Eating With Sinners
TEXT: Mark 2:13-17
Mark is a Gospel that is full of action. A Gospel is a book that tells about the life of Jesus, and Mark is the shortest Gospel of the four we have in the Bible. It is also the most action-oriented. Matthew pays a lot of attention to Old Testament prophecy. Luke tries to give the most complete account. John is so packed with theology and interpretation that it is viewed almost as a commentary on the other three. The Gospel of Mark focuses on the action and is often thought to represent the actual preaching of Peter, one of Jesus' closest Disciples. Mark has Jesus grown and baptized before Luke has even allowed John the Baptist to see the light of day. Some Gospels are concerned with who Jesus is. Mark is concerned with what Jesus does.
All of that means that when you read the Gospel of Mark, it is much easier to see how it got to the point where Jesus was betrayed and crucified. In Mark, as you see action after action after action, it is easier to see that Jesus is not just Clark Kent in robe and sandals...going about being Mr. Unassuming Nice guy by day and becoming Superman when evil threatened. I don't want to push the analogy too far, but Jesus is Mr. Nice Guy in the way that Ralph Nader is Mr. Nice Guy. He calls it like it is, does what is needed rather than what is expected, and calls people to account when their hypocrisy surfaces. He doesn't go unnoticed and not a few people really hate him.
While Luke is still busy with angels singing to shepherds, Mark already has Jesus engaging against evil spirits, amazing the crowds, and in trouble with the religious authorities. Jesus is an activist, a rebel for righteousness if you will. He abides by the law only insofar as the law does not violate the higher law of God. Chapter two of Mark shows this part of Jesus plainly. It begins with the story we focused on last week of Jesus healing the paralyzed man who was lowered through the roof. He has been healing people before, but in this story he makes the religious leaders upset by claiming, and demonstrating, that he has the power and authority to forgive sins.
The next story is the one for today. Here he calls Disciple #5, Levi, who happens to be a tax collector. The first four -- Peter, Andrew, James, and John -- were all fishermen. Tax collectors, however, were a different breed. The people of Israel hated tax collectors. They were the native people hired by Rome to do the dirty work of collecting burdensome taxes. As a reward for their work, nobody asked for an accounting beyond being sure that Rome got their due. Tax collectors could have Rome's backing to demand however much they pleased. Rome got the tax they wanted and the tax collectors lined their pockets with the rest. Tax collectors were viewed as low-lifes who would sell their own people down the river to make a buck.
Jewish leaders lumped tax collectors with the worst of sinners and stayed as far away from them as possible. Now here comes a powerful and influential leader in the person of Jesus and he is calling one of these scum to be a Disciple and then going and eating in his home. As far as the other leadership is concerned, Jesus is setting a bad example for the people, and here they show their displeasure by raising the question, "Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?" The chapter then goes on with more questions. As the leadership is getting more concerned and looking deeper into this new group, they discover that some common Jewish practices are not being followed.
The other Jewish leaders are fasting. Even the disciples of John the Baptist were fasting. Jesus' disciples were not. Why is he not participating in the program? By the end of chapter two, Jesus and his disciples have gone so far as to actually break Jewish law by doing work on the Sabbath -- breaking the fourth commandment -- and worse, claiming that he has authority over the Sabbath. He breaks Sabbath law again at the beginning of chapter three. By the end of chapter three, the religious leaders are saying that Jesus is demon possessed and his family shows up to take him home because obviously he has gone mad. Jesus disowns them.
Jesus is a lot of things, but predictable, boring, and wishy-washy are not any of them. With that picture of Jesus, I want us to go back and look at the story of the calling of Levi and the subsequent dinner at his house. What does that show us about Jesus and what does that mean for us now?
This story is an example of what we in the church call "grace." It is why we talk about "amazing grace." Grace is not what you would expect. It amazes us, just as it amazed the religious leaders, the Pharisees, of Jesus' day. Eating with someone makes an important statement as does going to someone's home. Eating with someone in their home is a sign of acceptance, even in our relaxed culture and it was even more so in Jesus' time.
When we talk about "grace," we mean that God is willing to bridge the gap between our sin and God's righteousness. When our sin is keeping us from going to God, God will come to us instead. It's not that God ignores sin. Jesus was not pleased or even indifferent to the fact that tax collectors were stealing from their own people. But Jesus' actions show us that God's approach to sin is not to remain separate and condemn it from afar, but to come and dwell with the sinner in love and let that light show the sinner what needs cleaning up.
Grace means that God accepts us as we are, before repentance, before we even know that we've done anything wrong. We are loved as we are and it is in the strength of receiving unconditional love from the God of the universe that we have the courage to change our lives.
Jesus makes this same point in another famous Sunday School story...the story of Zacchaeus. That story is found in Luke, chapter 19. Zacchaeus is also a tax collector and has become rich at the expense of his own people. He is short, so he has a tough time seeing when there is a crowd. Jesus comes to town and Zacchaeus wants to see, so he climbs up a sycamore tree to see better. Jesus goes right by that tree, and when he does, he stops, calls to Zacchaeus and says, "Come down immediately. I must stay at your house today."
