with a big smile on his face introduce his name and asked me where I was from. I politely answered and then thinking I was done with the interrogation started to sit down, and that is when he had the nerve to start introducing me to the other people sitting nearby.
This blew me away. That day I made a bunch of new friends. I felt included in what was going on at church I didn’t think I should have even been allowed to enter.
I hope that we will be a church that people come to and are welcomed inside. That’s part of my story. It might be part of your story. But more than reminisce I want to make sure we have the right motivation for it. Do you have any motivation to go to those who are not like you?
We are in a Christmas series that is studying passages where Jesus tells why he came. Todays passages shows Jesus came not for the righteous but for sinners. I hope it inspires us to reach others, but even more I hope it makes us utterly and completely captivated by the love of God, because that love is the greatest motivation. This passage is about inclusion and acceptance.
And it shows is that Jesus came to call sinners, and this moves us to also reach sinners.
Let’s read Mark 2:13-17.
Jesus comes on the scene here, and he is calling people to follow him. He isn’t calling people to watch a football game, go shopping, or give a donation. He is calling people into his kingdom, into the presence of God.
Mark begins his gospel by quoting the prophecy of Isaiah who predicted the coming Messiah and his coming kingdom. He is saying Jesus is that messiah. In Mark 1:15 Jesus begins his ministry saying, “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the good news.” Jesus is the one bringing the kingdom of God and the kingdom of God is the reign and rule of God. Jesus is making a way for people to enter into the presence of God.
All that has been lost in the world Jesus is bringing back, all that has been broken he is restoring. This is seen as sick people are healed, the blind receive sight, lepers are cleansed of their disease, paralytics walk. The kingdom of God is coming. People are experiencing its in-breaking. Jesus even forgives sins (2:10). This is what he is proclaiming, and what he is calling and inviting people to.
The next question to this incredible news is who will receive it? Who will receive God’s kingdom? Who will be accepted and allowed in? Who do you think would be a good fit for it. The rich people, the leaders of the community, religious elite?
Jesus does the unthinkable in this passage. He tells a tax collector to follow him. He invites him into his school! If you are a teacher it’s important who you teach. Can’t build a university on a bunch of failures. If you are a teacher and want to build a school you want to put on display some of the finest people in society. That’s not what Jesus does here.
When you think of a tax collector you might think of an accountant. A guy who wears khakis, a sweater, glasses, and shows up to work at a law firm or a place called the IRS. He is a respectable person in society. That is not what a tax collector was in Jesus day.
Tax collecting in Rome was more like the mafia than the IRS, an organized crime. Tax collectors were in charge of gathering the money citizens of Rome were obligated to pay.
Rome codified what percentage to collect on various items, but they would let the tax collectors keep whatever they could gain above that percent. Tax collectors would go after Rome’s portion and also theirs. They would demand whatever they could get, and people would have to pay. Their dishonesty, use of intimidation and even force, and contact with Gentiles made them the lowest rung of people.
There was also a tiered structure to tax collecting, like multi-level marketing. The big dogs in the tax scheme would also have lived up high in the town, far away from the people they took from. They let the lower rung tax collectors do the dirty work and deal with and face the people. Levi would have been one of those lower rung collectors. He is in the tax booth. He is one who deals with the people. He is the lowest of the low.
Levi would have been a disliked person in the community. But another thing about him is that he is Jewish, and he is collecting tax for the Roman’s. He would have been seen as a sellout to his nation, and even to God.
The words tax collector and sinners are combined here. These terms are used together in many places, they are virtually synonymous. Sinners those live in opposition to the divine will.
The men of Sodom were called wicked and great sinners (Gen 13:13). Psalm 1:5 says “the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; (Psa 1:5). Isaiah 1:28 says, “But rebels and sinners shall be broken together, and those who forsake the LORD shall be consumed.”
These are the most disreputable types of people in society. “Sinners” would have provoked objection and demonstrate how unwelcome the tax collectors were to the Pharisees.
These were not just the last ones you would think to see at church, they were actually the ones banned from the service. And Jesus calls them to himself. He tells Levi to follow him, and Levi does it!
But the action that cause such a stir from other people, it wasn’t just that Jesus called these people to follow him. Thats not the problem. The Scribes of the pharisees, the ones trained in law and precision, raise questions. They didn’t object to the conversion of sinners. Certainly everyone would rejoice at a “sinner” who had repented of his ways. That is not the issue. Even the most uptight religious person should give thanks for that. But what caused such a stir is… “he eats with them!”. He was in their house! He is having dinner. He is even reclining with them. No problem with them being converted, but why ya eat’n with them??
Jesus changes who we relate to and how we relate with them. It’s similar to when Paul said he didn’t just share the gospel with people but he shared his very life (1 Thess ). It not problem to share a few words with someone, maybe drop off some food, but to be friends with them!? To invite them into your life??
Jesus explanation for his action is profound. He says he didn’t come for the righteous but for sinners.
