A sermon by Rev Richard Keith on Mark 2:13-17 on Sunday 9 September 2018
A stitch in time saves nine. A penny saved is a penny earned. A watched pot doesn’t boil. Proverbs like these are like crystallized wisdom. Each one contains the experience of generations, packaged in a ready to use form.
Our passage today from Mark chapter 2 challenges one such proverb. It is shown to be irrelevant and not to apply to Jesus. And that proverb says,
“You can judge a man’s character by the company he keeps.”
The proverb relies on two simple observations. Firstly, it’s hard to work out who people really are. But secondly, people tend to associate with other people who are just like them. Bring them together and it must be true. You can judge a man’s character by the company he keeps. It’s hard to refute. After all, I hang out with you, so I must be a good person.
It is such a powerful idea that it became the standard by which the teachers of the law, firstly, lived their lives, and secondly, judged Jesus.
You see, Jesus was walking along the road in Capernaum that ran by the sea of Galilee. That road was just part of the trade route that went from Egypt in the south through Judea and Galilee to Syria in the north. So it made the perfect place for Levi to set up his tax collector booth.
Now, no one likes the tax man. We all resent that percentage of our money that is taken from us by the government and “redistributed”. It’s like organised theft that we tolerate because some of it is used to pay for services we use and need. Like roads, and schools and hospitals, and water, and police and nurses, and a couple of other things that we probably couldn’t afford if we had to organise it ourselves. Like the pension and the air force and Youth Allowance. All very useful things. But still, nobody likes the taxman.
But two things made it worse in Jesus’ day. Firstly, taxation was privatised. The right to collect tax in a town was opened up to the highest bidder and the winner did all he could to get his money back by charging as much as he could get away with. So, it was open to an enormous level of corruption and injustice.
Secondly, the tax collectors were seen to be in league with the hated Roman overlords. So they were not just corrupt, but collaborators with God’s enemies. The tax collectors were part of what was wrong with the world. They stood in the way of God’s people being free to live according to God’s law. They were dirty, filthy scum. Unclean outcasts. Any decent Jew forced to pay their tax to such a monster would go home straight away and wash themselves.
But not Jesus. He walked along that road and saw Levi sitting at his booth and he said,
And Levi did. He got up, left his work, left his source of income, and followed Jesus.
That evening Levi invited Jesus to his home for dinner and invited many of his friends. What kind of people are they? They were tax collectors and “sinners”. The word “sinners” is put in inverted commas in the Bibles because it was probably used by the Pharisees as a code word for “people who aren’t one of us”. They weren’t all prostitutes and drug dealers and thieves. Although maybe some of them might have been. But they were people who just didn’t conform to the Pharisee mould. They didn’t wash themselves every time they came home from the market. They didn’t fast twice a week. They forgot what the 39 things were that were forbidden on the Sabbath. They didn’t make it to the synagogue every week.
But to the Pharisees they were just not trying hard enough to keep themselves pure. They were the reason that God wasn’t blessing the nation. So if they weren’t part of the solution, they were part of the problem. They were sinners. The sort of people who would hang out with tax collectors.
These were the people that Jesus sat down and ate with. It didn’t happen by accident. Jesus did it on purpose. You see, what Jesus did was as much a part of his message as what he said. And Jesus’ message was that the kingdom of God was at hand. It was near. It was among them. And many times in his stories, Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God as like a great feast that everyone is invited to. These stories tell us that God’s purpose for humanity is joy and celebration in fellowship with their creator.
So when Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners he was making it very clear who was invited to his Father’s great feast. Everyone. Not just the Pharisees. Not just the sticklers for the law. Not just the righteous. But Levi the tax collector and his friends. And not just the white people. Not just the middle class. Not just the Charlie churches and the goodie two shoes. But the great unwashed masses. The blow ins and the ethnics, the welfare dependents and single mothers and all the outcasts and the untouchables. They are included in Jesus’ call to discipleship and to fellowship.
To Levi, Jesus said, “Follow me.” To the prostitute, Jesus said, “Follow me.” To the town drunk, Jesus said, “Follow me.” To every kind of deplorable, Jesus said, “Follow me.” And if he says it to them, it means that even you are included. Even to you, Jesus says, “Follow me.”