In this story it is not just the religious leaders but all of the crowds that are upset that Jesus picked a tax collector to go home with. Anybody would have been glad to have him in their home and he picked this scum. But before Jesus has a chance to talk to him about anything at all, Zacchaeus turns around and gives half of everything he owns to the poor and promises to repay anybody he has cheated four times over. Jesus responds, "Today salvation has come to this house."
Zacchaeus didn't have to say certain magic words. Jesus didn't sit him down and tell him what his sins were and explain that he needed to repent. Jesus simply showed unconditional love to a man who was despised by everyone and with the love of God Zacchaeus didn't feel the need to be rich or to cheat people anymore. Levi, back in Mark, didn't either. When Jesus was willing to place a special call on the life of a tax collector, Levi left his tax booth in a heartbeat.
When we think about being a church that is willing to do whatever it takes to bring people to Jesus, we must never forget that sometimes that means doing whatever it takes to bring Jesus to them. We are the Body of Christ. That means that by the power of the Holy Spirit we are enabled to be Christ for others...to be Jesus in the flesh here and now, and to bring God's love to others as He did 2000 years ago. Are you willing to show God's love to the tax collectors and sinners -- whoever those represent to you? Can you sit and eat with them without an agenda other than providing the loving presence of God? That's part of doing whatever it takes.
In the Methodist Church, we embody that in our sacrament of Holy Communion. Unlike some other churches, our Communion table is open to everyone -- to fraudulent tax collectors sitting in trees as well as to those who have never cheated a soul. We don't require that you be a member of this church or any church. We don't require that you have any claims to righteousness. Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners. In this passage and in many others Jesus is always getting in trouble for the sinful riff-raff with whom he keeps company. Time and time again he points out that this is precisely why He came...out of love for the down-and-out...for the addict, for the adulterer, for the cheat, for the hypocrite...wanting to show them love so that they can have the courage to live a better life.
Jesus could have preached until he was blue in the face and never gotten Zacchaeus to even acknowledge his own greed -- let alone atone for it. But by welcoming the outcast...by showing that God is the God of all and that sinners are not to be especially shunned but especially sought out, Jesus touched a heart where no words could ever reach.
This is the message we want to send in Communion. It is the table of Jesus Christ, the one who welcomes sinners and eats with them, the one who died for us "while we were yet sinners." Jesus does not wait for Zacchaeus to have a change of heart before He goes to visit. He doesn't check with Levi to see if he's sorry for the abuses of his profession before he calls him. Jesus calls and visits and eats with unrepentant sinners. It is AFTER they find that Jesus loves them as they are that they respond with changed lives.
To me the walk to the Communion rail is the right kind of altar call. Anyone and everyone is welcome there because Jesus is the host. Some people complain that the church is full of hypocrites. Well, praise God. Better here than not here. Better coming to Jesus' table than not. Further, if hypocrisy is the worst sin you can find in church on a Sunday morning, then we're probably not doing our job. If people in the community are not grumbling about the sorts of folks that we let in our doors then there's a good chance we are not being the Body of Christ in Dover.
I'm not saying that we should seek out the worst of sinners as our close friends or spouses. I am saying that we need to extend the unconditional love of God to everybody -- that we must never turn our backs, withhold invitations, or fail to reach out to every single human being no matter what they have done or are doing. We must be agents of God's grace in the world. How can anyone possibly understand that God loves them unconditionally if they have never experienced that with another human being?
Before going into ministry I did a lot of work as a literacy volunteer and that work took me into the prisons. After a prison workshop where I trained sixteen male inmates (all serving life sentences) to teach other inmates to read I caused a ruckus by hugging each of the inmates as they came up to receive their certificate. No corrections officers were present and I didn't know any better or know that it was against the rules. I just knew I was proud of this motley crew of murderers and rapists for getting involved in helping others. So I hugged them.
Well, as word got out, the administration got upset, and I got reprimanded. In the wake of all of that, one of the inmates wrote me a letter. He expressed his regrets that I got into trouble and then he said, "But Anne, you don't know what that did for us. Do you understand that nobody has even wanted to hug me in sixteen long years?" I wasn't there to preach the Gospel and I didn't say a word about God or my faith. But the Gospel was preached in a hug to the unhuggable.
It wasn't a great act on my part. It wasn't something I thought about or planned. But our little acts can have great impact when they are done with the love of God. Mother Teresa said it best when she pointed out that life was not about seeking to do great things but rather to do small things with great love. God is love, and that was evident in the life of Jesus. He didn't work himself up to a great deed of finding the worst of sinners, swallowing his pride, and eating with them. He ended up eating with sinners because he loved them just as much as anybody else. He saw no distinction other than their need of Him.
That is also the source from which all our actions should spring...from the living water of the love of God. If you find that you are avoiding people because of their profession or their lifestyle or their actions, begin by praying for more love. With more love you might discover that what you thought was sin is just difference. I have often found that true. I have also found that when God's light shines more brightly on the dark corners of my life that my withholding the love that God meant for everyone is as much a sin as breaking one of God's laws.
You are each welcome at Jesus' dinner table by the amazing grace of God. So is everyone else, but they are likely never to know it unless we invite them to dine with us. Dinner in the form of Holy Communion will be served here at the altar next week. Invite someone to the feast of unconditional love.
(c) 2000, Anne Robertson