An exiled Spartan king named Pausanias was once asked why he left Sparta for Tegea despite his good opinion of the Spartans. He said, “It is not the custom of doctors to spend their time with the healthy but where people are ill.” The philosopher Diogenes said that “as a doctor must go among the sick so a wise man must mix with fools.” It is ridiculous to imagine a doctor who refuses to be with sick people; any effective ‘healer’ must expect to get his hands dirty.
Have you ever met a doctor that wanted to heal people but wasn’t willing to be around sick people? If you have a cure for people do you keep it to yourself? No, you go to the people who can benefit from your work. Jesus came to those who needed healing. Jesus came to save sinners, so it only makes sense that he is around them, near them, and with them….
There is a big implication here for us, but I want to cover a couple other things first. He came to heal people so he is among those needing healing, but let’s round things out before getting to what we should do.
Here, there is a bit of a tongue and cheek with his statement. He didn’t come for the righteous but for sinners. He isn’t saying the the Scribes or Pharisees are righteous. He is saying the ones who will learn from him and experience his healing are those who see their need for him. If you are righteous, he has nothing to offer you. If you are whole there is no need to come to him. The outcasts of society are feasting with him because they know they need help. Those who are not righteous are coming into the kingdom, they know they are sick and need healing. If you are here today and think man I am messed up and and don’t belong here. That’s the church. We are a bunch of messed up people who have found healing in Jesus.
But perhaps you are here and saying, what do I have in common with these tax collectors. They are the low rung of society. I live in a million dollar house, drive a brand new car and work for an extremely reputable company. What do i need God for. Well, we are all needy, but it appears in different ways. Later in this gospel a ruler by the name of Jairus comes to Jesus because his daughter is sick and he is powerless to help. Another time a man named Nathaniel was sitting contentedly under a fig tree when Jesus saw him and told him his thoughts. There was a man named Zacchaeus who went to hear Jesus and as he listened Jesus addressed him, And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, "Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold." Why did he do that? Many of us look good when compared to others. You can always find someone worse off than you. But our standard is not the guy next door. Our standard is God. You may be wealthy, but Bill Gates is not impressed with you. You may be morally better than others, but God also is not impressed. When we compare ourselves to God, we are no different than tax collectors and sinners. We are just like them. No one goes through life perfectly, no one does business perfectly, no marriage is perfect. If you feel some pain in these areas there is a soul doctor that can help. And he is extending and invitation to you no matter where you are.
We are not here at church because we are perfect, rather we are here because we know we are sick, and we know one who can heal us and accepts us in our weakness.
Jesus calls Levi to follow him, and Levi does it. Its an amazing response. We don’t know if this was Levi’s first encounter with Jesus, if they had conversations another time, or he heard Jesus’ teaching elsewhere. But here Jesus tells him to come follow him and he does it. This is the most basic act of being a Christian. Following Jesus above and beyond everything else. And following him costs us everything. The disciples left all to follow Jesus. That is what we need to do too.
But an agriculture people. They weren’t as busy. They don’t know what it’s like to live today with cell phones and email and 401k. When you leave everything you leave everything. Everything a farmer has and every thing a CEO have is everything to them. There is a cost of following Jesus.
Some of you may be called to leave everything and take the gospel to another country. I hope we send out a lot of missionaries as a church. But most of you are probably called to stay where you are, to take the gospel to this country, to this state, to this city, to this neighborhood. In order for you to do that you need to be willing not to leave everything physically, but to leave it in the sense that it is not ultimate to you. Levi leaves everything, but there is another time (Luke 3:12-14) where tax collectors trust in God and ask what they should do. They aren’t told to leave their jobs but rather to do their jobs the right way, in a distinct way. Many of you are called to do that. Not to quit your job, disown your family, and live in poverty. But to follow Jesus in those things and honor him through it. To steward your possessions, job, and life to the glory of God. You have to say my life is not about these things. It’s about God and his plan for me.
Following Jesus leads to a new identity in him. In the gospel of Matthew (Matthew 9:9) this same story is told but it doesnt use the name Levi. There the tax collector’s name is Matthew. Most people think the this tax collector was the same Matthew that wrote the gospel. There is some debate on if it really is the same person, but the consensus is that this Levi and Matthew are the same person. In this day and time it wasn’t unusual for people to have several names. You might have a Roman name and a Jewish name. Levi and Matthew are both jewish names. So why is this. Well, Jesus changed Cephas’s name to Peter. Saul’s name changed to Paul. It is likely that Levi went through a dramatic conversion. Matthew means “gift from God.” Matthew received a gift. He went from working at a tax collector’s booth to dining with the messiah. Following Jesus fundamentally changed who he was. It should change us and redefine our priorities. We should value his kingdom more than anything else we have.
Jesus is eating with the tax collectors and sinners. Matthew 11:19 “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, 'Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!' He was a friend to them. Do you know this Jesus? Do you know him as a Friend??
We hear a lot about Jesus as Lord (whom you should follow), Jesus as Savior (whom you should trust), but this shows us another side to our relationship. He is our Friend (with a capital F). Jesus seems to have genuinely enjoyed their company, if he didn’t and just stood there opposed to them the whole time there would have been no fuss. He reclines with them. Just hanging out, feasting!
