Monday, February 23, 2009

Sinners, Tax Collectors and You and Me (Mark 2: 13-22)

Aren’t these some widely different responses to Jesus?

The tax collector gets up from his booth, right in the middle of a business day, and follows Jesus. The Pharisees, whom we will refer to as the “religious bluenoses” in order to properly categorize them, get huffy because Jesus eats and drinks with sinners. Other folks can’t figure out why Jesus and his disciples don’t fast.

When Jesus walks by Levi the tax collector, he says, “Follow me,” and without any hesitation at all, Levi does so. Later, when Jesus and his disciples are at dinner at Levi’s house, the bluenoses get huffy. “Why does your teacher eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” You know, those people. It’s kind of like how people sometimes look down on the church and say they won’t go because it’s full of hypocrites. The proper response, by the way, is, “No, it’s not full. There’s always room for one more.”

Jesus tells them he’s with those people because those people need him. I imagine the bluenoses need him just as much, but they don’t realize it.

Then some other folks ask why Jesus and his disciples celebrate when the bluenoses and disciples of John the Baptist fast. They have to celebrate, Jesus said. When the bridegroom is with the wedding party, then it’s got to be a wedding party. There’ll be a day for fasting and sadness, but it is not this day.

I’m curious about the responses. Not the bluenoses. I know enough of them, and from time to time I’ve acted the exact same way. I know too well what’s going on there.

Levi makes me curious. He leaves his tax-collecting booth and follows Jesus at just a word. No promises, no visions, no miracles, no sermons, and he walks away from his tax-collecting booth and never looks back. We don’t even know if he took his money with him. What prompts this response?

We don’t know for sure, but I have a guess. Remember, tax collectors were unpopular in those days – I know, not much reminder needed and not much has changed. But for religiously observant Jews, they were a real problem because they handled Roman money. Roman money had a picture of the emperor on it, which violated the commandments about graven images, and the Roman emperor was often thought to be divine, which violated a whole bunch of other laws and commandments. Right-thinking Jews might pay their taxes to the collector, but they paid him no respect and as little attention as they could manage.

Jesus may have been among the first, if not the very first religious-type person to have said anything other than, “Hope you die, you money-gouging, Caesar-loving idol-worshipping scumbag.” Could it be that Levi responded to that? That he was ready to hear a message about how he, as a sinner, needed to repent and change his ways, but this was the first time anyone had ever bothered to tell him that much?

Methodist founder John Wesley soon found himself shut out of most of the pulpits in his Church of England. He had a habit of telling the well-born and wealthy pew-warmers of its grand cathedrals that they needed Jesus just as much as did grubby commoners. And as a matter of fact, God loved those commoners just as much as he did the lords and ladies of the land. Those lords and ladies let their parish priests know that Mr. Wesley’s sermons were not conducive to either their attendance or their tithing, and so Mr. Wesley was soon a preacher without anyplace to preach.

Until, that is, he started preaching in open fields and crossroads and street corners and public squares and hillsides. Then he started drawing in all those people who worked in mines and on farms and in factories and who didn’t have much, and what they had was usually dirty and smelly and not all that impressive.

And they listened.

Factory workers who spent their week’s wages in taverns while their families scraped, begged and even stole for food started coming home after work and saving. Kids who had to work because pop’s check drowned in a whiskey glass could be sent to school because pop could pay for it now. Men and women who’d spent their lives illiterate learned to read because they were told that God wanted them to know about him, and he’d prepared a book for that purpose. Folks who didn’t think past the end of their next bender started visiting and helping others, thrown in prison or sick in hospitals or maybe shut away and lonely.

And all of this happened just because someone started proclaiming the gospel to people who hadn’t been all that welcome in the places where the gospel was preached.

I don’t mean to suggest that every person on a wrong path just needs to hear the gospel message and they’ll automatically straighten right up and change their ways. Some folks need some hard steering, and that may have to come from someplace else than us.

But today, there are people around like Levi son of Alphaeus, people who’ve been prepared by God to hear the gospel message, prepared in ways neither they nor we may understand. Let us pray that if we are the ones to bring them that message, we may have the wisdom to know it and the boldness and compassion to do so.

I bet they could use some good news.

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