It’s a wonderful promise and a confronting command. It’s a wonderful promise because it means that even I am invited to Jesus’ Father’s great feast. I love that passage in 1 Timothy chapter 1. The apostle Paul wrote,
“Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance. Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst.”
Paul was a deplorable man. Full of hate and rage and violence. A Pharisee determined to destroy every follower of Christ. And Jesus confronted him personally and said to him, “Follow me.” I love it, because if Jesus can save Paul, he can save me. The arms of Jesus reach so wide that there is even room in his embrace for me. And if he can save me, he can save you.
You know, we are all outcasts in our own individual way. Some of us are just so respectable that we hide it well. But Jesus isn’t so respectable that he is ashamed to associate with the likes of you and me. We are all included in his call. To each of us, Jesus says, “Follow me.” And we can come just as we are.
It is a wonderful promise and a confronting command. Jesus doesn’t say, “Please.” He doesn’t say, “If you don’t mind. If it’s alright with you. If it isn’t too inconvenient, please follow me and I’ll be your best friend forever.” No, Jesus comes to us as the Lord. The Lord of mercy, yes. The Lord of grace, yes indeed. But the Lord nonetheless. And his call is just as demanding as when he spoke it to Levi. “Follow me.”
It’s a message that won’t leave us alone. It’s a word that claims us, all of us, the whole of us. Our life, our family, our work, is no longer just ours. But when the Lord calls us to follow him, all of that becomes his. By his invitation and call, Jesus says, “I belong to you, I am yours. And you, all of you, the whole of you, you belong to me.”
We come to Jesus as outcasts with nothing to prove, no test to pass, just as we are, but in Jesus’ company, we no longer remain outcasts. We become his brothers and sisters. His family. And sons and daughters of the kingdom of God. And so in following Jesus, we learn to live, not as outcasts, but as children of God. We are called just as we are, but we are not given the permission to stay as we are.
The tax collector Levi was called to leave his booth. Paul, the Pharisee of hate was called to become the teacher of love. And we are called to become disciples of the Lord Jesus. Not perfect, but students. Not masters, but learners. Disciples who are called not just to learn his lessons, but to live them. Jesus Christ is the friend of sinners. But he did not come to tolerate our sin, but to bear it, and to take it away and to destroy it, so it no longer has any power over us. Jesus Christ is the friend of sinners. But his friends don’t have permission to stay sinners, but to become children of God.
When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw Jesus eating with the tax collectors and sinners, they were scandalised. After all, you can judge a man’s character by the company he keeps. It’s the kind of wisdom we try to drill into our children so that they learn to make good friends who won’t lead them astray and get them into trouble. We drill it into our children because we want them to grow up to be a good influence on others, not to let others be a bad influence on them.
It’s just an example of the many small ways that we live like doctors in haz-mat suits among diseased people, trying to do good without catching any of the bad. And we sanctify our fears and turn them into proverbs that give them the appearance of wisdom.
But Jesus dismissed all such fears. He touched the lepers because he knew he wasn’t going to catch leprosy from them, but they were going to catch health from him. And so he ruled out the criteria the Pharisees judged him with. They didn’t apply to him. They were irrelevant. Instead, he said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
In a way, Jesus was turning the proverb on its head. You can judge a man’s character by the company he keeps. So what kind of person keeps company with sick people? The Pharisees said, only a sick person keeps company with sick people. But Jesus said, no. But a doctor. A doctor keeps company with sick people. It’s just that the Pharisees refused to see themselves as sick. As broken. As contagious. As deformed, just as much as the tax collectors and the riff-raff of their day. They thought they were keeping themselves safe from sin. But they were only keeping themselves away from the cure of their disease. They thought they were judging Jesus. In the end, they were only judging themselves. To the Pharisees, Jesus said, “Follow me.” And they said, “No. We don’t need you.” Not knowing that that was the most dangerous of all the lies they believed.
Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” So maybe it’s true after all. Maybe you can judge a man like Jesus by the company he keeps. A man who keeps company with the sick is the doctor. A man who keeps company with sinners is the Lord who calls them to discipleship. Maybe you can judge a follower of Jesus by the company he or she keeps. Maybe you can judge a church by the company it keeps. Would we catch sin from sinners? Or would they catch “following Jesus” from us?
It’s not the kind of wisdom we drill into our children. But maybe it’s time for us to live like grown ups who follow the friend of sinners.