When it says friend it means one with whom there is real affection and personal regard. It’s not a slave relationship, not an employee relationship, but a friend. Do you know this Jesus?? If you do you’ll want to be with him, and just lounge a bit. You enjoy being with friends. You go to them when you need help and you just want to be with them. You draw near for the presence, for their company, for their fellowship.
This is not the first time such a thing is said. James 2:23 "Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness"--and he was called a friend of God. Abraham was drawn into a relationship, friendship with God.
God is saving people to be in friendship with them. Jesus is content to be with these people; they are content to be with him. How are you at simply being with Jesus- being in his word, prayer? Being unrushed and coming to him because of who he is and not just to get something you need?
When I don’t have a good relationship with people I get a little antsy being around them. It’s uncomfortable just sitting there. I need something to do. Let me find a way to break the awkwardness. If you are uncomfortable now you might be uncomfortable for eternity. Jesus is the friend you can rely on, who wont let you down, who is always by your side. He is Lord of Lord’s, king of kings, and Friend of friends.
This feast is a shadow of a greater feast to come. An end time feast in which the Lord celebrates with and rewards his people.
Craig Blomberg in his commentary on this passage said the following:
Jesus’ fraternizing with disreputable people remains a scandal in the predominantly middle class, suburban, Western church. Many of us, like the Pharisees, at best ignore the outcasts of our society and at worst continue to discriminate against them.60 We do well to consider substantially increasing our spiritual, evangelistic, and social outreach to minorities, the homeless, prostitutes, addicts and pushers, gays and lesbians, AIDS victims, and the like, as well as to the more hidden outcasts such as divorcees, single parents, the elderly, white-collar alcoholics, and so on. We must get to know them as intimately as Jesus did—only close and trusted friends shared table fellowship over meals. We dare not join with sinners in their sinning, but we may well have to go places with them and encounter the world’s wickedness in ways that the contemporary Pharisees in our churches will decry.61
I give a hearty amen to Blomberg. If the church is going to influence society this is the only way its is going to happen. Genuine friendship is the seedbed of genuine Christian mission. People are not coming to the church. We need to be going to them. We need to be ready to get our hands dirty. We need to be ready to walk among the sick. Jesus did it. We should too.
Let me share some stats with you. Did you know Atlanta GA is number 64 of the most post-Christian cities in the united states, that means it has a high percentage of people who do not believe in God, do not think faith is important, they do not think the Bible is true and do not think Jesus was sinful. Many struggle with understand the world. What hope do we have of changing that, of thriving as a church in the midst of indifference and opposition. The solution is nothing new, the church simply needs to return to its most basic missionary approach.
Only 20% of churches in the US are growing, and only 1% of those are growing by reaching the lost. So 95% of the church growth we celebrate is merely shuffling the existing Christians around… 90% of evangelicals have never even shared their faith with anyone outside their family. Kind of makes you wonder how we get away with using the name evangelical.
-- JD Greear, Gaining by Losing.
The biggest change in our country is not in the percent of people who consider themselves devout. The biggest change has been in nominal believers. Most of these are leaving the church. This is why it feels so different. There was a big cushion of cultural Christianity that made devout Christians feel a little more comfortable, probably more comfortable than we should have been. Now many people are growing up with no idea what the Bible says and no idea of religious framework, no idea of a moral framework. How do we reach them? Is there any hope for the church to survive. Well, Jesus gives you a resounding answer to that question. Yes there is hope! It’s going to be by being around people. Going among the tax collectors, the sinners, the outcast, etc. Going to those who need help.
I think there is a big connection between this passage and how the church is going to grow. If you want to know who is going to come to church, I think the question we should ask is who is coming over for dinner?
I love hearing why the name Bridgeway was picked for this church. It took me a while to realise its partly because of all the ____ Bridge Roads here. It reflects the community. But I was talking with a long term member who said it was chosen because the people here wanted to be a bridge for others to find life in God. Thats a great reminder. This building and this gather of people is a bridge, but so is your house and your dining room table. Dust off the cobwebs and have someone over. Go out to lunch with a coworker. Get to know them. Love them. Spend time with them.
I want to be a church that is reaching non-Christians. There are a lot of great churches near us. Praise God for that. Lets move toward the people who aren’t in church.
Caveat, are we watering down the truth? Are we seeker sensitive? We want to be sensitive to those coming in, and I think that means better helping them understand what we do and why we do it. We are not going to alter the truth or dumb it down. Intelligent people want to know what Christianity is really about, and we want to help them with that.
Jesus came not to call the righteous but sinners. We have an amazing hope because he went to the other side of the room to bring us into his kingdom. No matter your situation you have hope because of what he has done. He has called you to be his friend. Celebrate that today and this season, and every other day. But also seek to follow him in his mission. When you see lostness around you don’t shrink from it. Don’t push away. We serve a God that is far great than it. As outsiders come to church let’s move toward them, shake hands, sit with them. As we see lostness in our community let’s go toward it. We can move in with confidence and hope, that as we love people, the message of the kingdom can take root, and the call of our Savior draw people out of their abandonment and into his kingdom.